My love affair with Canada began with a high school graduation gift from my old man: a week-long, father-son fishing trip. We bunked in a rundown resort in the woods of Ontario. Wind and rain besieged the camp, and daily thunderstorms forced us off the lake back into our knotty pine cabin, which housed a pair of field mice. In the black of night, a wind gust blew open the cabin door and in our semi-awake state we shoved a dresser in front of the door to prevent it from blowing open again and letting even more rainwater pour in. I loved every minute of it.
Since that stormy initiation, the Canadian wilderness has beckoned me back annually, if not two or three times a year. My dad and I found a new resort we escape to every Father’s Day and now consider our home-away-from-home.
A family road-trip to Niagara Falls a decade ago gave me the chance to see the highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world; it also provided a few afternoons of fantastic stream fishing near Toronto.
A group of high school buddies and I brave the conditions every couple winters and snowshoe through the lakes and highlands of southern Ontario––punching through thin ice on a spring fed lake chilled my bones but did nothing to cool my passion toward Canada.
A few years ago, Vancouver welcomed me to the beauty of British Columbia, and served as a lovely launching pad for an Alaskan cruise.
A fly-in fishing adventure near Ear Falls two Septembers ago, during the full moon phase, taught me that walleyes can indeed feed so ferociously that your jig doesn’t hit the bottom of the lake. More importantly, it allowed me to treat my dad to his first fly-in fishing excursion––a trip he had dreamed his whole life of going on “someday.” The big moon lit up Bear Paw Lake as we caught walleye after walleye into the late night hours, all alone in the silence of the wilderness.
The year after, I breached Manitoba for my first time at a resort that presented a miraculous collection of contradictions: extreme luxury in the remote Atikaki Wilderness Provincial Park; 5-star service and gourmet food at a fly-in camp; world-class fishing with lavish accommodations in the midst of a beautiful and unspoiled boreal forest.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of lodging and luxury, annual Boundary Waters camping trips with cousins taught me how to paddle a canoe and tie up a bear bag to keep our food safe in the air––while we slept in tents on the ground.
This May, a decade and a half after that first Canada fishing trip, my love affair with the Canadian wilderness will culminate with the adventure of a lifetime: a week of ocean kayaking, mountain hiking, heli-fishing and glacier trekking at the incomparable Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort
The resort, recently featured in the New York Times best-seller, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” consists of nine chalets built on stilts on a tidal, fjord-like bay just south of Alaska’s Inside Passage, and is accessible only by helicopter and sea plane. From this pocket of luxury, guests have access to over 50,000 square miles of breathtaking beauty, including 10,000-year old glaciers, mountain tops, old-growth rainforests, remote islands, white sand beaches, hot springs, a 5,000-foot waterfall and over 50 pristine rivers and streams––the majority of which can only be reached by Nimmo Bay helicopters.
Daily adventures include whitewater rafting, kayaking, paddle boarding, deep-sea fishing, glacier trekking, bear- and whale-watching excursions, hiking and stream fishing. With all that activity, guests work up a hearty appetite to fully appreciate the mountain-top picnic lunches and gourmet dinners back at the lodge––a dining experience that has been called “one of the best in Vancouver” by New York Times best-selling travel author Patricia Shultz.
As grand as the operation is today, it all began with one man’s dream over 20 years ago to run a fishing lodge with his wife and kids. “I wanted to make a living doing something where I could be with my family,” explained Vancouver Island local Craig Murray, who started the lodge in 1980 after purchasing an old float house near Port Hardy and towing it by barge to Nimmo’s current location. “Not a lot of jobs out here at the time other than logging and commercial fishing and those would require me to leave my wife and kids behind and travel to wherever there’s work.”
And so, at 34, Murray decided to follow his dream and start Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort with his wife and sons, age 3 and 1.
“There are 150 million things that can go wrong, and most of them did at some time or another, but we managed,” said Craig. “We had no options––we had to make it work, even when the bank would say, ‘Sorry, no more money.’”
The resort initially focused just on fishing, and gradually grew from accommodating eight guests to its current capacity of 18. For nine months of the year, the eco-friendly operation is powered by electricity generated from the waterfall. A hydroxyl waste management system converts all the camp’s waste-water into to bacteria-free, clear water that can be released back into nature. Nimmo Bay has always led the way with sustainability and consciously minimizes its carbon footprint.
