Driving Legendary US 1 to a Special Resort in Key Largo

The Florida Keys offers a multitude of interesting options for places to stay. We found a small resort in Key Largo that was different from anything we had previously experienced. If you like the romance of “Old Florida,” you are sure to love this getaway. 

The Kona Kai Resort

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12-04-10-068-IMG_8253When it comes to family owned resorts we have learned to expect the unexpected. Such properties often reflect the imagination and ingenuity of entrepreneurial owners, and the Kona Kai Resort is the essence of the concept.

11-03-09-062-IMG_8246Owners Joe and Ronnie Harris purchased the two acre Kona Kai grounds in 1991. They immediately began to painstakingly renovate the stunning waterfront property and transform it into a comfortable “Old Florida” resort – a style that is most becoming in the relaxed setting of the Florida Keys.

14-06-12-074-IMG_8259The resort is designed in bungalow fashion and consists of single level guestrooms and one and two bedroom suites that vary in furnishings and views. All 13 accommodations have air-conditioning, ceiling fans, flat panel TVs with DVD players. Suites have CD players and fully equipped kitchens. This is an excellent resort for a stay of any duration.

Enter Eden

10-3-078-130-IMG_8324What sets this property apart is that it is an integral part of an exclusive botanical garden. Starting with mature mahoganies, gumbo-limbos, coconuts, and Washingtonians, the plant loving owners began adding hundreds of new tropical and exotic flora and the Botanic Gardens of Kona Kai was born.

24-21-06-010-IMG_1131Today, guests get to live in a garden that features more than 150 orchid specimens, 42 different species of palms, 25 native plant species, 11 bamboos, 21 grasses, 15 tropical fruiting trees and plants, and numerous bromeliads.

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23-20-05-009-IMG_1130Each guest of the resort also has a unique opportunity to take a self-guided tour of the gardens, or a 90-minute “Transforming Your Understanding of Plants” tour guided by one of the credentialed staff at the resort.

25-22-07-012-IMG_1133The garden is a veritable walk through time with plants that can be traced to the Age of Dinosaurs. Joe and Ronnie have focused their garden around the science of Ethnobotony, the study of the relationship between people and plants. They want to provide their guests and visitors with a better appreciation of the role that plants have played in the development of human life.

New PictureTo that end, the Kona Kai Gardens sponsors a successful annual environmental outreach program for kids that offers students in the upper Florida Keys the opportunity to research and analyze environmental topics, and appreciate the beauty and importance of plants in nature.

The Gallery at Kona Kai

17-14-21-134-IMG_8328The Harris’ interests are not limited to the earth sciences; they have also used their Key Largo resort to showcase original works of art in the Gallery at Kona Kai.

16-08-14-094-IMG_8283The Gallery is where incoming guests register, giving all an opportunity to peruse the interesting art exhibits and purchase the many unusual specialty items found in the guestrooms.

Choosing a suite 

Lest we forget that this wonderful botanical and artistic enclave is also an extraordinary resort of the first order, let’s look at the hospitality aspects of the Kona Kai Resort.

01-01-01-58-IMG_1081When we were shown the Pineapple Suite we loved it.

04-2-014-064-IMG_8249We had a view of the waterfront, and were just steps away from the sparkling pool and hot tub.

07-09-15-099-IMG_8288We felt right at home the moment we entered the suite through the living room door.

08-10-16-106-IMG_8295Additional facilities

27-24-31-048-IMG_8534The Kona Kai swimming pool and hot tub is pictured above.

13-05-11-073-IMG_8258There’s also a tennis court, kayaks and paddle boats – the use of which is complimentary for guests. Dolphins and Manatees are seen just to the front of the Kona Kai beach, so keep a watchful eye.

Scuba divers will be happy to know that the resort provides equipment lockers, and a fresh-water soak and equipment wash down tank. Diving in the famous John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is just minutes away at Mile Marker 102.5.

Eating

The area around the resort has many dining venues, and there is a supermarket near the property for those wishing to cook in their suite’s kitchen.

Sunsets

19-16-26-275-IMG_8469The resort offers some of the best sunset watching in the Keys.

For more information

The Kona Kai website is *here* There is also a website specific to the gallery at www.g-k-k.com. Each site has information you will want to read if you are planning a trip to the Florida Keys.

