Tony Capecchi

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Since age 18, Tony Capecchi has been chronicling his worldwide travel and outdoor adventures for national magazines, including In-Fisherman and North American Hunter. He has co-hosted “Live Outdoors” on CBS Radio, produced television for NBC and worked on The History Channel’s hit series “MonsterQuest.”

Posts about Fishing

The Rule of Three

Posted by: Tony Capecchi Updated: April 13, 2014 - 10:52 AM

There’s something about the Rule of Three. Good things, bad things, strange things––for whatever reason, they often occur in sequences of three. A historically cold Minnesota winter of polar vortexes has nixed most outdoor activities these past months and forced me to look back at my most memorable fishing adventures from 2013, when temps were above zero.

And there it is. The Rule of Three. As I reflect on highlights and lowlights from my time on the water last year, three incredible experiences stand out. Each venture, in and of itself, was a spectacular moment that could stand alone as a capstone adventure in any outdoorsman’s life. The fact that I was lucky enough to enjoy these gems in the same year––or the same lifetime, for that matter––is not lost on me. As payback, I guess deserved the worst winter weather since before I was born.

Here are my top three extreme fishing adventures from 2013, each one incredibly unique and diverse in its own right.
 
1.) Ashford Castle
Cong, Ireland

Having traversed the Atlantic Ocean and Ireland’s wildly untamed Connemara region to reach fabled Ashford Castle, I now can say that I have lived like royalty. It was only for a day, but a day in an ancient world lasts a lifetime in memory.

The castle, once the proud estate of the Guinness family, was built on the shores of Lough Corrib in 1228. The view across the lake has not changed in over 6,000 years 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. It was a view made better (if not blurrier) by the complimentary bottle of champagne and decanter of cherry that welcomed us upon our arrival. And so we learned, quite quickly on this special visit, that life as royalty is good.

As gorgeous as the grounds were––the castle is caressed by formal gardens that Rick Steves raves about––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.

Eventually, I made my way outside the castle to face the famed Cong River with rod in hand. The Cong River, an excellent trout and salmon stream, spills into the lake outside the castle’s front door, creating a picture-perfect scene of a fairy-tale like bridge leading to the castle’s grand entrance. “We call that the ‘Oh-My-God!’ corner,” says Ashford’s Director of Sales and Marketing Paula Carroll. “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.”

Click here to read the full story of my adventures at Ashford Castle, including falconry, castle dining and mountain hiking.

2.) Little Palm Island
Atlantic Ocean, Miles Offshore Florida's Southern Tip



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.

...

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 offshore from the southernmost tip of the United States.  

Click here to read the full story of my adventures at Little Palm Island Resort and Spa, including sailing, beach dining and ocean sunsets.

3. Fishing the Everglades
Miami, Florida



A 400-pound crocodile is glaring at me 15 feet away with its razor sharp teeth on display. A cunning predator, the crocodile has the strongest jaws on the planet with a biting force of 5,000 pounds per inch.

“Crocs can jump through the air faster than you can blink,” says my guide, Jim Willcox.

I am miles away from civilization, in the upper reaches of a narrow river channel winding through the jungle, as Willcox whispers these comforting words. Today I have spotted birds I never knew existed, and caught five types of fish I’ve never before seen.

Now I lock eyes with the crocodile and wonder, for the first time during this extreme fishing pursuit, if I am perhaps no longer the predator.

It feels as though I am in the Amazon, or maybe on the Nile River, fishing in a foreign world where crocodiles are kings––they have been known to attack great white sharks––and every cast holds the promise of catching something bizarre. Instead, I am only 80 miles south of Miami, fishing in the Florida Everglades with a man many say is the best guide in the business.

And while reaching Captain Jim Willcox was easy and inexpensive compared to the travel required for equal adventures in far-flung parts of the world, our journey since leaving the dock in Islamorada, Florida, has not been void of danger. “He died this spring,” Willcox says, nodding to a memorial photo pinned to a mangrove tree along the channel. “Lost control of his boat. They found his boat way up in the mangrove trees with the motor still running 90 minutes after the crash.”

Click here to read the full story of my adventures with Capt. Jim Willcox, including encountering sharks, manatees and dolphins.

The Ultimate Canadian Love Affair: Nimmo Bay

Posted by: Tony Capecchi Updated: April 1, 2014 - 9:26 PM

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 heli@nimmobay.com or call 1-800-837-4354.

