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Tony Capecchi

Woodbury, Minn.

R&R at the Ritz

Relax. Restore. Rejuvenate.

Spotlights illuminate these three words in glass showcases at the new Ritz-Carlton, Bal Harbour in Miami. Guests at the 5-star, oceanfront hotel have an easy time following these three cardinal rules, as my wife and I discovered during our visit earlier this summer.

In fact, it seems impossible to stay at the Ritz and not feel relaxed, restored and rejuvenated.

“The Ritz-Carlton Bal Harbour, Miami combines a small boutique inn feel with large resort style amenities in a tranquil environment that feels miles away but is close to it all: shopping, nightlife and entertainment,” said Hotel Manager Winfred Van Workum.

You can use the hotel’s luxury house-car to get around, but our preferred method of transportation was the complimentary bikes the Ritz also offers its guests. Talk about a bike trail with a view!
 


 

Truth be told though, we had no desire to leave the hotel and its private beach. For some, the surrounding Bal Harbour shops and restaurants, along with nearby downtown Miami and the ever-popular South Beach, provide an irresistible attraction. But our thought-process was, “When you’re staying at a Ritz-Carlton on the beach, why leave?”

“Those who are looking to sun worship can find the perfect spot along our European designed pool or retreat to our exclusive cabanas that offer private plunge hot tubs, the ultimate escape from the city’s bustle,” said Van Workum, also noting the hotel’s 750-feet stretch of private beach.



 

The hotel also offers a variety of options for indoor enjoyment––from its recently created Exhale Spa to its award-wining restaurants to its celebrity stylist Elysze Held.

“We have tapped Elysze Held as the Couture Concierge, a Ritz-Carlton Bal Harbour, Miami exclusive amenity,” Van Workum said.  “Elysze will set up a one-on-one consolation with our guests and will style them for one look, or curate an entire wardrobe.  We feel this exclusive amenity is perfect for the global affluent traveler with a taste for fashion.”

Adding the Couture Concierge is just one example of how the Ritz pulls out all the stops to exceed expectations. The talented staff executes all details with the excellence you’d expect from the world’s premiere luxury hotel. This new property is now the 10th Ritz-Carlton in Florida––including the South Beach location, which has the coolest room in which my wife and I have ever stayed (a top-floor penthouse suite with a wrap-around balcony overlooking the ocean).

International expansion is also exciting for the Ritz. “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.”

Top-tier certainly applies to my wife and my experience at the Ritz-Carlton, Bal Harbour, which included many highlights that I struggle to give due justice in words.  Instead, I am sharing photos and videos from our unforgettable trip to a slice of paradise that is indeed relaxing, restorative and rejuvenating. 

Our Room

There is no bad room at a Ritz, but we were especially fond of ours. It had a private balcony overlooking the ocean at an angle that granted views of both the sunrise and sunset, yet our favorite feature was the bathroom.

These are words I never thought I’d write … but here’s a video tour of our bathroom. 

Upon arrival, the staff kindly gave us a tray of chocolate-covered strawberries that were awaiting us in our room. It’s countless gestures like these that have prompted me to make the statement I stand by to this day, even after all my international travel to luxury hotels: “There is no higher level of service, no finer level of accommodations to be found than at the Ritz.”

The Food

Another previous statement I’ve made is that of all the 5-star hotels I’ve dined at around the world, Ritz-Carltons always have the best dining. Suffice it to say, the two-hour lunch my wife and I enjoyed at the Bistro Bal Harbour only reinforces my viewpoint.

“Chef Felipe Arango serves up a strong culinary background in the new culinary epicenter of the world,” Van Workum said. “His flavor levels include Spanish influences, light clean cuisines with a locally sourced sea to table concept.”

Every dish is packed with flavor from the finest, freshest ingredients. Put more bluntly: My wife said it was the best lunch she’s ever had. I still prefer the lunch I had at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach’s DiLido Beach Club, but for me the two stand out above all other gourmet lunches as 1A and 1B. 




The bartender’s an expert at mixing drinks; we enjoyed a variety of tropical drinks, above, with origins and recipes from around the world. The complimentary crostini, below, was fabulous and basically told us right away, “Yup, this meal is going to be insanely good.” 




It’s nice to share. My wife ate most of my snapper ceviche, above, with fennel, celery, sweet peppers and coriander. In return, I ate much of her the Florida corn chowder, below, which was arguably the best flavored item of the entire lunch. Would never had ordered it were it not for our waiter’s suggestion––he took great care of us as we sat on the balcony for over two hours, savoring each bite and enjoying the view.


Our main dishes above were as mouth-watering as they look: a fresh 10-ounce grouper fillet and an 8-ounce dry aged filet with delicious chim-churri sauce. The grilled asparagus and mushrooms added fantastic flavor, as well.

We took our time and eventually managed to polish off the famous Key Ley flan, with malted milk crumble, citrus mascarpone and Florida citrus. Simply outstanding.

Hard to say enough good things about this meal. The top-notch quality of this food, along with the service, view and entire dining experience was really a highlight of our week in Florida. 

This was our first big trip since the birth of our 11-month-old son, so my wife and I decided to spoil ourselves with a special treat: a spa treatment at the hotel’s oceanfront Exhale Spa. I received a 1-hour Fusion (Swedish) massage that was amazingly good, and certainly left me feeling both restored and rejuvenated.  

“Exhale Spa delivers the perfect synergy of wellness and lifestyle combined with high end therapies that enhance the body and mind,” Van Workum said. “We have seen a great response not only from out hotel guests, but the local spa-goer who is looking for that moment of Zen.” 

A moment of service that stood out to me occurred in the Zen room, where spa-goers are invited to relax for as long as they’d like before and after their treatment. A staff member brought me a heated neck pillow that felt fantastic; after a while, she returned to replace it with a freshly heated, new pillow.

The Ocean

What I would give to wake up to this view every day. The Ritz-Carlton, Bal Harbour is uniquely situated on both the ocean and the channel so that you have picture-perfect views of both the sunrise and sunset every day. 

While I struggle to articulate what an incredible experience awaits at the Ritz-Carlton, Bal Harbour, I did find this quote from Daniella Giardina among the hotel’s impressive TripAdvisor reviews which sums it up pretty well. 

“Everything about this place is amazing! I wish we could of stayed longer! Definitely recommend to anyone traveling to the area. The staff is amazing and accommodating, our room was beautiful, everything about this hotel was A+!! Can't wait to come back.”  

For more information, visit RitzCarlton.com/BalHarbour, or call (305) 455-5400. 

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.

 



My Costa Del Mar sunglasses helped me see through the water and spot fish that were hiding under the pier.

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.

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