“There are too many things in this world that are not sustainable, too many people that aren’t thinking about that,” Murray said. “Right from the get-go we had a catch-and-release only fishery, so we never killed any fish at all. We have the purest, sweetest drinking water coming down from Mount Stevens. We did all the stuff you can possibly do to be green right from Day 1 because we know how fortunate we are to live in this pristine environment.”
Over the years, visitors from all over the world have taken note of the pristine environment as well. Nimmo Bay boasts a 76 percent return rate. It is consistently rated as one of the elite wilderness resorts in the world. The secret behind it all is simple, according to Murray, who in his early years visited his guests at their homes to study their behavior and preferences in order to optimize their future Nimmo Bay experiences.
“There are three reasons for our success at Nimmo Bay: humor, music and detail,” Murray said.
“Music is the universal language, and it’s all around us in nature,” Murray said. “If more people got involved with making music it’d be a happier place.”
His own children have taken the advice to heart. Murray’s middle child, Clifton, serves as an international ambassador for the resort while traveling with his popular band, The Tenors. Murray’s youngest child, Georgia, works full-time at the resort by day and is a professional singer by night. Guitars, sing-a-longs and karaoke are common at Nimmo Bay.
Murray’s oldest, Fraser, now runs the resort along with his wife, his cousin and his sister Georgia. “My dad has taught me so much,” says Fraser, who became a father himself earlier this winter. “He was there when I caught my first fish, and he also had me washing dishes and cleaning toilets at a very young age.”
Fraser and his generation of Murrays were the driving force in expanding Nimmo Bay’s offerings to include a wider breadth of activities beyond fishing, such as heli-hiking, whale watching, whitewater rafting and glacier trekking.
“We have all dedicated so much of our lives to Nimmo Bay that it is hard to separate life from work,” Fraser admitted. “Dad taught me the value of a long, hard day’s work and to never give up on something you believe in. I would say the only thing that was ever bigger then Nimmo Bay in our lives was our family, and this is true to this day.”
Younger sister, Georgia, agrees. “It is very special to be a part of a family business,” she said. “We are so lucky to be carrying on our mom and dad's legacy and putting our own stamp on it.”
As for me, I am lucky to have the chance to visit this remarkable place and this remarkable family in less than three months. Given the Murray’s legacy, it is fitting that this trip will be my last great adventure before I myself become a father later this summer.
I hope one day I will be able to share my love of the Canadian wilderness with my son or daughter as Murray has done with his.
The website for Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort is www.nimmobay.com. To contact the resort, email email@example.com or call 1-800-837-4354.
Photos courtey of Jeremy Koreski.
People often ask, “What was your favorite part of your trip?” It’s a difficult question. Pinpointing one specific highlight and ranking it against the others can be nearly impossible, especially on longer trips that consist of a variety of activities and settings that can’t be fairly compared.
That said, when people ask me, “What was your favorite place that you stayed in Ireland?” I have no hesitation in my response––even though I was lucky enough to stay at a wide variety of world-class resorts, including a 5-star hotel in beautiful County Wicklow, a 500-year-old baronial castle, and a resort on the Ring of Kerry with a view of the ocean.
The favorite place I stayed in Ireland was the Ashford Castle near the quiet village of Cong. As much as my wife and I loved every place we stayed on the Emerald Island, Ashford Castle was, without question, the crown jewel.
The 800-year-old castle, built on the shores of Lough Corrib in Ireland’s wildly untamed Connemara region, was once the proud estate of the Guinness family. Yes, that Guinness family––who, as you would expect–– had perhaps the finest estate in all of Ireland. The view across the famous lake has not changed since Sir Benjamin lee Guinness himself lived at Ashford, and all of the castle’s 83 rooms retain their original features.
The room my wife and I stayed in offered a stunning view of the 44,000-acre lake, home to some 365 islands.
As gorgeous as the grounds were––the castle is caressed by formal gardens, and hundreds of Oak, Beech and Chestnut trees have been re-planted––it was difficult to pull ourselves out from within the castle walls that first afternoon. Ashford Castle is just too magical. Original architecture is still in-tact, ranging from massive fireplaces to Waterford chandeliers to Roccoco gilt mirrors.
