Little Palm Island
Although I’ve gone by many names, I’m now called Little Palm Island. My story begins five hundred million years ago. You won’t believe how much has happened since.
Five hundred million years ago, I was a living coral reef. My present shape rose on the remains of that ancient reef a mere 2 million years ago. This was during the Pleistocene period, when sabre tooth tigers and mammoths and giant sloths roamed the earth. It is also when you Homo Sapiens migrated, seeking out places to farm and to hunt. By the end of this period, all those animals I mentioned were extinct, and large portions of the globe were frosted over with glaciers, in the phenomenon known as the Ice Age.
This movement and flow of the glaciers caused sandy shoals to gradually accumulate on my foundation, the ancient reef skeleton. As the sands built to forty feet or less from the surface, photosynthesis occurred, and tiny, meat-eating creatures called polyps grew. The scratchy exterior of polyps is called “coral,” and the class of this species, anthozoa, translates to “flower animal.” I was an underwater landscape of caves, mountains and valleys, sculpted of flower-animals. I was, in other words, a live coral reef for the second time.
Roughly 100,000 years ago, the Polar caps closed in on the center of the globe, and my life as a coral reef ended once more. Fresh water rushed to these giant glaciers, lowering the water level and exposing me to devastating sunlight. By then, my polyps had created quite a graveyard of calcium carbonate as they died and deteriorated, and when the water dropped, a landmass of coral sand surfaced. Birds and wind and water carried seeds to this dry patch, and as the life cycle progressed, I became one of 882 landmasses that popped up off the tip of Florida. We look like islands, but with bases of coral, we are officially Keys. Some say “Key” is the Anglo-sized version of “Cayo,” the Spanish word for “island”.
Native North American tribes migrated down to the Keys as early as 8,000 years ago, and may have been able to walk the full length of us, like a long footpath, to the Dry Tortugas. Ancient sites have been uncovered that would date these civilizations to 3,000 years before the earliest Mesopotamian cities. It was also during this period that herds of deer came down from Florida and settled in the Keys. They would later become known as “Key deer,” and they’ll appear later in my story.
In 1513, the Spaniard Ponce de Leon set off from Puerto Rico, searching for the fountain of youth. He bumped into land around the city now known as St. Augustine, and since it was Easter and the place was full of flowers, he called it La Florida: the place of many flowers. Despite his fondness for La Florida, the natives never liked him, and killed him with an arrow after some time. He died believing La Florida to be an island. It became a state in 1845, when the United States purchased the land from Spain. To emphasize the limits of this purchase, the United States sent Lieutenant Perry to plant a United States flag in what is now Mallory Square, Key West. I, along with the other Keys, became a documented portion of the United States that day.
In 1884, I was granted to E.O. Locke and Janies W. Locke, who sold me on April 15, 1921 to Charles “Newt” Munson and his wife Ada, of Deep River, Connecticut. Like an offspring, I became known as “Little Munson”. Newt had also bought my three closest neighbors, but it seemed I was his favorite, since I was where he set up camp. When he desired a motorboat, he placed an ad in a yachting magazine offering to trade one of his other islands for a boat. Captain Percy Cook, a descendant of Captain James Cook, who explored the Hawaiian Islands, approached him about the sale. Percy Cook loved big game hunting and once owned a lion that slept beside his bed. He did not have a motorboat, but he had money and wanted the island. When he approached Munson about a purchase, Munson looked at him and said something like “Let’s see if you deserve it,” because he wasn’t sure he liked Mr. Cook that much. The men set off on Munson’s sailboat, and Munson soon spotted a gigantic sea turtle paddling alongside their vessel. The mate threw a harpoon and missed, and at this point, Munson turned to Cook and asked how he, Cook, would capture the sea creature. Recalling fishermen he’d watched in the South Pacific, Cook hurled himself into the water and onto the curved shell of the turtle. He wrapped his arms around the body and held the head up above water until Munson could maneuver with the boat and help him lasso it. Back ashore, the men drank demijohns of rum and closed the deal on what is still called Cook’s island, my nearest neighbor.
