Honeymoons: Magnetic South
Little Palm Island, The Florida Keys
by Valerie Schroth
Try this heavenly honeymoon on for size. For the first few days you lovebirds are ensconced on a gorgeous private island, in a thatch-roofed hut just steps from the sea. You’ll sup on delectable delicacies, see exotic wildlife up close, follow a winding path of crushed seashells to the spa, and laze away your time in the sun. Then, just when you’re beginning to yearn for a little action, you scoot over to a very different island, this one with lots of shops, restaurants and bars—and exotic, wild life all its own.
It’s the perfect mix, and you don’t even have to leave American soil to do it. So start out with two or three nights at Little Palm Island, a tiny whisker of an island accessible only by boat—or seaplane—that’s included in 1000 Places to See Before You Die. (You leave your car at the welcome center on Little Torch Key.)
There’s a small white-sand beach, a to-die-for pool and complimentary Hobie Cats and Boston Whalers you can take out whenever. There are daily scuba and snorkeling expeditions, too, and . . . well, that’s about it on an island this size. There’s not a lot to do, so you don’t do a lot—paradise found. (In fact, the motto emblazoned on hats and T-shirts here is “Do Nothing.”) And, ahem, you are on your honeymoon. We trust you’ll find ways to occupy your time.
We whiled away most of our time at the pool, one of the most inviting I’ve ever seen at a resort, with an undulating edge, scattered chairs arranged for maximum privacy, and a profusion of palms, sea grape, pencil cactus and bougainvillea surrounding it.
Fauna aren’t in short supply either. Among Little Palm’s many cosseted guests (FDR and Harry Truman vacationed here, PT 109 was filmed here; more recently Drew Barrymore paid a visit), none are made more welcome than the petite endangered Key deer that wander among the plantings and sidle right up to your chaise longue for a tasty morsel. It may sound strange but petting these little deer was a highlight of our stay (then again, I’m a sucker for this kind of thing). Another time we saw a sizable iguana by the pool, and once a magnificent heron standing right on its inside ledge.
The suite, with your name out front while you’re in residence, makes a proper love nest (oxymoron?), with an impossibly high bed (there are actually little steps to get up there!) draped in mosquito netting, a sitting room and a spacious porch. There’s an outdoor shower off the bathroom.
Little Palm has only 30 suites, so you’re never in a crowd—in the restaurant, by the pool or on the beach—and the privacy is delicious.
Speaking of delicious, Little Palm’s dining room, which Fodor’s calls one of the most romantic in the Keys (and Zagat rates No. 3 in the U.S. for hotel dining), is truly lovely and perfectly situated for showy sunsets, with torch-lit tables spilling right down to the water’s edge.
The cuisine is “French/Pan Latin” and, not surprisingly, the accent’s on seafood—sparkling-fresh Florida stone crabs, yellowtail snapper, mahi mahi—but there’s always a meat dish or two and often game. Don’t even think about passing up the stellar Key lime pie. As far as romance goes, it doesn’t hurt one bit that the live music every night tends toward torch songs and standards.
Okay, here’s the catch: All of this splendid isolation doesn’t come cheap, or even expensive. In season it’s $1,200 a night for a weeknight, not including meals—but we guarantee it’s an experience you’ll never forget.
And this is why Part 2 of our honeymoon scenario makes such great sense. Make your farewells to Little Palm, reclaim your car and drive to storied Key West, just 28 miles away. Here you’ll find accommodations of every description, at every price point. We stayed at Ocean Key Resort, a good-sized hotel right on the water, with a terrific spa and two restaurants. We had a wonderful suite and spent a good deal of our time on the balcony taking in the passing cavalcade of yachts and giant catamarans, party boats and fishing craft of every description. It’s better than TV!
When you hit the street, you’ll find plenty of other diversions (do try to get to the Key West Museum of Art & History, the Ernest Hemingway Home and the Butterfly & Nature Conservatory) and lots of great restaurants. But in the end, you may well find nothing quite tops the show going on all around you.