The Drawing Room was spectacular, with live music entertaining at night and views of the perfectly manicured back-lawn, magnificent fountain and opening bay of Lough Corrib delighting by day. As we lounged in the Drawing Room and listened to the lovely piano music we wondered: Who else may have sat in these antique chairs?
Choices include the Emperor of India, Britain’s King George V, President Ronald Reagan, Senator Ted Kennedy, Oscar Wild, John Lennon, George Harrison, Brad Pitt, Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, all of whom have stayed at Ashford. In fact, the Duke (by whom I mean John Wayne, not some British royalty) stayed at Ashford when he filmed the movie “The Quiet Man.”
Many of the movie’s action sequences were filmed on Ashford’s estate, and you can walk from the castle to the very waters where the priest in “The Quiet Man” hooked the monstrous salmon he’d been trying to catch for 10 years. That’s not the only reason I was excited to bring my rod and ply the waters at Ashford––many of the largest pike in Fred Buller's famous book, "The Doomsday Book of Mammoth Pike," were caught on Lough Corrib.
There is also the Cong River, an excellent trout and salmon stream, which dumps into the lake outside the castle’s front door, creating a picture-perfect moment of a fairy-tale like bridge leading to the castle’s grand entrance. “We call that the ‘Oh-My-God!’ corner,” says Ashford’s Molly Leibowitz. “That last bend always surprises guests, when you come around the corner and suddenly this majestic castle comes into view as though sitting on the side of the lake.”
That final stretch of river is not just scenic, though; it’s a terrific spot to cast for salmon when they’re running in May. I have to admit, I did catch myself distracted on several casts––not paying my silver spoon its due attention as my eyes studies the castle in front me. The castle’s ghillie, Frank Costello, is an Orvis-endorsed guide who grew up on Lough Corrib and doesn’t let his international reputation go to his head. Ashford’s concierge called him for me at 6:30pm and he kindly offered me tips over the phone. I took notes dutifully, knowing that last year Costello caught a brown trout from the lake that topped the scales at over 13 pounds.
Costello and the concierge’s help that evening was typical of the service at Ashford. “What makes Ashford special are the wonderful people who work here,” said Paula Carroll, Ashford Castle’s Senior Manager. “Over 40 percent of the staff have in excess of 20 years of service here, and 55 percent have more than 15 years. That’s why clients feel like they are coming and being welcomed home.”
A perfect example is the family who has visited Ashford every Christmas for the past 18 years. They leave all their decorations at Ashford, and the staff decorates their room for them every year before they arrive, so when they walk into their room it’s completely decorated with all their family decorations.
With such service to complement such a breathtaking setting, it’s clear why Ashford was voted #1 Best Resort Hotel in Europe by readers of Conde Nast Traveler in 2010.
Or, for that matter, why my answer is so easy when people ask me, “What was your favorite part of Ireland?”
Ashford Castle's website is www.ashfordcastle.ie. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1.800.346.7007.
After visiting Inverlochy Castle in the highlands of Scotland, I now have a new travel motto: If it’s good enough for Elton John, Robert Redford and Queen Elizabeth, it’s good enough for me.
The 150-year-old castle hotel, tucked away in the outdoor capital of the UK, has also attracted the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson, The Duke of Edinburgh and King Hussein of Jordan, along with “regular folks” from over 20 countries, including Brazil, China, Baku, Russia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea. It is easy to see why.
Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Great Britain, overlooks the ornate castle and its 17 guest bedrooms. Entering the castle is akin to walking into a museum come to life. The Great Hall’s frescoed ceiling, Venetian crystal chandeliers and dramatic staircase are spectacular; meanwhile, all three of the dining rooms feature elaborate tables, chairs and dressers received as gifts from the King of Norway as a thank you for the castle offering him exile during World War II.
And while my wife and I may not be recorded in Inverlochy’s book of famous guests, we certainly were treated like celebrities.
“Our fine Scottish hospitality is what truly makes Inverlochy Castle unique,” said general manager Jane Watson.
The service is impeccable––in fact, there was a waiter at dinner whose sole duty was seemingly to inform us of our wine options and refill our glasse––but the history and surrounding landscape have as much as anything to do with Inverlochy’s awe-inspiring atmosphere. The castle sits on the private Loch Na Marag, and is also near Loch Garry, which local anglers who know the difference swear is the best salmon fishing in western Scotland.