Photos courtey of Jeremy Koreski.

Ashford Castle: Crown Jewel of the Emerald Island

Posted by: Tony Capecchi Updated: December 29, 2013 - 4:13 PM

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.

Photo Courtesy of Ashford Castle

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.

Photo Courtesy of Ashford Castle

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.”

Photo Courtesy of Ashford Castle

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 ashford@ashford.ie or call 1.800.346.7007.

Photo Courtesy of Ashford Castle

Ashford Castle also offers golf, falconry, boating, biking, indepedent and guided fishing, horseback riding, archery and clay shooting.

Welcome to the Jungle

Posted by: Tony Capecchi Updated: November 9, 2013 - 1:43 PM

A 400-pound crocodile is glaring at me 15 feet away with its razor sharp teeth on display. A cunning predator, the crocodile has the strongest jaws on the planet with a biting force of 5,000 pounds per inch.

“Crocs can jump through the air faster than you can blink,” says my guide, Jim Willcox.

I am miles away from civilization, in the upper reaches of a narrow river channel winding through the jungle, as Willcox whispers these comforting words. Today I have spotted birds I never knew existed, and caught five types of fish I’ve never before seen.

Now I lock eyes with the crocodile and wonder, for the first time during this extreme fishing pursuit, if I am perhaps no longer the predator.

It feels as though I am in the Amazon, or maybe on the Nile River, fishing in a foreign world where crocodiles are kings––they have been known to attack great white sharks––and every cast holds the promise of catching something bizarre. Instead, I am only 80 miles south of Miami, fishing in the Florida Everglades with a man many say is the best guide in the business.

And while reaching Captain Jim Willcox was easy and inexpensive compared to the travel required for equal adventures in far-flung parts of the world, our journey since leaving the dock in Islamorada, Florida, has not been void of danger. “He died this spring,” Willcox says, nodding to a memorial photo pinned to a mangrove tree along the channel. “Lost control of his boat. They found his boat way up in the mangrove trees with the motor still running 90 minutes after the crash.”

We are lucky on this October morning. Calm wind makes it possible to run some 30 miles in Willcox’s 18-foot Action Craft boat to leave behind the Atlantic Ocean, cut through the Gulf of Mexico and sneak up into the bowels of the Everglades. At full throttle, Willcox’s 150-horsepower Yamaha propels his boat on plane so he can fly through water just 12 inches deep. Nonetheless, it is critical that we pay attention to the tide or we will get trapped up in a narrow channel that held water when initially motored through but recedes into a mud bank by the end of low tide.

“There’s no cell phone reception here,” Willcox says. “People get stuck and you’re not going anywhere until the next day.”

In a sense, Willcox has been trapped by the region for more than two decades. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, cheering for the Eagles and driving 90 minutes to the East Coast when he wanted to fish for marlin and tuna. He came to Bud N’ Mary’s marina in Islamorada one December with his dad and fell in love with fishing in the Keys.

For the next 12 years, Willcox came to Islamorada each December with his 13-foot Boston Whaler and fished every day for a month straight. The unique beauty and diverse fishery captivated him so intensely that he couldn’t leave, so Willcox made the leap to move 1,300 miles south to become a full-time fishing guide.

“I could never do a corporate job and work for some stiff in a suit,” said Willcox, now in his 15th year operating his Ultimate Keys Fishing guide service. “I report to the Everglades now.”

It appears fishing and guiding is what Willcox was born to do. He has won numerous fishing tournaments, been featured in big-time publications ranging from The Washington Post to Field & Stream, and has starred in television shows on ESPN, Versus and The Weather Channel.

“Jim is a natural for TV,” said Terry Boeder, a producer for North American Fisherman-TV (NAF-TV) who has filmed numerous fishing shows with Willcox. “His excitement and enthusiasm for the keys is 100 percent authentic.”

This past summer, Boeder’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and he wanted to do something special for them. Try not to hate him for it, but Boeder gets to fish all over the country with the top guides while producing shows for NAF-TV. When it came time to decide who he should hire to take his parents out for a memorable anniversary, the decision was easy.

“I picked Islamorada for my parents’ 50th anniversary because of Jim,” Boeder said. “He introduced my parents to all the beautiful things the area has to offer. They had never been to the Keys, and because of Jim, they are making plans to come back.”