Munson preferred a drink called aguardiente––a white-lightening style rum made from the first run of sugar cane––and often sat under a palm tree sipping it while Ada sipped gin. The two wintered in the Keys, but the rest of the year, my caretakers were Ted and Gloriana Bayley, who were good friends of the Munsons. The Munsons and the Bayleys jointly owned a 55’ motor sailer called “The Cruz del Sol.” It was a regal vessel, with four staterooms with full-length mirrors, a galley, a salon and a bathroom. On the back of a photograph of this boat, Gloriana wrote “it sleeps ten comfortably and has the cutest little kitchen and bath.” The couples had also arranged to have a large house from Camp Johnson near Jacksonville barged down in sections and rebuilt on my north side in 1924. Gloriana’s note on a photograph of this house states: “the house is ninety feet long and roughly forty feet wide and is a regular rich man’s home.” This five-bedroom bungalow became known as the Great House, and is, today, the basic structure of the Little Palm Island restaurant. In addition, the Munsons planted hundreds of Jamaican Tall palms, which still stand, and cut a pathway through my middle, which is the blueprint of the pathway walked by visitors today. They also built a dock, which is still the main dock, and enjoyed fishing off of it. Glorianna wrote she “caught a huge stingray with a long tail.”
In an interview many years later, the Bayleys spoke of the “playful” spirit of the Munsons, and how much the pair loved to play practical jokes. When they left for the season, the Munsons once put scorpions made of black silk, but very real looking, under the covers of the bed in the master bedroom. They liked to leave rubber snakes around the island, and clank heavy chains in the middle of the night to scare the daylights out of visitors. There was, of course, no electricity, and nights were truly and utterly dark.
The last time Munson left, it was to travel home to New York City to die. A large police dog remained behind to guard the island. Legend has it that on the day of the news of Munson’s death, the dog mysteriously vanished. Searchers found him several days later, under an overturned skiff, where he had quietly hidden to die. Munson had deeded me to his secretary, Ruth Ellison, for a dollar. Earlier, he’d given her the neighbor island, “Big Munson,” but she didn’t really want either one of us. For two years, Ruth operated me as a fishing camp and stopover point, selling oil, gas and groceries. On Ramrod Key, you may see signs for Munson drive, named for my first inhabitant. But I prefer to think of my palm trees as his legacy.
In 1935, a terrible hurricane swept through the upper Keys, destroying the overseas railroad and drowning many hundreds of souls. Since the overseas highway had not yet been built, the land around my parts wasn’t worth peanuts. This was during the years of President Roosevelt, who had won the presidency by a landslide, and was trying to bring the country out of the Great Depression. People in the Keys had it better than in many places, because they could fish and grow vegetables and tropical fruits. A lot of squatters lived in the Keys, making a life on the land, and living rudimentary lives, but eating lobster and pineapple. Crawfish, it was said, was so abundant, people had to keep their doors closed or the crawfish would crawl into their living rooms. In comparison to many places, life wasn’t bad down in the Keys.
In 1936, Ruth sold me for $50,000 to the Andersons, a brass extracting family from Chicago. The Andersons paid $50 a month to a local crawfisher nicknamed Ludy Travejo and his wife Dorothy, who served as my caretakers for the next 16 years. The pair built two hurricane-proof shelters with thick, concrete walls. Two severe hurricanes in 1948, one of which moved all my sands from one end to the other, and put Ramrod Key five feet under water, did not so much as rattle these forts. If you visit the gift shop on the island, you’ll notice two small annexes, where swimsuits, sunglasses and purses are arranged. Touch the walls, and you’ll discover they are solid concrete, thanks to the Travejos.
Ludy and Dorothy lived on the island during World War II, and spoke of watching German tankers prowl the Gulf of Mexico. As carrier ships struck the reef or were otherwise sunk, provisions often washed up on my shores, including cases of Spam, coffee, aguardiente (which Ludy mixed with rainwater and called “a real fine drink, with the kick of a white mule”) and sacks of soggy but salvageable flour. Ludy and Dorothy had a son named Tommy, and when he was four, they decided they needed to move to Summerland so he could go to school.
