Discovering the Promise of Little Palm Island
We found a slice of private-island living on a small patch of sand in the Lower Keys
It’s almost like sailing over the top of a roller coaster—the wind tousling your hair, the sun beaming down on your face, the feeling of near-weightlessness and pure exhilaration as you soar across the Seven Mile Bridge in Marathon with almost nothing on either side except the color blue, from the sky to the water, just blue. To the right, a bevy of fishermen cast from the bows of their skiffs into Florida Bay. To the left, the Atlantic Ocean splays out like the base paint of a watercolor, its surface dancing with activity.
If you’ve driven the route, then you know what I mean: the uplifting blast only felt when you’re cruising through the Florida Keys. For all Floridians, the Keys are somewhat of a backyard escape, a way to forget, especially now, after this year we’ve all had. That rush is the promise of the Keys, a reminder of the greatness of this state and something we all need now more than ever. So many of us crave the kind of mental reboot that comes from spending days surrounded by the water and wildlife here. And on this perfect 10 of a spring day, my wife, Jill, and I are headed to the best of what the Keys can offer, as close as most of us will get to our own private island.
How to make Little Palm Island Resort’s signature Gumby Slumber cocktail
A trip to Little Palm Island Resort & Spa begins for many at the Shore Station, a one-room cottage on Little Torch Key and the shoving off point for one of the nation’s most exclusive retreats, Little Palm—as it’s known to locals. As we pull up to the small bungalow perched on the water’s edge, a smiling receptionist dressed in Bermuda shorts and a matching mask greets us as if she’s been awaiting our arrival for days. She offers us a signature rum cocktail, the Gumby Slumber, while we wait on the shaded dock for the tender that will deliver us to the island. “Would we like to make it a double?” she asks.
“Well, sure, why not?” I reply.
A few minutes later, we board a runabout with our cocktails in hand, luggage already loaded for us, and head east on a 15-minute ride punctuated by sea spray. This is our maiden voyage to the lauded enclave, which was ravaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and then rebuilt three years later in glorious splendor worthy of its historical ties to presidents and pop stars. As the resort and its commanding dock come into view, the stresses of the work week, and really the entire year, begin to evaporate in the salt air. I’m reminded of how great it feels to travel again, especially to a resort with such promise. I take another draw from my straw and wonder: What will Little Palm mean for us in this time of global reset?
The boat pulls up to the main dock on the island’s southwest corner, where a concierge leads the way along winding paths covered in crushed shells, past fountains in the Zen garden and the spa. There are just 15 thatched-roof bungalows. With an adults-only policy and the total guest count capped at 60, it’s not hard to find a spot that makes this island feel like it’s only yours. Cabanas hide behind palm fronds and bamboo stalks that rise from perfectly manicured bits of jungle. We could at this point book fly-fishing or snorkeling excursions or simply do nothing, the concierge explains as we arrive at our bungalow, which bears a wooden sign with our last name: Barton. But it seems most everyone here spends days with a schedule dictated only by sunrises and sunsets and passing clouds.
Inside, the plantation shutters keep the cottages shaded in the heat of the day, and a romantic canopy bed draped in linen faces a private outdoor deck with an inviting copper tub. A bottle of bubbly chills in an ice bucket, and we take two glasses down onto the landing that overlooks the water and toast to what is certainly one of Little Palm’s greatest assets: its seclusion.
Old Florida Elegance
Already succumbing to the resort’s mantra to “get lost,” whether that be in the giant copper tub on our porch or on one of their Boston Whalers, we decide to meander to the Great House and find something to eat. At Little Palm, you’re almost certainly going to eat every meal at The Dining Room, the restaurant situated in the heart of the property with elegant interior seating as well as open-air tables on the veranda overlooking the beach. Chef Luis Pous helms the kitchen, which he led for more than seven years before stepping away in 2020 and finally returning to his roots at Little Palm this spring. The restaurant takes up most of the island’s Great House, a new structure built in 2019 as part of a $34-million overhaul to remake the 4-acre island after Irma swept much of it into the sea in 2017.
Most everyone here spends days dictated only by sunrises and sunsets and passing clouds.