I can understand why Boeder picked Willcox. If I exclude a couple local guide-buddies from the equation to remove any biases, I have to say Willcox is hands-down the best guide I’ve ever fished with––and the most fun.

Incidentally, I first heard about Willcox during an episode of NAF-TV that Boeder filmed. In the show, Willcox and his guest boated a monstrous, 14-foot-long sawfish. The footage is incredible––watch the action on Willcox’s website and you’ll understand why ancient people believed in sea monsters.

“I fish 9 days a week,” Willcox quips, conservatively putting the estimate at 250 days a year. He’s mastered a 40-mile radius of ocean and Everglade water, and narrates every twist and turn so I can begin to appreciate this powerful environment.

He knows this water like the back of his hand. As soon as we reach our spot and start pitching jigs to mangrove trees we start catching fish. I’ve never before caught a redfish, but 30 seconds into fishing I’m reeling one in. My excitement grows as I cast back out and just as quickly get another bite, this time only to discover another new species for me: a snook.

From then on, the action was fast and furious with both quantity and quality fish. Big mangrove snappers, sheepshead, catfish, more snook and lots of bruiser redfish up to 14 pounds––fish that give a heck of a fight on 15-pound braided line. We also saw countless birds ranging from hawks to spoonbills, as well as sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, manatees and that up-close-and-personal crocodile.


In fact, it is the wildlife and the wild scenery that most amaze me on this adventure. Where else in the U.S. can you have an experience like this? No wonder Willcox’s clients rave about him.

“Jim can stop his boat in the middle of nowhere, drop in a few lines and pull out dozens of a specific type of fish,” says Matt Waddell, of White Plains, New York, who visits Islamorada annually for guided outings with Willcox. “Then he’ll motor for a while, stop somewhere else, and you start catching dozens of some totally different type of fish.”

Waddell brought his 12-year-old son out fishing with Willcox as a birthday present to the boy. After catching mackerel, blue fish, redfish, snapper, snook and trout, Waddell’s son caught a large shark.

“As a dad, there’s nothing like seeing the pure joy of your 12-year-old reeling in fish after fish and then catching this huge shark,” Waddell recalls. “Those trips are also a chance for me to bond with my sons with no video games, no phones and no TV. We just talk about what’s going on in life, but it’s not heavy or uncomfortable because they’re so excited about the fishing.”

“Jim is great with kids,” Waddell said. “He engages with them really well, and he subtly teaches them without patronizing them.”

Willcox gets to see childlike excitement from many of his clients throughout the day; it’s what he loves most about guiding.

“Guiding gives me a chance to spend every day in this wilderness,” he said. “And it’s awesome to introduce people to the Everglades and see them freak out. They get so excited by the entire experience––seeing that is a rush for me.”

Capt. Jim Willcox operates Ultimate Keys Fishing guide service. His website is www.ultimatekeysfishing.com. To contact Jim, email captjimw@ultimatekeysfishing.com or call 305-393-1128.



You can still see the affects of Hurricane Wilma (2005) in much of the region. The two trees on the point in the photo below seem like the inspration for the song "Lean on Me." The Gulf of Mexico is in the background.


 

These two members of the Audobon Society were catching baitfish to gauge how the bird population would fare in the months ahead. Lots of bait means lots of birds.

Below, Capt. Jim Willcox noticed birds concentrated in this area, so we boated over and threw out a net, figuring the birds were hovering over baitfish.

The net was so heavy Willcox could barely haul it in. (I almost had to put down my camera and help). We used these pilchards for bait the rest of the day.

At the fish cleaning station back at the marina, dozens of tarpon gathered to snatch up our fish guts. Half a dozen sharks joined them. It's difficult to gauge the perspective in this photo because there are so many huge fish here, but the majority of these tarpon ranged from 25 to 75 pounds, with several over 100.

After our day in the Everglades, we stopped in the Atlantic Ocean for an hour and caught a ton of mangrove snappers, pictured above and below. Willcox directed us to a local restaurant that night that cooked our fillets in four different, delicious ways. 

What a day! It had the perfect ending, fresh fish at a restaurant on the beach, and the perfect beginning: a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic, pictured below.

Paradise Found: Life on an Exotic Island

Posted by: Tony Capecchi Updated: December 27, 2013 - 9:20 AM

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.”

Sail Away

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 getlost@littlepalmisland.com.

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT