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Tony Capecchi

Woodbury, Minn.

Fishing in Paradise: Little Palm Island

Giant tarpon are swarming like sharks in the black water, devouring their prey whole. The predators leap out of the water in pursuit of their quarry––each splash so sudden and severe it startles me into flinching. The sun will not rise over the Atlantic Ocean for another two hours, but spotlights under Little Palm Island’s dock illuminate just enough water for me to spot a tarpon cruising for something to kill. I toss my bait out in front of the notoriously finicky fish, and it slowly swims toward it. 

My eyes grow wide as saucers as the tarpon inhales the pilchard a dozen yards in front of me and I set the hook as hard as I can. Tarpon are famous for their leaping ability, and this one is no exception. Hating the feeling of the hook in her front lip, she promptly goes airborne. The aerial assault she launches seems to wake every creature within earshot. It definitely causes my heart to jump into my throat.

I’ve never before hooked a tarpon, but I’ve seen the photos and videos and have read numerous stories about the coveted trophy. The marlin is the fish that battles Santiago for days in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but tarpon is the species that Hemingway himself chased all over the Florida Keys––perhaps, as is rumored, at this exact island some 12 miles off the coast of Little Torch Key.

The tarpon’s combination of size and strength, along with its incredible reluctance to bite and its incredible propensity to get away, if by chance it does get fooled, is legendary. While pockets of anglers across the globe prefer different species for different challenges, it is not an unreasonable assertion to state that tarpon are one of the most coveted sportfish in North America, if not the world. The one on the end of my line is going ballistic. 

I repeatedly “bow to the king” as I’ve read you’re supposed to do, leaning forward and extending my arms each time the tarpon leaps. My goal is to give the fish slack in the line, and to avoid pulling the hook out of its tough mouth as it flies through the air shaking it head violently. I recall a conversation at dinner two nights prior, up in Islamorada, with an angler who confessed to me that he’s hooked 76 tarpon but hasn’t landed a single one. The silver fish jumps again––much farther from me now than when I first hooked it ten minutes ago––and I wonder if I will begin my tarpon career 0-for-1. 

But then the tides turn, and with adrenaline on my side I outlast the prized fighter and drag the fish to shore. Wow! My arms shake; I struggle to lift the monster, and I know the moment will last in my head for years. A grin spreads across my face as I stand on the shore of Little Palm Island Resort & Spa holding the fish of a lifetime.

If there is a better saltwater fishing resort on the planet than Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, I have yet to see it. Little Palm was once the favored fishing camp for old-time movie stars and U.S. presidents, dating back to Harry Truman. In the past couple decades, the 5.5-acre island resort has opened its doors to a select number of discerning guests, offering 30 two-person, thatched-roofed bungalow suites with ocean views and private beaches. 
 


 

The ironic part, however, is that the resort is so plush that travelers who disdain fishing herald it as the ultimate relax-and-do-nothing getaway, while hardcore anglers simultaneously hale it as the premiere fishing resort. Travel + Leisure and Conde Naste consistently include Little Palm Island Resort and Spa in their annual gold list of the world’s top hotels; meanwhile, North American Fisherman last year named the resort one of the five best fishing destinations in the world.

Put another way, Little Palm Island is paradise island … surrounded by fish. Catching the tarpon was just one of numerous memorable moments I encountered fishing during my 4-day stay in May. Fittingly, my fantastic angling experiences stemmed from a combination of the resort’s unparalleled fishing action and its unparalleled service and amenities. They treat you like a celebrity, and they put you on some of the best fishing in the Western hemisphere. 

On my first morning, I took out one of the 20-foot Twin V Catamaran boats Little Palm Island makes available to guests at no extra charge. The boat’s powered by a 90-horsepower Suzuki outboard, complete with top-of-the-line Lowrance electronics. 
 


Action was fast that morning, with big grouper, permit, lots of snapper, and an exciting follow by a 4-foot long barracuda that trailed my chum bag for several minutes and chased two of the fish I caught.
 


 

But the coolest thing that morning didn’t even involve me catching a fish. I zipped out a mile or so from the island––which again, is a dozen miles from the Keys to begin with––and started some open water drifting. I was in the middle of nowhere, with the sun shining down on the turquoise water with nothing around me but the flat horizon. 

All of a sudden, a huge spotted eagle ray jumped completely out of the water no more than 20 feet from my boat. The giant sting ray came crashing back down with a huge splash––just in front of it was a long, skinny baitfish being chased. To witness this ray, with no sign of civilization in sight, was awesome. 

The next morning fishing off the dock produced one of the hottest fishing stretches of my entire life, kick-started by catching a solid black grouper. I released the fish, dropped down my bait again, and immediately caught a large pompano. I released it, tossed my shrimp back out, and promptly caught a mid-sized silver fish I couldn’t identify. I snapped a photo, released the fish, and dropped my line back in the water for a fourth consecutive, immediate bite. This time, I landed a decent mutton snapper, followed by a mangrove snapper on my fifth cast. 
 



So it went, for eight consecutive casts with eight consecutive fish, each one biting within ten seconds of my bait hitting the water. During this stretch, I proceeded to catch ten fish in 12 casts; during the two casts on which I didn’t catch fish I immediately had strikes––I simply missed the bite and lost my shrimp. The west-side dock at Little Palm Island extends into deep water and holds incredible quantities of fish, so by “casting” all I had to do was drop my shrimp straight down from the dock, wait five to ten seconds, and get a bite. 



Adding to the thrill was the variety of different species I hauled in during this flurry––including a number of species I had never before caught. By the time I walked back to my bungalow for breakfast, I had already caught over 40 fish! How cool is that?

Little Palm Island offers a variety of fishing guides you can book, and I saw one guest return after a day with his guide with a +100-pound swordfish in tow. All the fish I caught, however, came on my own, unguided, which is a testament to both the quality of fishing in the area and the quality of helpful staff at the resort. 

Ronaldo was the dock-hand for my first couple days, and this soft-spoken Central America native was a fountain of knowledge. He graciously walked the docks with me and pointed out hiding snook, tarpon, sand sharks and several colorful parrotfish.



He taught me how to fish for sharks, and when and where to search for them. When I managed to catch a shark while fishing on a stand-up paddleboard, Ronaldo hustled over with a pair of pliers and unhooked it for me. 
 

“Little Palm boasts a very tenured staff that is accustomed to serving high profile and celebrity guests with the utmost privacy, as well as quiet and gracious service,” said Bill Foster, Area Director of Sales & Marketing at Noble House Hotels & Resorts. “It’s a well-loved and well cared for family owned business where every detail is approved from owners themselves.

The dock-hand the next couple days, Nathan, was perhaps the kindest, most helpful person I met during my week in Florida. Nathan explained to me that I likely wouldn’t trick a giant tarpon with shrimp, or with the particular line and leader I was using. So, Nathan set me up with low-visibility line and a high-end rod-and-reel combo (Little Palm provides all the fishing gear you need at no additional charge). Then he gave me another light-weight rod with a Sabiki rig he personally tied on for me to catch pilchards to use for bait.

Nathan was so patient in answering my endless questions and explaining all the detailed info I needed to apply these new techniques. I think he was the most excited guy on the island when he learned later that I had caught the big tarpon, which was all thanks to his help. 

Indeed, I still smile about it now when I look back. The tarpon was just the cherry on top––the fish of a lifetime that capped off what would have been the trip of a lifetime, even had I not caught a thing.

The website for Little Palm Island Resort & Spa is www.littlepalmisland.com. For more information, call 800.343.8567 or email getlost@littlepalmisland.com.

 




 

For tons of information on other fun things to do in Florida, including great spots to stop along the Keys as you drive to Little Palm Island's base camp on Little Torch Key, go to VisitFlorida.com or Fla-keys.com.