Hunting in the highlands is also popular, with many Inverlochy guests targeting roe deer hinds, red deer stags, grouse and pheasants. As we discovered, a Russian foursome comes to the castle twice a year just to hunt stag––and they have the time of their lives doing it.
As for Jodie and me, our outdoor adventure awaited us on the remote Isle of Skye, where Mother Nature surprised us by displaying herself in shapes and forms we didn’t think possible.
Until recently the unspoiled island was only accessible by boat, but the construction of the Skye Bridge offers a lovely drive that will doubtlessly take you longer than MapQuest suggests, due to the frequent photo opportunities (such as the one pictured below) that demand you pull over.
We left at 5:30 on the morning of our Skye expedition and headed straight to The Old Man of Storr on the northern part of the island, known as the Trotternish Peninsula. The 19-mile long peninsula is the highest point of the island; The Old Man of Storr is a bizarre rock formation at the peninsula’s peak that stands 160-feet tall and towers over The Sound of Raasay.
Skye means “cloudy” in Old Norse, but we were blessed with a rain-free morning and made our ascent up the mountain-side with dry footing and relatively clear skies. The views were spectacular. Skye is sparsely populated––the 600-mile island is said to have more sheep than people––and our early start allowed us to have The Old Man to ourselves. We reached the summit without seeing another soul, hiking alone with the mountain goats.
Photos don’t do this natural treasure justice, but I had to try. At one point the wind nearly blew my tripod and camera over, and I leapt from my pose, several feet away, just in the nick of time to save my Nikon from a premature and rocky death.
As we were about to begin our descent I turned to my wife and said, “Wait. Let’s just stand here another few minutes in silence.”
I am so grateful we paused. Moments like that are hard to come. You only have so many instances in life when Earth’s rugged beauty knocks you over and leaves you gasping for air. When it happens, you want to soak up every ounce of it.
After conquering The Old Man of Storr, we made our way north to The Quiraing, stopping along the way at Kilt Rock waterfall. The 200-foot-tall sea cliff, so named due to its resemblance to a Scotsman’s tartan kilt, has a layer of volcanic rock with vertical lava columns that look like pleats.
The Quiraing presented us with a new hiking challenge, and while it was less vertically challenging than The Old Man of Storr, its views were equally stunning.
We peered down at the dramatic, jagged northern end of the Trotternish Peninsula and identified each of The Quiraing’s famous rock formations: The Table, The Prison and The Needle.
If I saw the terrain in a movie I’d think for sure it was made up for dramatic effect, but sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, and Mother Nature surprises me in ways I didn’t think possible.
I love it when she does.
The website for Inverlochy Castle is www.inverlochycastle.com. To contact Inverlochy Castle, email email@example.com or call 1-888 424 0106.
Dinner at Inverlochy Castle is an experience unto itself. The steak and seafood was delicious, the service every bit as excellent as the food, and the view, perhaps, the best part of it all. If you catch fish during the day, the staff will clean it and prepare it for you at dinner. After stuffing ourselves with appetizers, side dishes and entrees, we decided to step outside for a few minutes before tackling dessert. During this break, we captured one of my favorite photos of our entire trip, pictured below.
The rooms at Inverlochy Castle are gorgeous, and some guests elect to have "private dining" served in their rooms to soak in the atmosphere. One well-known couple came to the castle for their honeymoom, but had all their luggage lost at the aiport. Without any decent clothes, they opted to have "private dining" in their room. Now, over a decade later, they come back to Inverlochy every year on their anniversary.
My wife and I gazed out from our corner-suite balcony on the top floor of the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach watching the sun rise over the most famous beach in the world.
That’s a statement I never thought I would make, and a view I know I will never forget.
We were just visitors in this foreign world, where beautiful people stroll by with million-dollar smiles and $50,000 purses, so we soaked in South Beach as best we could during our weekend at the famous hotel. Our impression of the land of luxury? Puttin’ on the Ritz was every bit as magnificent as we had imagined.
“South Beach is truly a unique destination,” said Kevin Kelly, General Manager of the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach Hotel. “You have everything you’d want in one city. I’ve lived in many parts of the world, and I’ve never seen a city like South Beach.”
Indeed, South Beach is unlike any other place on the planet. You have the glitz and glamour of gorgeous people dressed to the nines going to nightclubs that don’t close until sun-up. You have a pristine beach with sand as soft as velvet. You have Art Deco buildings that refuse to age or adapt to architectural advances. You have high-end shopping and dining that lures in sophisticates from around the world. And a half hour away from it all you have the wildly untamed Florida Everglades, an outdoorsman’s dream.
Our visit to the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach, which celebrates its 10 year anniversary this December, included unforgettable experiences at both ends of the spectrum: staring at a crocodile from 20 feet away in the backwaters of the Everglades, and sipping 20-year-old Macallan on the rocks in the hotel’s VIP Club Lounge.
The hotel itself is gorgeous. Any other word would fail to do it justice. One of the most famous Art Deco walls in Miami anchors the main lobby, which is surrounded by 375 luxurious rooms, 20,000 square feet in meeting rooms, two restaurants, one 16,000-square foot spa, and a $2 million art collection.
In fact, the opulence makes it difficult to leave the hotel’s interior, but once you step outside you’re instantly glad you did. The view from the infinity pool is unreal, with South Beach and the Atlantic Ocean blending in the background.
Considering the Ritz-Carlton’s ability to orchestrate such a perfect scene at South Beach, it makes sense that 2013 was a banner year for the hotel chain across the globe.
“We opened 12 new hotels this year worldwide,” Kelly said. “That’s the most we’ve ever opened in a single year, and we have plans to expand from 80 hotels currently to 100 by 2016.”
Kelly is no stranger to international hotels. The London native has managed five different hotels in the UK prior to coming to South Beach, and has extensive knowledge of luxury hotels in Eastern Europe and Asia.
“The further east you go, the higher the standard of luxury. In Asia, there’s an employee pushing an elevator button for you,” said Kelly, noting the Ritz-Carlton’s expansion plans include new hotels in Morocco, Israel, India and Japan. “It’s an exciting time for us as we open new hotels in exotic destinations where you don’t think of a Ritz-Carlton.”
For the Ritz, expansion into exotic destinations is a balancing act as the famous hotel walks the line between adapting to the local culture and maintaining its global branding and traditions.
“The robust pipeline of hotel projects indicates a continued strong demand for Ritz-Carlton products and services. We are delighted at the company’s continued positive growth,” said Herve Humler, president and CEO. “Across the globe, and especially in Asia and the Middle East, we will be the undisputed top-tier luxury hospitality brand by 2016.”
It seems the Ritz can already make that claim in South Beach. Each year, half a million people walk through the hotel’s famous front doors. Guests come from every corner of the world, with 40 couples per year choosing to celebrate their wedding at the Ritz. The hotel’s 496-person staff includes Francy Silva, a highly regarded wedding coordinator.
“Our policy is never to host two weddings on the same day,” she said. “We want the bride and the entire wedding party to realize their special day is not only our focus, but our sole priority!”
Meeting a Rock Star
Given that South Beach is known for famous people, it’s not that surprising Jodie and I encountered a rock star at the Ritz. The odd thing is he was wearing an apron and working in the kitchen.
To amplify its appeal to anglers and boaters, the Ritz recently launched a “Catch of the Stay” package that combines daily deep sea fishing excursions with fresh fish meals at the Ritz’s incomparable DiLido Beach Club––which, by the way, is the only restaurant in South Beach that’s actually on the beach. We did our fishing separately from the package, but took advantage of the “Catch of the Stay” with a 7-course, ocean-inspired lunch that was, without question, the best lunch we’ve ever had.
And it was there we met our rock star, head chef Andres Meraz. Meraz showered us with dish after dish of shrimp, marinated mahi, Pacific tuna and pan-seared salmon that––get this––was flown in that morning from the Pacific Ocean.
“The local salmon we were getting wasn’t to our standards,” Meraz explained as he brought us out our fish. “So now we get it flown in daily from the Pacific. We do that with the tuna, also, because tuna in the Pacific is better than what’s available in the Caribbean.”
Meraz explained each dish to us in great detail––his cerviche won 1st place in a competition among 70 top chefs––and then took the time to visit with us after our meal. As soon as we left, Jodie and I turned to each other and almost in unison said, “That guy’s a rock star.”
Here’s what we meant: Meraz is immensely talented, extremely personable and naturally good looking. He grew up working at his grandfather’s Mexican restaurant in Oakland, and has since worked in Spain, Hungary, Italy and Austria. Incredibly, he is only 28.
“Andres is like a Cuban grandmother. He wants people to eat, eat, eat,” said Richard Lemus, a communications manager at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach.
Trust me when I say that Meraz will be famous one day. He’s one of those rare individuals unfairly blessed with incredible skills and a passion for his craft, along with a generous dose of natural charisma and refreshing humility. Upon meeting him, you instantly know he’s destined for greatness.
It is people like Meraz––every bit as much as the beach, the sunrises, the luxury and the nightlife––that makes The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach one of the world’s elite destinations.
“I shouldn’t say this, but you get to a point where a hotel room is a hotel room,” admitted Kelly. “It is the ladies and gentlemen who work here, who delight in pleasing our guests, who truly set The Ritz-Carlton apart.”
The website for The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach is www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/SouthBeach. For more information, call (786) 276-4000.
The Ritz-Carlton has twice won the prestigious Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award.
The above two photos show the view from our wrap-around balcony on the top floor of the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach. Just 30 minutes away from all the glitz, glamour and gorgeous beaches lies the untamed Florida Everglades, pictured below.
What does a seven-course lunch look like? Well, see for yourself, with every delicious dish captured below. Above was the setting for this incredible lunch. We ate slowly, savoring every bite and taking over two hours to enjoy the memorable meal on South Beach.
I am balancing on a 12-foot, wooden paddle board armed with an oversized kayak paddle I used to propel myself away from the jungle island and into the Atlantic Ocean when I notice a shark swimming 30 yards behind me. Ahead of me I see nothing but azure water so I do the only thing that comes to mind: I wobble down to my knees to untie the fishing pole I have strapped to my board and cast out in the direction of the unmistakable fin.
The shark is oblivious to my first two casts, but on the third cast she catches the scent of the shrimp I’m using for bait and charges after it. I wind faster. This angers her; she accelerates with remarkable speed to close the gap between her teeth, my bait and me.
I’m quickly running out of space––I have wound in nearly all my line and the chase is still on. I lower my rod tip into the water and whip it to the back of the board to keep my bait in motion when––BANG––the shark annihilates my bait 18 inches in front me! The shark strike creates a surface explosion like a cannonball hitting the water.
My pole is instantly doubled over from the weight of the sea creature, which spins 180 degrees with a splash of its tail and races off into the depths of the Atlantic with me now in tow behind her.
An Island Oasis
As thrilling as it was, the shark escapade was just one episode of a surreal sequence of adventures my wife and I experienced at Little Palm Island Resort & Spa near the Florida Keys, a private, 5-acre island resort miles off-shore from the southernmost tip of the United States.
At Little Palm Island, breathtaking moments seem as common as palm trees. Just 12 hours before the shark encounter, Jodie and I feasted on a tikki torch-lit, five-course dinner on the beach with a personalized menu congratulating us on our 4th wedding anniversary and a pianist playing in the background. Less than 90 minutes after the shark, we were pampered beyond belief for two hours with an ancient Indonesian ritual known as the Javanese Royal Treatment at Little Palm’s award-winning Spa Terre.
From the instant we arrived until the tragic moment when we had to leave paradise and return to the real world, it was abundantly clear why Little Palm Island is routinely named one of the best resorts on the planet.
We left our car and main-land mentality behind at Little Palm’s welcome station near Key West, then enjoyed a 15-minute cruise onboard a 1930s-style motor boat to reach the private island. We had taken no more than four steps on the landing dock when Renda, a blonde from Ohio who fell in love with the island a decade ago and is now a Little Palm Island manager, called out to us: “Welcome! You must be Tony and Jodie! The staff will take your bags. Come with me, I’ll give you a tour of the island.”
We smiled in awe of the path Renda led us down––a West-facing dining room on the edge of the beach; a sequestered pool shaded by giant palm trees next to an outdoor bar; a marina with kayaks, paddle boards and motorboats for us to use whenever we wanted; a rustic library with a take-a-book, leave-a-book policy as well as the only TV on the island; an over-size chess board beside the trail to a plush spa; a Zen garden and a gazebo overlooking the ocean; and, finally, at the far corner of the island, our romance suite: a thatched-roof bungalow on the water complete with our own fire-pit, deck, outdoor Jacuzzi and open-air bamboo shower.