If you go

03-02-08-061-IMG_8245Take the Overseas Highway – US 1 South into the Keys for approximately 30 miles – watch for Mile Marker 98 in Key Largo. Then watch for the oval Kona Kai Resort sign on your right. You have arrived, have fun!

African Queen

2-1-028-028-181-IMG_8375By the way, the resort is not far from the dock of the authentic African Queen. Fans of the 1951 movie starring Hepburn and Bogart, won’t want to miss an opportunity to see and take a ride on this historic boat – we photographed our adventure on the “Queen,” and our pictures and story will be published soon.

Other Key information

You will also benefit by checking out general visitor information about the Florida Keys at www.fla-keys.com

As you head further south on Overseas Highway US 1, you will find two uber-luxurious resorts, one on Islamorada, the other just off Little Torch Key. We have visited both these properties, and you can click on their names below to read about them.

Cheeca Lodge and Spa – Marker 82 – in Islamorada

Little Palm Island Resort and Spa – Marker 28.5 – island is off Little Torch Key

Happy travels!

© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff

Photos © Judy Bayliff. Photo of children on stage courtesy of Kona Kai Resort

You can see the world with Google Maps. http://maps.google.com/

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Discover Villa Vizcaya on Your Drive Around Miami

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Like the grand estates of England, most of the historic baronial manors of America have succumbed to the times and the tax man. However, the evolution has made these grand houses accessible to those of us who could not otherwise presume to personally visualize their grandeur.

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Such is the circumstance of the Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame, as well as the lesser known, but similarly impressive, Villa Vizcaya in Miami, Florida. The villa is now the spectacular Vizcaya Museum and Gardens operated by Miami-Dade County. It is a “must see” for those who appreciate the richness and elegance of a bygone era of great residential architecture, refined furnishings, and horticultural marvels.

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Surrounded by tropical woods and the Bay of Biscayne, this astonishing palace was envisaged by James Deering – a capitalist who made his fortune at International Harvester – to be an Italian Country Estate that looked and felt like it had been four centuries in the making.

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Mr. Deering was captivated by the extraordinary European splendor of the 15th through early 19th centuries, and spent a great deal of money acquiring period artifacts from all over Europe and Asia. When he built his dream residence in Miami, the rooms were designed around his extensive collection of furnishings, rather than the other way around.

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We had the good fortune to tour and photograph Villa Vizcaya uninterrupted. It was an opportunity to experience the palatial serenity of the estate – as the builder and owner must have experienced just before December 25, 1916 – the day Vizcaya was presented to the world.

The opening celebration

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Gondola Poles west of Stone Barge

Befitting the Renaissance party theme, Mr. Deering arrived at Vizcaya in a vibrant gondola like a Venetian Prince. It was a pleasant sunny Christmas day and Italian music wafted in the air. Dressed in Italian peasant costumes, Deering’s friends gaily danced along a waterfront edged with colorful gondola poles. It must have been a magnificent and colorful display. Some of the gondola poles remain, but the celebrants are long at rest.

The name Vizcaya

No one is exactly sure where Deering came up with the name for his grand house, but it would seem reasonable that he named it after the tiny northern Spanish province of Vizcaya, which happens to be on the Spanish Bay of Biscay.

Finding Vizcaya

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Miami visitors approach this hidden architectural treasure by turning off South Miami Avenue on to a winding driveway through a forest of native trees and brush known as the Rockland Hammock. This spate of dense tropical woods essentially hides the grandeur of Vizcaya from public view.

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At the end of the drive there is a parking lot, and it’s a short walk from the lot to the ticket booth, and on to the entry drive leading to the impressive circular driveway in front of the main house.

Behold the villa

The house is structured around a center courtyard with an entrance loggia and ground level arcades to the left and right decorated with fine pieces of Renaissance furnishings.

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At one time, the courtyard was open to the weather, but today it is protected by a glass roof. Air-conditioning was installed in 1986 to help preserve the many treasures inside the mansion.

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Inside the entrance to the villa, visitors are greeted by a 2nd century marble statue of Bacchus, the god of wine, standing above a Roman marble basin.

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In old European villas, many of the sleeping rooms and the kitchen are located off a gallery on the second floor, and so it is at Vizcaya.

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Deering had his main dining room put on the cooler first floor and away from the kitchen, which was serviced by a dumb-waiter from its traditional second floor setting.

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The breakfast room is next to the kitchen and ably blends walls of ship murals with a dominating influence of colorful Chinese figures and furnishings. There is a sweeping view of the south gardens from windows that can slide back into the walls during pleasant days.

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James Deering’s bedroom is like so many of the other rooms – distinctly different and visually interesting in its French Empire styling.

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The highly ornate ceiling and wall décor of the Rococo Music Room came from a palace in Milano.

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The entire inside of the Vizcaya villa is an exciting cornucopia of Renaissance tapestries, and Rococo and neoclassical furniture of every configuration and design.

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The stimulating living rooms are said to have been planned by Mr. Deering to cultivate conversations among his sophisticated guests.

Vizcaya is one of the few grand homes turned museum that has the innovative furnishings of the original owner – the better to define the man James Deering who wanted a home that looked and felt like a 16th and 17th century Italian estate.

The upkeep of Vizcaya

James Deering resided in Vizcaya for only a few winter months out of the year, but the upkeep of the estate required an extensive year round staff. Up to 18 staff members maintained the main house at Vizcaya, and 26 gardeners cared for the formal gardens. Originally, Vizcaya had 180 acres and included a large lake.

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Today, the entire estate covers about 50 acres, and only a few decaying gondola poles remain in a mangrove swamp where a beautiful lake with lush islands once flourished.

The Grand Barge

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The signature architectural statement of Vizcaya is the amazing Stone Barge to the east of the house.

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The barge functions as a breakwater in the estate’s cove between the boat landing and the lattice topped Tea House.

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View from Tea House to Boat Landing beyond the Stone Barge

Once replete with dense tropical plants and trees – long since vanquished by decades of storms and hurricanes – the stone barge remains a lasting testament to James Deering’s love of the sea.  Deering maintained two yachts at Vizcaya and he wanted to make certain that the water entry to his estate would not be forgotten by his guests. It would certainly be difficult to forget the elaborate stone barge.

The gardens

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Main House from South Garden

The gardens are an oasis between mangroves on the bay-shore to the east and a dense tropical native forest to the west.

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The grounds of Vizcaya were created in the style of famous Italian and French landscapes – a suitable setting to showcase Mr. Deering’s many sculpture treasures.

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Everywhere you look there are wonderful forms and splendid flora, like the impressive 17th century Italian statue of Leda and the Swan.

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Although the aspects are European, many of the garden structures and settings are made from local or materials imported from Cuba, and all the plants were judiciously selected to prosper in the subtropical climate of southern Florida.

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If you go, seek out the Secret Garden on the immediate eastern side of the South Terrace. We found it to be exceptional in its medley of verdant semitropical plants.

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We also enjoyed the unusual grottos guarded by fantastic sculptures of sea deity intricately carved in course coral rock.

A palace out of wilderness

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Main House from Tea House

1,000 workers constructed the forty-room Vizcaya out of a literal jungle. It is all the more incredible that Miami had a population of only 10,000 when the Vizcaya project began.

The end of an era

Jack Deering died in 1925, leaving a cultural legacy of enormous value. Over the ensuing years the family sold off much of the estate’s land in order to maintain the opulent villa and gardens.

In 1945, the family conveyed a large parcel of land to the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine and Mercy Hospital. Finally, in the 1950s, the heirs munificently sold the main house and gardens to Dade County Florida for a minor $1.4 million, and the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens was born.

Visit in good company

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan selected Vizcaya as the venue to greet Pope John Paul II. The two men met privately in the Renaissance Hall off the north arcade, and took a private walk through the garden. Later in the day, they addressed the world media from the Garden Mound, a large man made hillock with live oaks and splendid vistas of the estate.

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The Garden Mound is at the far end of the south garden, and where the Garden Room is located.

In 1991, Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, toured Vizcaya and attended a lavish garden party in their honor.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton chose Vizcaya for his First Summit of the Americas meeting. The meeting was attended by 34 national leaders from the Americas and the Caribbean.

Vizcaya has also been the backdrop for many Hollywood films over the years. You might have noticed it in Airport, The Money Pit, Tony Rome, and most recently, Iron Man 3.

So much more to see

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In our article we have only scratched the surface of an amazing visual heritage. There is so much to discover there that is not immediately obvious.

Look *here* for directions and more information about this extraordinary part of American history and innovation in architecture and landscaping. Also, be sure to see the informative video at the top of the article.