The renovation created a place that feels like a dazzling version of Old Florida, with subtle, well-oiled wood finishes throughout the property juxtaposed with crystal chandeliers dangling over poolside cabanas, an ornate shell-encrusted mirror above the Great House fireplace and life-size portraits of Bess and Harry Truman hanging upstairs.
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“Would you like to have dinner down on the beach?” the hostess asks as we enter the Dining Room. Jill points out a table on the sand. We follow the young woman to a peninsula sandbar that sticks out into the water toward Cuba, waves lapping on both sides, pencil-shaped fish darting in the clear water nearby. Although the vibe is casual, there’s a bit of a formal flair to everything—collared shirts are required, but it’s acceptable to pair them with flip-flops and shorts. We peruse the menu and decide on a bowl of cheesy pasta and mushrooms to start, followed by a simple grilled snapper with citrus and seared scallops alongside a tangy frisee salad.
Debating a wine to order, we watch the sun’s slow descent into the ocean, a sight that in the Keys always feels like the day’s most important moment, waiting for that green flash that may or may not actually exist. It’s like those last few seconds of sunlight last longer than others as you watch the orange glow disappear—and the couple two tables away from us seem to freeze as we all wait. The glow sinks and then vanishes, the air feeling almost immediately cooler.
Prohibition and Presidents
The next morning, we take our espressos to the Atlantic Dock, which runs along the east side of the island, and search for the sun we had seen slip into the horizon just the night before. We look out toward Cuba over a blue mirror of sea that simply fades into sky, no horizon, just every shade of blue, like a Sherwin-Williams paint guide, the sun cloaked by a backlit fog. We sit there for a long time, partly because Little Palm is the kind of place where you rarely have somewhere else to go and also because this sunrise is among the main draws. In Florida, none of us live far from the water or a pretty sunrise, but too often we overlook them. These stunning views have been drawing people to Little Palm for decades, but its reputation as a top-end resort is relatively new. During Prohibition, the island was a respite for rum-runners and then a 1940s fishing camp frequented by Bess and Harry Truman. By the time Irma devastated the Keys in 2017, the Little Palm Resort that occupied the island was an Old Florida icon, in need of its own refresh. The resort reopened to much fanfare in March 2020, just in time to have no choice but to shut down again. It came back in June, and by early 2021, with many of us looking for driving vacations and getaways where it’s easy to be away from everyone else, Little Palm became so in-demand that rates soared—positioning it comfortably among America’s most expensive resorts.
It’s no secret why. Everything is steeped in luxury, from the vaulted ceilings of the bungalows to the fluffy white lounge chairs on the beach we find ourselves in after breakfast. Another couple is just returning on a pair of stand-up paddleboards. “We went into the channel, but I chickened out,” the woman says.
“Chickened out?” my wife asks, but before we can learn why, Ethan beckons us over. He’s the island’s boat tender, for now, until he heads off to graduate school and eventually, he hopes, a job in the foreign service.
Ethan has just hosed down one of the resort’s 12-foot Boston Whalers, and Jill clutches closely the map he hands us, where he’s drawn big, wide circles on the sections that are too shallow. Nearly the whole map is circled.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” Jill asks as I angle the boat into the channel that runs between Little Palm and the neighboring uninhabited island. Most of my boating experience was before we were married, when I was a kid on New Hampshire lakes. So the answer is partly yes, partly no, since navigating the bay’s shallows will be new to me. We motor on.
We pass through the main boating channel on our way to Picnic Island, a spit of land in the bay that’s no bigger than a Starbucks parking lot. With a half-mile to go, we can see the sand and the rocks just inches below the boat’s bow. With the engine raised, we chug along, my wife’s knuckles going white gripping the handrails.
We finally get close enough to the tiny beach that I cut the engine and jump out, pulling the boat behind me as my feet navigate the limestone. I tie off the rope to a sea grape and hope my shaky memory of how to tie a slip knot is enough to keep our vessel from drifting off.
It seems most everyone here spends days with a schedule dictated only by sunrises and sunsets and passing clouds.
We have Picnic Island to ourselves this warm morning. Boaters have covered the palm tree trunks with colorful signs pointing back to their homes in Wisconsin or New Jersey, and Ethan has said it’s typically a busy tie-up spot. But we lucked into being alone, exploring the paths between mangroves and imagining where we’d put the house we would build on the high ground.