Return to the Ritz

I avoid traveling to the same place twice. Life is too short, and the world is too big. I’ll be dead and gone in 70 or 80 quick years, and when I am there will be too many magnificent places I didn’t have time to see. Besides, two of my greatest joys in traveling are discovering new experiences and meeting fascinating people who live differently than me.

And yet, when my wife and I traveled to the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach in October of 2013, we came to a realization that made us re-evaluate our “no returns” policy. Our discovery was simple: The Ritz is such an incredible place that the more times we can possibly return, the better.

Quite obviously, we aren’t the only ones who feel that way. The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach is routinely named one of the top hotels in the country; some half a million people walk through its doors each year, with 40 couples a year choosing to celebrate their wedding there. Read the hotel’s 897 five-star reviews on TripAdvisor and you’ll wonder if parents of hotel staff wrote them––people rave on and on about the service provided.

The hotel’s impeccable service, five-star accommodations and ultra-cool location on America’s most famous beach, inspired my wife and me to abandon our new-places-only travel practice and return to the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach for our big vacation last month. 

It was our first trip since the birth of our 10-month old son, and I wanted it to be the best possible experience for my wife. So we selected the best possible hotel––having been to many elite hotels across the Western Hemisphere, I have to say nothing beats a Ritz-Carlton––and we had a spectacular time from the moment we pulled into 1 Lincoln Road.

“Mr. Capecchi, your room will be ready shortly,” the woman at the check-out desk said as we arrived several hours before check-in time. “Would you like us to escort you to the Club Lounge for a glass of champagne while we finish preparing your room?”

That sounded just fine to us, so we went up to the 11th floor and entered the VIP Club Lounge, with magnificent views overlooking the beach. Gabor, a Club Level supervisor from Switzerland we enjoyed visiting with throughout our stay, introduced himself and poured us each a complimentary glass of champagne. We sipped on the champagne, looked out over the beach, and smiled. 

Less than five minutes later, Mike Roloff, a Club Lounge-only concierge from Germany, approached us with his ever-present smile and informed us that he found an available upgrade room on the 12th floor, rather than the 11th, and that Gabor could bring us to our room whenever we wanted. 

Gabor showed us our room with an ocean-facing private balcony and, before leaving, took several pieces of our clothes to have them iron and pressed. Club Level guests receive complimentary garment pressing of up to two clothes item per day.

The best benefit of Club Level is access to the lounge itself, which offers five unique and fresh culinary offerings each day, along with an impressive liquor shelf in the evening to complement the variety of wines, beers, pops and juices available throughout the day. 
 

Even though this all-inclusive “Oasis by the Sea” was just a floor below us, the Ritz-Carlton staff surprised us with a thoughtful welcome gift delivered directly to our suite: a bottle of champagne with a spread of chocolate-covered fruit candies. 



We enjoyed both, then immediately changed into our swimsuits and headed down to the beach. To reach the sand, you walk along the hotel’s beautiful infinity pool that looks into the ocean, then you head down a couple steps through a hotel key-activated gate and you’re there. Right there is South Beach’s scenic boardwalk, the Ritz’s must-try DiLido Beach Club––the only restaurant that is actually on South Beach itself––and the soft sand and blue water of the Atlantic Ocean. 

We walked south along the boardwalk past the Art Deco District, Lummus Park and 3rd Street Beach Yoga, and at the end of the road some 16 blocks south of the Ritz discovered South Pointe Park––a wonderful lookout with a long pier overlooking cruise ships departing through turquoise water. 
 


 

All this ocean-side splendor is just a moment’s walk from famous Collins Drive, Ocean Drive and Lincoln Road, hotspots with ultra-cool night clubs open all night long, high-end shopping, entertainment and, of course, people-watching complete with frequent celebrity sightings. 

“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.”

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. 

“This is an exciting time for us as we open new hotels in exotic destinations where you don’t think of a Ritz-Carlton,” said Kelly, who seems at home at South Beach with his good looks and natural charm. He’s justifiably proud of both the South Beach property he manages and the Ritz’ global expansion in regions such as Morocco, Israel, India and Japan. 

“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, Ritz-Carlton 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.” 