Vizcaya is a step across the threshold of time to a golden age when personal luxury in America was a given and attention to detail an expectation.

We heartily recommend a tour of Vizcaya while in Miami.

Happy travels!

Postscript

Vizcaya is like the Filoli House and Gardens in Woodside, California in that neither is on the tip of tourists’ tongues, but both are amazing pieces of early 20th century American history that are very worth a visit when in Miami or San Francisco.

Both estates are designated historic sites of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The gardens are equally beautiful, Vizcaya in French and Italian styles, Filoli in English Renaissance.

Wayne and Judy have written several pieces about Filoli. Read one *here*.

© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff

Photos © Judy Bayliff

You can see the world with Google Maps. http://maps.google.com/

Enjoy the Luxurious Little Palm Island Resort and Spa on Your Drive Through the Florida Keys

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Tired of run-of-the-mill luxury vacation destinations? Looking for something extraordinary and exotic for that very special occasion? Driving through the Florida Keys, we discovered a world-class tropical resort that will have you talking about your getaway for years to come. Here’s the story of Little Palm Island.

Driving south from Miami, it took us about 2-hours to cover the 120-miles to Little Torch Key and to reach mile marker 28.5 on scenic US1. There we found Pirates Road and the Little Palm Island Welcome Station (aka resort check-in and transport dock).

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The vibe for this destination resort is South Seas Island elegant and the Welcome Station fits right in. The Station building is a high-peaked thatched roof structure that is nestled against a lazy mangrove lagoon. The lagoon is where passengers board the shuttle boat to the Little Palm Island Resort and Spa.

As we entered the door of the Station, we were greeted by a Little Palm Island employee who quickly and efficiently arranged for our luggage to be removed from our auto and placed on a bell cart to await transport to the island.

Registration was an unfussy affair that was made enjoyable by a complimentary beverage – we chose a refreshing rum punch – very tasty. Check-in went quickly – no doubt attributable to the fact that there are only 30 guest quarters at the Little Palm Island Resort.

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We parked our rental car in the lot adjacent to the Station, and proceeded to the Gift Shop, which was chock-full of interesting objects including sundry headgear and upscale clothing.

It was a beautiful day, so we lounged on the outdoor patio while waiting for our motor launch ride to Little Palm Island. There are just two ways to get there – boat or seaplane. The island is only 3-miles from the Station, and the launch departs hourly, so the choice of transport was an easy one.

Everything done in style

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At first glance, we thought our transportation to the island was a sleek 1930s Chris Craft motor launch – but it wasn’t. In reality, it is a 1990s built replica that looks and sounds like the real thing.

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Before we knew it, we were being whisked away by a uniformed four-stripe captain in a classic motor yacht to an offshore island paradise.

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As we approached the dock of the lush palm-laden island, we would not have been surprised to see Tattoo in his little white suit shouting “De boat, de boat.”

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Instead, we were greeted by a very cordial island guide in smart tropic attire. He told us that our luggage was already waiting for us in our elevated thatched palm roof “Sandpiper” suite. The bungalow suites are harmoniously named after tropical birds – and that is so very fitting in this Audubon haven.

Speaking of birds

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One of our first introductions was to “Spencer” a dominant gray heron and distinguished character. Spencer lords over the shallows of the island.

Our guide told us that Spencer could be occasionally cranky and territorial when it comes to other “big” birds eyeing his island for a roost. Later in the day, we were privileged to witness Spencer doing a ceremonious roust of a very big and lanky white crane.

Five acres of paradise

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We toured the entire Little Palm Island in about 45-minutes. The meandering manicured white sand paths and thick tropical landscaping are ingeniously designed to ensure bungalow privacy.

During our walk, we passed by the Spa Terre, the Library, the Zen Garden, the splendid outdoor pool, the outdoor chess set, the island gift shop, and the bar and restaurant.

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Guests have free access to fishing rods, kayaks, beach boats, small sailing crafts, and romantic double umbrella shaded lounges that are strategically placed throughout the island.

Harry and Bess

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There is much ado about the Trumans on the island, including two full-length oil paintings of the famous couple in the Library. The pride stems from the president’s affinity for the isle when it was a private fishing resort.

Admiral Bill “Bull” Halsey was one of the many famous island guests of the Trumans after the War.

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Another president and Navy veteran, JFK was on Little Palm in 1962 to watch the filming of PT109 – a movie about his heroic exploits aboard a PT boat in the Pacific during WWII.

Cue the deer

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Just when we thought we had seen everything imaginable on this contemporary Fantasy Island, a tiny-toddler of a Lilliputian creature walked onto our white sand path. Here before us was a Key Deer fawn – so cute – and quite tame.

Before long, the fawn’s mom came along, happy to join in the photo op.

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The Key Deer is an endangered species native to the Florida Keys, and the Little Palm Island mini-herd swims over from a neighboring island – maybe to nuzzle the various celebrities that populate the resort from time to time. It is illegal to feed these little guys, but a joy to commune with them.

Photographing our hut-suite

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Each room in the Palm Island bungalows is like a character in a play. When combined, all the clever little things inside the suite add to the ethos of high living in paradise.

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Our suite was #23, The Sandpiper Suite, and it is very much like the other bungalow suites on Little Palm – a good thing because all 30 bungalows were occupied. We only had an opportunity to photograph the inside of the suite where we stayed.

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All the bungalows are South Seas castaway dream homes with a dash of British Colonial charm.

Each thatched roof suite-hut is outfitted with a well-appointed living room with comfy woven-seagrass sofa and chairs, a softly humming ceiling fan, military style birding binoculars, a stand of old-fashioned umbrellas, and a replica antique telephone with which to communicate with the Quarterdeck (Concierge).

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In the evenings, the large bedroom in each bungalow is softly lit by a simulated-candle that enhances the romance of the lavish room by casting exotic shadows on the wooden beams above.

Your sleeping comfort is guaranteed by an elegant and uber-comfortable king four-poster bed complete with decorative netting and zephyrous ceiling fan.

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Our suite also had a soaking tub, a large modern shower, and an attached outdoor bamboo shower room.

Of course, all the suites are fully air-conditioned. This is what present-day tropical luxury is all about.

Relax

Little Palm Island is a place of leisure. Go fishing, kayaking, listen to the birds or the quiet lap of the sea against the shore.

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Wait for a Key Deer to entertain while you sip a soothing beverage on your veranda, in the garden, or by the pool. Lounge on the beach or on one of the wooden walkways overlooking the sea – there are no bad choices on Little Palm Island.

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Relaxation sometimes requires help. That is why the suites do not have Wi-Fi service, TVs, or off-island telephones – and there are no children allowed on the island.

If you must

If you are a tech-junkie some of the above might make you nuts, so there is limited Wi-Fi service in the Library, which is also called the Great Room. If you look hard, you will also see a flat screen TV among the books and games – it is the only one on the island.

The Spa Terre

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Unlike many spa experiences that are a singular event in a busy day, the Spa Terre experience becomes an essential part of your total day on Little Palm Island.

We selected the ancient and deep Sacred Stone Massage – but perhaps you would rather a soothing massage on a table in the shallow water of a secluded beach.

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Whatever your choice, you can continue the bliss by immediately entering the warm and tranquil sea or nearby island pool.

Follow your dip with a shaded rest on one of the islands many comfortable lounges or couples hammocks.

Now is the time for a contemplative assessment of the joys of living. Little Palm Island is about Elysian serenity – your personal Shangri-La.

Dining on the Island

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Food plays a role of cardinal importance at the Little Palm Island Resort and Spa.

Savor a focused cuisine of Latin ingredients and French techniques. The menu created under the influence of Corporate Executive Chef Luis Pous, and enhanced and orchestrated by Executive Chef Brendan Mica and his team is nothing less than superb.

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Need we say more than Zagat rated the Little Palm Dining Room as the third best dining facility in the United States, and number one in the state of Florida.

The menu choices are both sophisticated and approachable, and reflect the location and relaxed atmosphere of Little Palm Island.

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For our appetizer, we chose a uniquely presented shrimp cocktail.

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Our main courses consisted of Key West Lobster accompanied by sweet corn, apples, fennel, onions, and Caviar Beurre Blanc and

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Rosemary Braised Short Ribs with a lavish medley of aged white Cheddar, creamed potatoes, mushrooms, truffle, and crispy shallots.

The night is young

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As guests opened and closed French doors between the restaurant and adjoining lounge, we could hear barely audible conversations and laughter.

Even with the doors closed, we enjoyed the faint familiar tunes being played by an entertainer on the lounge piano.