We followed Renda into the suite. After we passed through the living room and bathroom (which also had an indoor shower and a soaking tub), we made our way into the master bedroom––featuring a curtained canopy bed and vaulted ceiling––and noticed our luggage tucked carefully in the closet. We had arrived more than 5 hours ahead of check-in time yet Little Palm was ready to welcome us into its island oasis.
In the weeks prior to our arrival, Little Palm Island––named the No. 1 beach resort in the U.S. by Travel & Leisure––had welcomed guests from England, France, Germany, Sweden and Dubai. The resort features 30 isolated bungalows, each designed for two guests.
“The reason we’re consistently voted one of the top hotels in the world is because we truly embrace our mantra, ‘Get Lost,’” said Matt Trahan, the regional managing director of Little Palm Island’s parent company, Noble House Hotels & Resorts. “Guests get to disconnect from the real world and re-connect with each other, and the island has a very peaceful vibe in the lap of luxury.”
It’s a vibe similar to that found in the South Pacific or West Indies, and as amazed as I am that such a luxurious, jungle-island paradise exists anywhere on earth, I am almost equally surprised that all I had to do to reach it was jump on a plane to Miami and drive a couple hours.
“Many people think that the serene ambiance of Little Palm can only be found thousands of miles away,” Trahan said. “With only 30 suites on a 5-acre island, privacy and solitude are definite. Of course, there are many activities to do, from deep-sea fishing to sea plane tours.”
Not only was the staff ready to welcome us to Little Palm Island, so, too, were the fish. After checking in, we immediately went to the beach and while Jodie laid down to soak up the sun, I grabbed a fishing pole and some shrimp from the dockhand and cast out. Ten seconds later, I had caught my first-ever saltwater fish, a jack.
The very next cast yielded another species I had never before seen or caught: a mackerel. Half an hour of such fast action inspired us to take out one of the Boston Whaler boats available for guests to use. Having never before fished in the ocean, it was exhilarating to cruise around by ourselves on an 85-degree sunny day and haul in fish after fish––mutton snapper, mackerel, grouper, snook, jack, yellow tail snapper, bluefish and mangrove snapper. The non-stop action, combined with the beauty of the island, made it easy to see why Little Palm Island was once a popular fishing camp for Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy.
Later in the day we tried paddle boarding for our first time ever and loved it. You stand aboard a thick, surfboard-esqe device and row yourself forward with an extra long kayak oar. It’s surprisingly easy to move fast on a paddle board, though we quickly discovered our preferred mode of transportation on a paddle board was to lie down on the board, look out at the horizon and let the wind blow.
The wind was also our fuel the next day for another unforgettable adventure at Little Palm Island: a day of private sailing aboard the LilyAnna, a beautiful, 38-foot Admirable-class Catamaran. Neither Jodie nor I had ever been sailing, and it turns out we picked a Rolls Royce for our first drive. The LilyAnna, built in Cape Town, South Africa, is sleek, smooth and superbly comfortable.
We sailed out to Hog Reef, arguably the top diving destination in the U.S., and snorkeled among hundreds of fish on a pristine reef in a protected sanctuary. We have snorkeled in hot-spots such as Cozumel and Hawaii, and this site blew both places out of the water.
Willie and Mike made the adventure even more fun. They’re the perfect companions for a day sail––quick to laugh, full of interesting sea stories, and eager to serve. “If you need anything don’t get up, just wave your hand in the air,” Mike instructed us as we laid at the front of the vessel polishing off our complimentary bottle of wine.
For the heck of it, we trolled a couple Rapala X-Rap Magnums on the way back to the island and promptly hooked a barracuda, a goliath grouper, and an enormous jack. I have to say, life is pretty good when you’re sailing on the Atlantic Ocean on a sunny afternoon with your beautiful wife on a beautiful ship, listening to Bob Marley’s “Don’t Worry About a Thing.”
Dining in Paradise
While I was drawn to Little Palm Island for a Robinson Crusoe-style tropical adventure, I have to admit when it came to food I wasn’t exactly scouring through the jungle trying to live off the land. In fact, the resort's famous dining room was created by the award-winning Chef Luis Pous, who is widely admired for developing the island’s signature Pan-Latin cuisine.
His Cuban heritage and love of the Caribbean have inspired him to create unique dishes such as Foie Gras Cuban sandwiches and Key West lobster with apple, truffle, tarragon and Key Lime risotto. The food itself is delicious, but the restaurant’s setting makes everything taste that much better. Jodie and I sat mere feet from the ocean and enjoyed a perfect view of the sunset.
We opened the menu and, by the light of the tikki torches, saw a shocking headline at the top of the menu: “Happy 4th Anniversary Mr. and Mrs. Capecchi.” Back at Little Palm’s welcome station on the mainland, a greeter checking us in before the boat ride had asked if there was any special occasion that brought us to Little Palm. Jodie had responded casually: “No, not really, but we’re kind of celebrating our anniversary.”
Now, as a result of that one comment, here we were looking at a personalized menu! In fact, even the banana split I ordered for dessert was adorned with a chocolate “Happy Anniversary” wish.
With personal touches like that, it’s no wonder why guests return to Little Palm Island as if it’s a religious pilgrimage. One couple was married at Little Palm Island 17 years ago (the island offers a wedding coordinator among its 110-person staff and celebrates 30 weddings a year) and has returned every year since. In 2014, the couple plans to bring their twin daughters to celebrate their birthday with a Sweet Sixteen celebration on the beach.
I’d be remiss in discussing food at Little Palm without mentioning breakfast. It is an experience unto itself. The evening prior, you check what items you want on the menu, as well as what time you want your breakfast delivered. Then you place the menu in your bamboo mailbox outside your bungalow. While you’re sleeping, a staff member takes the menu and next thing you know there’s a knock at your door in the morning and breakfast is served on your private deck overlooking the water.
One morning while devouring French toast, eggs over easy, yogurt with granola and fresh fruit, Jodie and I saw two Key Deer swim over from a nearby island onto Little Palm and walk right in front of us. The endangered deer, which look like miniature whitetails, are very common at Little Palm Island. In fact, we saw multiple deer at close distances every day.
The Royal Treatment
It was about an hour after breakfast that I jumped on the paddle board that fateful morning and encountered my shark. The beast tired, eventually, after peeling out nearly all the line in my reel. It was quite an adrenaline rush to conquer the shark, and I won’t soon forget the view of its dorsal fin slowly sinking away after I released it.
Less than 90 minutes after that primitive adventure, I enjoyed another unique experience at the opposite end of the spectrum: a relaxing couple’s treatment at Little Palm Island’s Spa Terre. After checking in at the main spa center, we were led to an enormous, enclosed garden. We would have this entire, lush space to ourselves––along with our masseuses––for the next two hours.
We underwent Spa Terre’s signature Javanese Royal Treatment, an ancient tradition originating in the palaces of Java, Indonesia. It began with a Balinese massage using Jasmine scented flower oil and culminated with the application of warm yogurt, creating a strangely soothing sensation. We then took an outdoor shower and proceeded to soak in an exotic flower petal bath. It seemed we were in the Orient as we sipped on sweet tea and watched flower petals float around us.
Finally, we went back into the massage room and had Jasmine scented lotion applied to us by the skillful masseuses. For the first time in several days, I smelled like neither fish nor shrimp––a fact my wife greatly appreciated.
The aptly named treatment we received at the spa truly epitomized the royal treatment Little Palm Island lavished on us throughout our remarkable stay. Patricia Shultz spotlighted the resort in her New York Times best-seller, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” calling the island a place “where the first impression is exotic perfection.”
After spending several days at this one-of-a-kind paradise, I can now say that “exotic perfection” is indeed the first and final impression of Little Palm Island.
The website for Little Palm Island Resort and Spa is www.littlepalmisland.com. To contact Little Palm Island, call 800.343.8567 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Little Palm Island was named the No. 1 resort in Florida by Conde Naste Traveler.
Spencer, a 15-year-old heron, is the mayor of Little Palm Island. He has reigned over the island for years, and does not let other herons live at Little Palm. Whenever I'd catch a fish, Spencer would come running up to me for his snack. I'd hold out the fish, and Spencer would take it directly out of my hands.
We had a blast taking out the motorboats available for guests to use. Jodie was our fearless captain, and it was exciting to fish off the boat and catch all sorts of new species. I also discovered that fishing on a paddle board is one of the most intimate ways to interact with the ocean and its creatures.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, "There is no way in which a man can deserve a sunset." I have to agree.