In 1956, the Munson Island Company purchased me from the Andersons for a reported $50,000. President, director and chief stockholder of this company was John Spottswood, the sheriff of Key West, so some began to call me “Sheriff’s Island” then. I was supposed to become the Munson Island Fishing Camp, an exclusive destination, but I stayed simple and rustic. Nevertheless, I hosted many famous people in those years, including Governor George Wallace, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and, I’m proud to say, President Truman himself. He even used my outhouse, as I still had no plumbing or electricity. A few photographs show Truman fishing during his visit to my shores, but I have heard that it was actually Bess who liked fishing.
My break––my foray into Hollywood, if you will–––came when Mr. Spottswood arranged for me to be the setting for PT 109 in 1962. The film tells the story of John F. Kennedy’s ship, PT 109, which was struck by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri in Tulagi, the Solomon Islands in 1943. Cliff Robertson played the heroic, future president, and my owner John Spottswood played Lt. Cluster, the skipper. Thirty Key West natives wearing face paint played the island natives, and three ships with different numbers stenciled on them played the “fleet.” It’s frightening to watch me getting bombed, but keep in mind it’s not real. The movie didn’t earn the greatest reviews. Newsweek magazine not only panned it but wrote I was “a palm-covered, gnat-ridden mosquito-infested, 8-acre sand dab, broiling under the sun amidst the tepid, shark-infested waters of Florida.” Of all the nerve! The article further stated that Warner Brother;s had been forced to spay 15 gallons of insecticide every day and that “dozens of water moccasins” had been killed. Water moccasins don’t even live here in the Keys.
During the filming, I received quite a makeover. The way the story is usually told, Senator Joseph Kennedy didn’t think his son, John, should endure the sound of generators when he came to visit the movie set, so he supposedly arranged to have electric wires strung from the nearest Key, three and a half miles away. This operation created quite a scandal in the local press, because my owner, John Spottswood didn’t pay the installation fee, or the electric bill, for five years, when the electric company sued him for $70,000. If truth be told, John F. Kennedy never set foot here. But I got electricity.
After my knockout performance in the film, I was occasionally employed as a training camp for Peace Corps workers bound for the South Pacific. You can still order a drink called the PT 109 at the bar. A drawing for the set of the film is in the fitness room, and a model of PT 109 is in the Quarterdeck. My star quality lingers, but I don’t make a big deal of it.
I was briefly owned by County Johnson, the Georgia owner of KOA campgrounds, who planned to build an elegant house on me, but never got that far. After that, Homer Formby purchased me. Formby was an authority on wood finishes, wood restoration and wood surfaces. The man really liked wood, as had his family for five generations. His stains, varnishes and polishes are still considered the best on the market, and you may even have used them yourself, if you like projects. Formby and first his wife and then his diamond-clad girlfriends, used me as a winter retreat, but also had a place on the mainland, in Marathon. In 1972, a journalist wrote of me “the dock is crumbling and the old house is being consumed by termites,” but also noted a “conch corral” in one of my lagoons, which is where my caretaker, Cliff, kept a dozen or so conchs handy for making conch chowder. The journalist also described two turtle nests, and mentioned that Cliff planned to hand them over to a turtle kraal on Ramrod when the eggs hatched.
Homer tried to sell me in 1982, but my temporary owners were only looking for a safe marina between the U.S. and the Caribbean, in order to smuggle in cocaine. A group of Federal lawmen busted them in a 1983 sting operation, and my lease returned to Formby.
Formby was from Memphis, Tennessee, and word of my availability reached a developer there by the name of Ben Woodson, who happened to be interested in building a tropical resort. Mr. Woodson later likened this ambition to Herman Wouk’s character in Don’t Stop the Carnival, which tells the story of an urbanite who thinks it would be fun to run a tropical resort, and finds it to be otherwise. Luckily for him, Woodson had a friend named Worth Brown, a bond trader, who had decided to quit “ screaming and shouting and trying not to lose large sums of money in a crazy market.” The two traveled to the Keys on January 30, 1986. On the way down, Mr. Brown bought a Graham Greene book, in which he inscribed the words “On my way to Key West to look at some damn island.”
As it happened, the men from Memphis loved me. They didn’t want to leave. They had to fight with the owner of the Domino’s Pizza chain to get me, but eventually they did. I was by now worth a pretty penny––––1.6 million, to be exact, with a few houses on Summerland tossed in as incentives. Woodson and Brown and the other partners were determined to make me as spectacular as the Kona resort in Hawaii, only a lot closer to home.
A few problems arose at this point.
For one, I now belonged to a wildlife refuge. Remember those little deer that traipsed down from the Everglades before the sea rose and stranded them? They were now called Key deer. In 1957, an 11-year old boy wrote letters to the government on the deer’s behalf, saying he had noticed a decrease in their numbers. After an investigation, the National Key Deer Refuge was established, and in 1967, Key deer were declared an endangered species. While Woodson and the other owners looked forward to hanging hammocks between Jamaican palms, and entertaining and drinking rum cocktails, local environmentalists were determined to prevent them. So agents came and counted deer droppings. They noted the different forms of turtle grass and seagrass, and banned several convenient docking points from being docking points. It took two years and twenty-three agencies to get all the permits, not to mention a ton of extra money no one especially had, but in September1988, the partners invited a few Memphis friends to spend the weekend at their resort. In order to call me a “resort,” and be able to charge money, they had to scramble to buy resort-ish provisions, including soap, towels and sheets. No one had thought of that stuff until the very last minute.
The guests stayed in the five gussied-up bedrooms of the Great House, with shared bathrooms, communal dining, no air conditioning and nothing but scampering raccoons to entertain them. It was, as Woodson said, “hardly Condé Nast material”. But the bar stayed open 24 hours a day, people relaxed and they fell in love with me. Word reached a Miami Herald reporter, and then a journalist from USA Today. Given my natural good looks, I was an instant hit.
I was also a labor of love. Gene Harris, one of my owners, took charge of building. Jack Rice, another owner, lived on his boat with his dog, Bucky, and checked guests in and out. Ben Woodson walked around doing everything, and Worth Brown tore his hair out and wondered how he’d gotten into this mess. He found himself supervising Mexican migrant workers as they wove my “palapa” thatched roofs, and sweet-talking contractors who worked at a snail’s pace, and helping Gene Harris plant landscape plants faster than the Key deer could gobble them. Key deer were spreading the word amongst themselves and would swim over in packs to nibble on the restaurant’s herb gardens and flowering plants. You’ll notice a proliferation of oleander these days. Deer will not eat this, as it is poisonous. Our gardeners are experts in deer-proof landscaping, but it’s a constant battle.
There were a few glitches in the original design of the suites, such as the fact that the doors to the outdoor showers often locked behind the guests. After showering, they found themselves stuck on the outside, and if there wasn’t anyone to unlock the door inside, or they didn’t have a towel, an awkward situation rose. Gary Dunn, a player for the Steelers, could only find his wife’s bikini bottom, so that’s what he put on and wore to the Quarterdeck in search of another key. One bridegroom wasn’t as fortunate. All he could find to put on was a pool chair.
Two early guests of the resort were Joe and Lindy Roth, the owners of the Holiday Isle Resort in Islamorada. They spent the day, drank their share of PT 109s, ate dinner, spent the night, and then remembered they had brought no cash or credit cards. They told Jack Rice to call their friend Gene Harris, who would vouch for them, and to please send their bill on to Holiday Isle. The next day, Ben Woodson walked into the office of Holiday Isle to collect. He and the Roths hit it off, and at this point Woodson revealed to them a little problem they were having on the island. Which was that no one knew a thing about the “carnival” of the hotel business.