An after dinner digestif, accompanied by the murmured tinkling of piano keys in another room – and a sky full of seemingly touchable stars – it does not get more romantic than this.

The late Paul Newman, and Marvin Hamlisch relaxed in this restaurant – we suspect they were equally captivated by the setting.

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If you go

Little Palm Island Resort is the Florida address of the elite traveler. It has a cachet that will appeal to those with discriminating travel tastes. We recommend it to anyone wanting to experience the luxury of exclusive private island vacationing.

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For more information about availability, services and rates, look at the Little Palm Island Resort and Spa website at http://www.littlepalmisland.com/

Happy travels!

© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff

Photos © Wayne and Judy Bayliff

You can see the world with Google Maps. http://maps.google.com/

Cheeca Lodge and Spa: A Drive to Paradise in the Florida Keys

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The Cheeca Lodge and Spa has welcomed guests to the sunny isle of Islamorada in the Florida Keys since 1946. Through the years, it has earned a reputation as a world-class oceanfront resort with breathtaking views and extraordinary luxury amenities and service. Here’s what we discovered.

We were about one hour and twenty minutes south of Miami on the Overseas Highway when we spotted the inconspicuous signage for Cheeca Lodge at Mile Marker 82. The modest highway introduction made us wonder if Cheeca Lodge would live up to the stellar reputation on which we based our reservation. Our answer was waiting at the end of a long driveway in the form of the front entrance to Cheeca, and the blue Atlantic beyond.

This was the Florida Keys, and we should have taken our cue from an earlier experience with the modest highway frontage for the luxurious Little Palm Island Resort. There are many elegant surprises behind the lush tropical vegetation that lines the busy main thoroughfare in the Keys. Cheeca Lodge was no exception.

Luxury awaits on Islamorada

Before we could unlatch our seatbelts, a pair of smiling attendants were opening our auto doors. We were ushered into a breezy lobby area where a waiting receptionist offered us each a chair.

Check-in was over in minutes and we were on our way to 110, our spectacularly furnished West Indies style tropical suite that was front and center to the most colorful ocean you can imagine.

Guestroom 110 had warm mahogany furniture, and floor to ceiling glass walls that overlooked the pristine beach and swaying palms.

We turned on the ceiling fan, drew back the glass doors and nestled into the deck chairs on our private lanai. As we took our first deep breaths of relaxation, we simultaneously noticed the open-air spa tub – complete with privacy curtains.  What a marvelous innovation.

We bounced on the bed – it was perfect. There was a giant plasma-screen TV, wireless internet access, and the modern bathroom boasted an ocean-view glassed-in rain shower – yet another superb amenity.

This is a perfect vacation setup for a stay of any duration.

Look around

Management had arranged a tour for us, and there was so much to see. From six tennis courts, to waterfall pools, a snorkeling lagoon, a nine-hole pitch-and-putt golf course, complete fitness center, an adult lap-pool with private cabanas, and an iconic wooden fishing pier.

All beautifully laid-out in a calibrated strategy to produce a comfortably luxurious oasis in a spectacular 27-acre ocean-front setting with lush tropical gardens.

Cheeca captures the charm of old Florida in a trendsetter setting

The resort also provides all the equipment necessary for total vacation immersion. There are sea kayaks, fishing rods, bicycles, shade cabanas for your beach chair, etc., etc.

Famous Islamorada

All fishermen know that Islamorada is the “Sport Fishing Capital of the World.” It deserves that famous tag because of the wide variety of angling options. Pursue the elusive Bonefish on the flats, or the mighty Tarpon on light tackle – it’s all there. Care for something a little bigger? The Sailfish in the deep waters off Islamorada’s islands are waiting for your challenge.

One of the first famous people to stay at the early resort was President Harry Truman. Other celebrities that have slept here and fished the abundant waters off Cheeca are Edward R. Murrow, Jack Parr, Paul Newman, Ted Williams, Jack Nicklaus, and George H.W. Bush, to name just a few.

After the tour

We took a stroll on the resort’s trademark wooden fishing pier. Followed by several hungry pelicans, we wished we had some fishy treats we could toss to them.

The Pioneer Cemetery

After the pier walk we spotted what appeared to be an old cemetery not far from the water’s edge – an odd sighting in a luxury resort. The picket fenced patch turned out to be the Pioneer Cemetery, the final resting place for Islamorada colonizers of the late 19th century.