The trip back to Little Palm is less harried now that we know where to find the deep water, and I open up the engine through the channel, heading to the little patch of lush landscape in the distance.
After lunch by the pool—a fried-bread veggie sandwich with yucca and a salad with a mustard vinaigrette and quinoa—we head back to the beach.
“Where y’all from?” a woman dipping her toes in the water asks with that friendly drawl of North Carolina. We figure out we have that in common, since we spend our summers up in Asheville, and then we swap our impressions of this place where we have found ourselves.
“Isn’t it lovely?” she asks. She remarks on the comfort of everything, how the beds and the couches and the loungers placed seemingly everywhere just beckon you to stop and sit, maybe have a nap.
Ethan is prepping a couple paddleboards for us, but our new friend from North Carolina is talkative, in the way so many of us have become in this past year, desperate for human interaction—maybe even more so after a stay on Little Palm. This short chat on the beach is our longest conversation with anyone else staying on the island. Before going to Little Palm, we thought it might be like the dude ranch we stayed at a couple summers ago, where you got to know everyone else there well enough to friend each other on Facebook. But here, it’s almost difficult to have run-ins, with the cabanas purposely private and the Dining Room tables spaced well apart. Quiet privacy is a key element of what makes the place so special.
From the beach, we set off on the paddleboards toward Big Munson Island, which sits just across the skinny channel to the east. The Boy Scouts own Big Munson and keep its 100 acres looking as the Spanish might have found it half a millennium ago. Irma came over Big Munson like barber shears; the hurricane took the mangroves that once circled the shore and tossed them just off the beach. Those mangroves are stark and foreboding, a reminder of the hurricane’s devastation and also a foreign sight to those of us who frequent the Keys, who expect those trees to line the shore like knobby knees rising from the shallows. Instead, they rise like a line of razor wire made of bleached bones.
We cut between the dead mangroves to find the most native of beaches before heading farther out to sea, where a shallow reef is occupied by rays and nurse sharks and barracuda. I pull the paddleboards up on the shore, making sure the fins pierce the sand so we won’t be stranded. We walk gingerly, barefoot, over the shell-speckled beach to explore a strip of sand occupied only by ink-black cormorants holding their wings out to the breeze and pelicans doing that dance they do, their heads in the air, their tote-bag-like necks flapping a prehistoric hello from the locals.
Later that morning, I have a spa visit booked: the Organic Slimming Seaweed Leaf Wrap, an experience that involves getting first exfoliated with crunchy dried seaweed and then wrapped in kelp that smells like oysters. Getting a massage while wrapped in kelp promises detoxification and relaxation, and 80 minutes later I feel two drinks into happy hour, long before we order another round of those rum cocktails.
All that time in the sun left us feeling lazy for the rest of the afternoon, so we find our bungalow’s most comfortable spot, a king-sized bed facing the water. The sunlight filters through the palms above as we watch a seaplane deliver a couple of new guests to the island.
We have dinner again that night at a table on the sand, arriving just in time to watch the last of the orange sun blend into the sea. Afterward, we head up to the Great Room, a comfy living room–like space above the restaurant. The island’s only TV luckily isn’t turned on. We have the place to ourselves, a space that could hold 30, and we play the REM greatest hits record on the turntable while deciding which board game to break out.
In Florida, none of us live far from the water or a pretty sunrise, but too often we overlook them.
When we return to our bungalow, the gas fire pit is raging, casting a sunset-like glow on palms that rustle busily. Nights end early, it seems, on Little Palm, where the entertainment comes from the sunrise and what’s hiding in the mangroves and maybe the waves lapping up on the rocks. That’s the point, you’ll come to realize here, a place where you’re reminded of the joy in finding an ancient-looking blue heron peeking through the mangroves; in listening to the wake of a seaplane hitting the shoreline; and in the sunrise tomorrow, looking maybe entirely different than the one before.
Back at the Shore Station the following morning, there are no Gumby Slumbers ahead of our long drive heading back up the Overseas Highway. As we take a right onto U.S. Route 1, still giddy from our adventures, a flicker of that Keys magic stirs up again as we steal one last look in the direction of Little Palm, a tiny speck of lush green in the distance, a luxuriant respite, a place that inspired us to get lost in order to find that reset we needed.