The Roths bought out three of the original partners, bringing the total down to five. They also joined the class of working-owners, helping with marketing, financial planning and other hotel-industry stuff I can’t worry my pretty palm-laden head about. Lindy worked as the island’s first concierge, and her contacts with travel agents brought me all kinds of media attention. Since I opened in 1988, I’ve hosted people you read about in magazines, and watch on TV and see in Hollywood movies. Jill St. John and Robert Wagner spent their honeymoon here in 1990. The day they were supposed to meet Paul Newman and Mario Andretti for dinner, I was struck by lightening and lost my electricity. When the panicked owners got the generators running again, the honeymooners confessed they’d liked it better in the dark. When Rachel Hunter was here modeling for Sports Illustrated, Rod Stewart sent her a dozen yellow roses every single day. I can’t even count the number of proposals and weddings and anniversaries that have taken place within my perimeters. Romance, you see, is my power source–––the electricity that never goes out.
Famous people and celebrities escape here all the time, and sigh with relief at the privacy and anonymity they find. Some of my guests include Joan Lunden, Michael Keaton, Drew Barrymore, Ivana Trump, Dan Marino, Kenny G., Jeb Bush, Katie Couric, and Cameron Diaz, to name only a few. When Al and Tipper Gore visited, the secret service men tried to blend in by wearing Hawaiian shirts over their bullet-proof vests. They tucked themselves into the landscaping, and tried to look natural. Yeah right.
The most common description I hear about me is that I’m “paradise.” When people set foot on my beaches, they know they have arrived somewhere special. They ease into a different, more barefoot way of living. No wonder every imaginable magazine has featured stories about me, from Playgirl to Travel & Leisure. A favorite topic for these glossies has been my dining room, because from the start, it’s been pretty exceptional.
When I became Little Palm Island, my new owners taste-tested the cooking of four different chefs, and finally selected Michel Reymond from Switzerland. He was a classically trained chef, equally comfortable grilling antelope or sautéing scallops. It’s hard to imagine how wild mushrooms, caviar, cured salmon, French cheese and cases of wine and Champagne make it from marketplace to my tiny shores, but year after year, that is exactly what happens. Chef Michel played with luxurious flavors, teaming veal sweetbreads with a shallot-Cabernet reduction, or topping grilled tuna loin with grilled duck foie gras. He served pan-seared ostrich with a goat cheese strudel, and skate wings with pomegranate sauce. People couldn’t believe they could wander so far from “civilization” and still eat so well. For years, chef Michel served a chocolate soufflé, but he had to stop allowing it to be ordered for room service, because the chocolate kept ruining the netting hanging over the beds. Don’t ask me for more information: I’m good at keeping secrets.
Another memorable room service story from those years was the couple that ordered cases of champagne to pour in the Jacuzzi. Needless to say, people like to come here and live it up, enjoying decadence as well as simple pleasures. Oh, if my walls could talk….
Except, they don’t talk. One of the reasons people return to me is for my silence. Ben Woodson’s motto was “Do nothing time is too important to waste” and he had these words inscribed inside the coffee mugs. He wanted Little Palm Island to be a sanctuary from the hectic world, and from the moneymaking rat race represented by the 1980’s. This is why there are no televisions, faxes or phones in the suites. Woodson wanted people to turn off their cell phones and take off their business clothes and leave all the craziness behind. He hoped, instead, that guests would slow down, and walk to breakfast in their robes, and listen to the wind swishing the palm trees, or better yet, ride into the water on a sunfish or a windsurf board. Instead of working, he hoped people would snorkel and fish and ride pedal boats. Instead of talking on the phone, people could mingle with the Key deer, who swim from Big Pine Key, and beg for scraps in the dining room, or Slim, the great blue heron who washed his catches in the swimming pool, or Harry and Bess, the green parrots, or “Chardonnay,” the box turtle, who was so named because if you saw him and could prove it, you won a bottle of Chardonnay. Most of all, Woodson hoped people would kick back in a hammock and look up at the stars, and reconnect with a loved one or with a quieter part of themselves. From my point of view, it doesn’t matter if you are famous or the boss or the president, because you’re just another set of bare feet, strolling my beach. I hope you like it that way, because it’s what I have to offer.