The old cemetery was once bordered by a small schoolhouse and church that were destroyed during the big hurricane of 1935, but some tombstones and a statue of an angel survived the storm – enough relics to keep the old cemetery a worthwhile curiosity on the outskirts of this famous resort.

Just for kids

Our wandering eventually took us to Camp Cheeca, a wonderful supervised activity area for the kiddies between five and twelve years of age.

Kids get to play in the camp hut, explore and discover beach treasures, go fishing on the old pier, and splash about in the pool. A great experience for the children, and a much appreciated break for parents.

Just for adults

They were all occupied during our visit, so we couldn’t photograph the interiors, but Cheeca has a number of couples-only Beachfront Bungalows. These private bungalows have fashionable island décor, vaulted ceilings, and intimate balconies with a chaise lounge built for two.

Food at Cheeca

We were hungry after our meandering. Cheeca has three restaurants and two lounges to satisfy any guest’s desire for pub-grub or a gourmet feast fit for the most discerning foodie’s palate.

Light fare at the Tiki Bar on the sand was just what we wanted – not too much – so we would have an appetite for the main event at the Atlantics Edge Restaurant after sunset.

Fresh fish extraordinaire

The menus at Cheeca are designed to reflect the location and the relaxed, but elegant atmosphere at the resort. We chose our dinner from a lavish medley of delicacies from the sea. We started with Cheeca Conch Chowder featuring savory tender Conch with succulent Corn in a savory broth.

We skipped the salad and went directly to the sea once again for our main courses of Baked Halibut with Beluga Lentils, Sautéed Squash, Herb Spaetzle, and Caviar Beurre Blanc.

Our other selection was Guava Glazed Mahi with Coconut Herb Rice, Tempura Baby Bok Choy, drizzled with a delicious Coconut Curry Sauce. Both these principal dishes were outstanding.

Sweets in the tropics

Hummingbird Cake is Cheeca’s Spice Cake with Bananas, Pineapple, and Pecans – all well frosted with a delicious Cream Cheese Icing. The presentation was too artistic to disrupt early in the enjoyment – so we waited to perform our magic until we were down to our last few bites of cake – then we made the Chocolate and Honey Apricot Drops completely disappear.

The Cheeca Spa

The Spa has seven treatment rooms and a fully equipped fitness room – all surrounded by tropical landscaped gardens, shimmering pools, and cascading waterfalls. We indulged in a delicious Sea Breeze Massage, an oceanside deep kneading under a palm covered hut where we were lulled by the rhythm of waves softly touching the sand and seagulls effortlessly soaring above. This is serene isolation and rejuvenation – Cheeca style.

The unusual name

In case you are wondering about the origin of the resort’s odd name of “Cheeca,” here’s the scoop. The Twitchell family owned the property in the 1960’s. The Twitchell’s daughter Cynthia was an heiress to the A&P grocery chain fortune and had a great influence on the resort. Cynthia had a nickname of “Chee.” Chee married Carl – and there you have it!

If you go

The resort is located at 81801 Overseas Highway, Mile Marker 82, Oceanside, Islamorada, FL 33036

It’s best to make reservations to avoid disappointment. Cheeca is sought after for weddings and corporate affairs as well as romantic and family vacations. You can get all the information you need from their website at www.cheeca.com

You will also benefit by checking out the general visitor’s information about the Florida Keys at www.fla-keys.com

Happy travels!

Here are two more articles about elegant Florida properties by Wayne and Judy:

A Beachy Keen Hideaway on Florida’s Gulf Coast

Relaxing in Luxury on Little Palm Island

© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff

Photos © Wayne and Judy Bayliff

You can see the world with Google Maps. http://maps.google.com/

Florida’s Gulf Coast Highways Lead to the Bungalow Beach Resort

The cottages at the Bungalow Beach Resort on Anna Maria Island on the west coast of Florida are special for several reasons. Here’s what we found one rainy day on the fabulous Gulf Coast.

Seeking Old Florida

It was already raining when we made a left turn off Highway 64 in Bradenton and onto Highway 789, the road that runs north and south and divides the island. We immediately began to search for the sign for the Bungalow Beach Resort.

This was our first trip to Anna Maria Island, and for some inexplicable reason we expected the vibe to be a little like Nantucket Island circa1942 – but we were way off the mark. Anna Maria Island is a busy, seven-mile long stretch of sugary sand, restaurants, condominiums, and assorted homes ranging from Early Prohibition to Modern Glass.

