Spring Break 1998: Little Palm Island

In retrospect, the pearly-white stretch limo should have been a giveaway. Big as a houseboat and swank as Trump Tower, it was moored grandly at the curb when we arrived in Miami, ready to whisk us to Little Palm Island, a lush, exclusive resort 120 miles away. Our driver, Jim, a genial man nattily attired in white shorts and gleaming-white patent-leather shoes, assured me that the wife and I were in for the time of our lives. “You two lovebirds just relax,” he purred as we sank into the cavernous backseat. A bottle of chilled Cristal was perched seductively on a console.

Little Palm is an island primarily designed for couples who are (a) rich, (b) in love, or (c) in heat. Sadly, Michelle and I fall short on all three counts. Michele is a 27-year-old crime reporter for the Daily News who proudly traces her pedigree back to an Alaskan trailer park. I’m a manic, slightly worse-for-wear editor at this magazine, and while I’m sure my mother still entertains some dim hope of a future Mrs. Roshan, my former colleagues at Queer Week would be rightly skeptical. Still, the idea of a three-day vacation on a remote island was irresistible, especially given the sorry state of our actual affairs.

The drive from Miami to Little Torch Key – where you catch a ferry to Little Palm – took three and a half grueling hours (next time, we vowed, the plane). Greeting us at the dock was Pat, the island’s New Agey, New Jersey-born hostess. “Welcome to Paradise,” she said.

Actually, Little Palm Island is what Gilligan’s Island would look like if the Howells staged a coup and forced everyone else into servitude. In the forties and fifties, it was a vacation site for Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. In 1962, Warner Bros. used it as the setting for PT 109. Even now, there’s a slightly artificial, stage-set feel about the place, with its swaying trees, too-blue water, and gaudy sunsets. The island covers just six acres, every inch of which is constantly being polished, pruned, and painted by roving groundskeepers (every few days, one of them goes around shooting up the Malayan palms, which require regular doses of penicillin to survive here).

Little Palm’s rooms, which will run you from $400 to $725 per night, contain no televisions, telephones, or clocks. Guests who request a wake-up call are obliged by a bellboy who pounds on the door until there’s a response. The sole pay phone on the island is hidden in a wooden kiosk that once served as Truman’s outhouse. Despite the lack of amenities, Little Palm has become a choice destination for privacy-obsessed celebrities from Ivana Trump to Michael Jordan. Drew Barrymore recently sailed over with a dozen girlfriends, and a sobbing Kathie Lee escaped here with Frank to patch things up après l’affaire.

After a quick dinner, we stumbled to our room, eyed each other suspiciously, and rolled onto opposite sides of the bed. The next day, rising early, we bounded out to meet our fellow guests. They seemed less than eager to meet us. There were some two dozen people on the island, almost all of them coupled. The average age was about 40, though there were several twentyish honeymooners, a gaggle of rowdy Euro-retirees, and one mother-daughter team. No one talked to us at all. Desperate for entertainment, I came to rely on a musclebound Fabio type and his bowlegged, Barbiesque girlfriend, who kept bursting into obscene baby talk and groping her fella crudely in the sand.

Thirty straw-topped bungalows are artfully scattered about the island, shaded by lush Jamaican palms and named for local birds – the Tricolor Heron, the Reddish Egret, and the Osprey. Each of the “tikis” has an unobstructed view of the ocean. The wife and I are installed in Suite 15, the Woodpecker. Especially at night, when the trail is pitch-black, it’s all too easy to mistake one bungalow for another (as I found out, to my mortification, not to mention that of the frisky elderly couple next door).

The whole setup is designed to coax even the most contentious couples into connubial bliss (or at least into the bed, which is decorated with leopard throw pillows and dramatically draped in yards of Mombasa mosquito netting). Every bungalow has a wraparound porch with a table and chairs, where you can sip coffee in the morning and dine by candlelight at night. In addition to a roomy Jacuzzi, there’s an outdoor shower, where you can bathe naked under the stars while peeking at the neighbors through bamboo slats.

Actually, despite the island’s small size, it’s easy to avoid human contact, which is, for most who come here, exactly the point. The sole communal activity is sunbathing. Unlike most other areas of the keys, Little Palm Island has a white-sand beach dotted with deck chairs and a forest of azure umbrellas. Next to each umbrella is a tiny pink flag that guests raise to summon immediate service. During the three days we were there, most of our fellow guests were content to lounge on the beach, madly waving their flags, rising only to dip into the pool or to down another mai tai from the bar.

Not that there’s any shortage of activities. In addition to snorkeling, kayaking, fishing, scuba diving, tours of the Keys, and the obligatory sunset cruise, Little Palm features a full-service spa where you can get a facial or a massage. But for most people, including us, the most taxing activity of the day was walking to and from the dining room.

The food at Little Palm is justifiably famous. Chef Michel Reymond has been serving up innovative French-Caribbean cuisine since the place opened ten years ago, and his handiwork with local seafood – keeping things simple to emphasize natural flavors – is clearly the reason why crowds make their way to the island just to dine.

Throughout our stay, Michele had to sign for things as Mrs. Maer Roshan, and soon enough I took to the charade as well. In the morning, we’d take short strolls along the beach. At night, we’d share intimate candlelit dinners by the sea. But then Michele became obsessed with our waiter, Jesse, and it was all over. “Is that any way to treat your husband?” I snapped bitterly, on our last evening, as the pianist played “Bolero” especially for us.

But as Michele wisely noted, it’s a rare couple that can withstand three whole days together alone on a desert island, especially when there’s no cable. “You know,” she mused, as we limoed back to Miami the next morning. “Maybe we’re just not cut out for paradise.”

Spring Break 1998: Little Palm Island