In 1996, I changed hands again and became part of Noble House, a group of boutique hotels. By then, it was time for a makeover, and makeovers are Noble House’s specialty. My suites were refurnished and my gardens were plumped with lovely orchids and greenery and trees. A giant chess set arrived, along with carved teak from Bali. River stones, a pond and a Japanese tori gate created a new mediation garden. My spa developed, too, and began to offer such exotic body treatments as Balinese rituals, aromatherapy, and hot rock massage. It was as if I’d grown into the most perfect dream anybody could have for me.
With Noble House, came corporate executive chef Adam Votaw, who emerged from a solid career in Michelin-star restaurants, five-star hotels, Relais & Chateaux and some of South Florida’s most innovative dining rooms. Grounded in French and Asian traditions, Votaw spun world flavors with “Floribbean” whimsy, and produced such signature dishes as the lobster “martini,” the “black and blue” tuna, sugar-crusted salmon and dashi duck.
The media focused much attention on my new look and my new substance, and business soared. Then, on September 25 1998, hurricane Georges hit. Everyone evacuated save for the General Manager, who holed up in the Quarterdeck, my highest structure, and spent a day listening to nature howl sustained, 120 mph winds. His only company was one of the security guards and a lone crab, who scuttled in to cling to the pipes in the laundry room. The manager watched the ocean flood my pathways like Roman aqueducts, part of a nine foot surge that lasted close to five hours. The next time he looked, bottles from the mini bars were coursing by like logs bound for the mill, accompanied by shredded flags, upholstery and parts of what used to be my beautiful suites. He watched a sailboat fly into the Gulf of Mexico and palapa roofs spin by like tops. You can’t imagine the noise of such a storm unless you’ve been in one. It sounds like the full-volume static of a million disrupted televisions.
After it ended, I looked a fright.
My swimming pool was chock full of bracken and resembled a swamp. My landscape had been grinded by wind and sand, and only the hardiest trees, including Munson’s Jamaican palms, remained standing. My grounds were thatched in fallen palm fronds. The total damage on my 3.7 acres was a whopping 10 million dollars. Noble House began an extensive, three-month reconstruction, which they used as an opportunity to upgrade my chambers, grounds, spa and restaurant. My new décor is a mix of Indonesian, Polynesian and island colonial, with contrasts of mohaghany, rattan and crystal. The palapa roofs are steel-reinforced now, and will sustain hurricane-force winds, next time they blow. I have to say that I look better than ever, and every time the major travel magazines rank the world’s best resorts, I’m consistently high on the list.
In 2006, Luis Pous, originally from Cuba, took over the kitchen of my dining room, adding the flavors of his homeland, so close, as well as those of Mexico, Spain and the Caribbean to gourmet ingredients from all over the world. His dishes stand on the cutting edge of dining (listen to me, what an expert I’ve become!) with temptations like a seafood tower, tiraditos, chowders, Kobe beef and the zip of exciting South American peppers.
On the morning of Sunday, September 10, 2017, the eye of Hurricane Irma struck Cudjoe Key, eleven miles from my shores. With sustaining winds of 130 mph, it registered as a Category 4 storm. With nothing to protect me from the brunt of the largest hurricane in recorded history, I took a beating. Aerial photos from the first flyovers depict me as a wasteland, and early reports described me as essentially gone. But, like everything about the keys, I rebound. Days after the storm passed, new leaves were already unfurling on the native plants, and before the end of the year, my renovations were already underway. This is how it goes here: we bounce back. As March 1, 2020, approaches, I’m in the final stages of a lavish and loving rebuild. I will return better than ever to once again beguile those who visit me. And, to begin a new chapter of stories.
So there you have it; my story, so far. I’ve been an underwater fossil, a coral reef, an aviary, a hideaway, a stopover, a camp, a retreat, a love nest, a dream, a site of both destruction and loving care. But I have always been paradise, and paradise is what I will remain.