It only took a few minutes to realize that the variety of structures on the island all came nicely together in a great place for a beach residence or second home – and where a family on vacation could quickly interact with the sea and sand.

We found our sign

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Between wiper swipes, we managed to identify our destination. At first glance, the property, which is nestled between taller buildings, looked quite small.

It was still coming down when we pulled into the unpaved parking lot that fronts the one-story bungalows. The office faces the street and we made a mad dash through small pools of water in the sand. We hadn’t packed an umbrella, so we got a good dose of Florida’s liquid sunshine on our short trek.

It was in the resort’s tiny office that we first realized we were about to take a trip back in time. We just didn’t know what a marvelous journey it would be.

Finding our bungalow

The downpour had subsided during our check in. The puddles where still evident, but the porous earth had soaked up much of the standing water. We retrieved our bags from the trunk of the car and made our way along a curvy sand path toward the beach.

Our bungalow was number “102” and faced the Gulf. It was just a clam throw away from the waves quietly rolling along the shore.

The winds were calm, so the sea was tranquil and smelled sweet after the rain. We watched a string of pelicans gliding so low that their wings skimmed the tips of the gentle swells.

We looked up and down the shore – except for the occasional clumps of sea oats and palms – it was empty. The uncommon desolation was quite soothing – and we began to relax.

Slice of nostalgia

The Desoto bungalow was picture perfect and retro-luxurious. Although we had missed the mark about Anna Maria Island, we hit our goal of finding “Old Florida” right here at the Bungalow Beach Resort.

All about style

We had just arrived a few minutes before, but we were already beguiled by the elegant simplicity of the surroundings. This is a place where tradition pervades – 1930s style.

Flip flops and island milieu

Before long, we were unpacked and uncorked. A fine Pinot Gregio complemented our growing mood of relaxation, harmony, and contentment.

A place to watch the rain roll across sea and shore

It started to rain again with the sound of a gentle patter on the porch roof. We quickly settled into the white wicker chairs under the protected patio canopy and watched a symphony of dancing drops on the bungalow railing.

The rain eventually  turned to a slight drizzle, and along with the temperate sea, created an easy environment for libation and laughter – just as it must have done for scores of other couples across the eight decades of the resort’s existence.

Warm thoughts of bygone eras

We speculated about other vacationers enjoying these charming little bungalows in the early 1940s. We supposed how they would have dressed for their trendy beach vacation on Anna Maria Island.

As we pondered the deserted beach chairs directly to the front of our bungalow, we conjured up images of young couples – now old – that once took in the same view, on similar rainy days. Wherever they are, we hope they still remember that dreamy day at Bungalow Beach Resort and smile. We know we will.

Before long, darkness cloaked the Gulf. It was time to end our wonderful day with a restful slumber in luxurious comfort.

Every modern convenience plus sentimental charm

We recommend the Bungalow Beach Resort to anyone interested in a nostalgic private beachfront haven with ceiling fans, window air conditioners, a kitchen, a small pool – and all the contemporary amenities that make for a romantic or memorable family island vacation. This resort is a salute to the past while embracing the new and now. It is all about fun, sand, and sea, but if you are lucky – maybe you will get a soothing rainy day as well.

If you go

There are 15 bungalows at the resort. See the resort layout map here. Bungalows 101, 102, 104, 105, and 116 all face the Gulf of Mexico and are closest to the beach and water. They are the best vantage points from which to appreciate the outstanding Florida sunsets. These rooms are among the most expensive at the resort, but are well worth the difference in price.

For more information about the Bungalow Beach Resort and its amenities, as well as things to do in the area, check out their website at www.bungalowbeach.com

Anna Maria is awash in restaurants. We ate at two we can recommend – the City Pier Restaurant and the Sandbar Restaurant and Lounge. A specialty in this area is the Grouper Sandwich – try one – they are delicious.

Anna Maria Island is the northernmost Key (or Cay) along the coastal Keys between Bradenton and Sarasota, Florida. The Gulf of Mexico runs along its western shore, and the Sarasota Bay is to the east. Florida state highway 789, a.k.a. the Gulf Drive divides the ultra-narrow island.

Happy travels!

© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff

Photos © Wayne and Judy Bayliff

You can see the world with Google Maps. http://maps.google.com/