They’re already the undisputed champs in Florida. They have 10 hotels in Florida, with five in Miami itself––including the newly opened Bal Harbour location my wife and I visited at the end of our trip. It’s virtually impossible, in my opinion, to find a hotel in a world with a better combination of service, dining and accommodations than a Ritz-Carlton. 

It’s a matter of taste, but the South Beach property may well be the crown jewel of them all. There were multiple moments during our 3-day stay in May when this thought popped into my mind: “How lucky am I?”

One of those moments came our first morning, when I woke at 6:05 to catch the sunrise. I hustled down to the beach in my swimsuit and ran into the surf moments before the sun peaked over the ocean. I swam out to a depth where only my head was above the surface, and I leapt into each crashing wave. 


Each time a large wave approached, it blocked my view of the sun and all I could see was a wall of water in front of me. Toward the end of my sunrise swim, a particularly large swale came and blocked my view for several seconds; when I jumped up over the cresting wave to regain visibility of the horizon, I suddenly saw two large pelicans soaring gracefully only a few yards away from me on the other side of the wave.

As popular as South Beach is during the afternoon, the pelicans were my only companions as I marveled at the sunrise with ocean waves crashing against me. 



I then swam to shore, rinsed off under an outdoor shower, and took a quick dip in the hotel’s pool. How tranquil the glass-calm, infinity pool seemed in comparison to the ocean––and how warm its water felt. After a few lazy laps, I then moved one layer warmer and dropped into the nearby hot tub. In all three cases, I had the water completely to myself. 




Later that morning my wife and I enjoyed another “wow” moment, in a completely different realm, as we shuffled in slippers and robes to be pampered at the South Beach Spa. Pampered we were. 

A spa attendant gave me a full tour of the men’s facilities, which feature treatment rooms, steam rooms, saunas, high-powered showers with nozzles and sprays coming from every direction but down, and a zen-like relaxation lounge with fruit-infused water, apples, nuts and gummy bears. At the conclusion of the tour, he gave me a mimosa and asked me to wave if I needed anything. 

Hotel guests who get a massage or spa treatment are welcome to use any of the spa for that entire day, so I went back and forth between the sauna and the steam-room––the latter of which has a cold shower inside, along with ice-cold wash clothes set outside the door. 
 



Finally it, was time for my massage. I indulged with the “Taste of the Tropics,” a seasonal scrub and massage treatment that actually uses fresh mango and guava. Mango is rich in Vitamin A and contains anti-oxidants that help with regeneration of skin cells and restoration of the elasticity of skin. Guava, meanwhile, is a rich source of vitamins B, C and potassium, which are strong detoxifiers that revive the lost elasticity of the skin. 

Eduardo was my masseuse, and he was fantastic (I actually noticed reviews on TripAdvisor from other guests who specifically praise Eduardo). During the first half of the treatment he applied the mango and guava scrub, then I quick rinsed off in the super-shower and returned to have him finish with a full body massage.    

Five minutes into my massage, I knew that whenever it ended it would be too soon. At the conclusion, the spa attendant brought me a glass of champagne and left me to lounge in the relaxation room. An irrepressible smile swept across face, and at this time the following thought popped into my mind: “I wouldn’t be treated any nicer than this even if I was Brad Pitt.” (Note: I had watched Meet Joe Black the night before our trip.) 

To me, that’s the magic of the Ritz-Carlton: They treat every guest like royalty. There is no higher level of service, no finer level of accommodations to be found.

Ultimately, that’s why we broke our “no returns” policy for this special getaway and spoiled ourselves with a return trip to the Ritz. As it turns out, we still discovered new experiences––from the sunrise swim to South Pointe Park to the hotel’s South Beach Spa––and met fascinating new people––from Gabor from Switzerland to Mike from Germany to Gina Lopez, the amazingly talented chef at the Ritz’s Bistro One LR.   

And so we decided, we might need to return to the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach … someday. 

The website for the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach is www.ritzcarlton.com/SouthBeach. For more information, call (786) 276-4000.  







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