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
by Lauren Brancato
Hear that? We don’t either. That’s what’s so great about the beautiful island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. You’ll find pure relaxation and, at times, silence in this oasis. It’s the perfect spot for you and your spouse to really savor the scenery and each other’s company as you begin your married life.
The journey to get here is kind of fun. After flying (passport-free) into the airport on nearby St. Thomas, you will hop on a ferry and be whisked 30 minutes away to St. John, much different than its closest sister island, which is a tourist and cruise-ship hot spot (St. Croix, accessible via seaplane, finishes out the trio, and the British Virgin Islands are a ferry-ride away). While St. Thomas is quite a scene, and definitely worth checking out for a day, St. John is where you wanna be.
And there is only one place you wanna stay: Caneel Bay, a stunning beachfront resort known for low-key luxury. Nestled within the Virgin Islands National Park, the resort features seven secluded beaches—each more beautiful than the last—that border 170 lush Caribbean acres. Yes, 170 acres (the property was once a sugar plantation). Don’t worry: There are shuttles that will take you here and there, but we think you’ll find walking throughout the property to be quite enjoyable. You’re sure to catch a glimpse of the gentle wildlife that call Caneel Bay its home, including deer and donkeys.
The good thing about Caneel Bay is that no matter which of the 166 accommodations you stay in—Garden View, Ocean View, Beach Front, Beach Front Suite and Cottage among the options—it’s going to be gorgeous, not to mention comfortable. Each retreat is decorated with natural woods, native stone and richly woven fabrics, and features handcrafted furniture and plantation shutters. But don’t look for a television or a phone—the rooms are purposefully absent of them. I promise you won’t even notice the difference.
After you’re settled in your room, it’s time to explore the expansive property. Visit each of the beaches and spend the day soaking up the warm sun or splashing in the calm, clear water. Sign out snorkel gear from the water sports office and get to exploring (keep an eye out for sea turtles!). You can even partake in some of the resort-sponsored activities at an additional charge, such as scuba diving, fishing charters, sailing trips or a sunset cocktail cruise. Non-water activities not to be missed include tennis instruction and watercolor lessons.
Of course, it’s not a honeymoon without a spa treatment. Visit the massage center for not only massages but aromatherapy treatments, aloe wraps and facials. Enjoy an instructional couple’s massage, where under the guidance of a massage therapist you will learn to give each other a basic massage. Even better, do all this in a private massage cabana, which is as peaceful as it sounds.
Dining options abound here. Turtle Bay Estate House, the resort’s most elegant restaurant, serves classic American dishes with a steakhouse-inspired theme. Nearby is the Wine Room at Turtle Bay, housed within the walls of an 18th-century plantation house, which seats up to 10 for private dinners. Equator Restaurant, located atop the sugar mill ruins, overlooks not only Caneel Bay but St. Thomas and features Caribbean delicacies. Next to the main lobby and dock is Caneel Beach Terrace, an open-air restaurant that serves a great brunch. There’s also the casual Caneel Beach Bar and Grill, offering burgers and fries, sandwiches and salads.
And since it’s your honeymoon, you’ve got to splurge on a private beachside dinner. The six-course gourmet meal is to die for. Stick your feet in the sand as you dine among tiki torches and crashing waves, and raise a glass to your new life together.
For more info, call (888) 767-3966 or visit caneelbay.com.
Paradise Island, Bahamas
by Charles A. Monagan
Today’s honeymooners can thank Huntington Hartford, spendthrift playboy and heir to the A&P fortune, for his keen eye for real estate and his exquisite timing in making a deal. On a trip to Nassau in the Bahamas in the late 1950s, he fell in love with adjacent Hog Island, a largely undeveloped gem in the rough dominated by Electrolux founder Axel Wenner-Gren’s seaside villa. When Wenner-Gren’s fortunes took a dive in 1961, Hartford made sure he was there to scoop it all up for a bargain-basement $9.5 million.
The first thing he did was fairly obvious: He changed Hog’s name to Paradise, thus boosting the island’s sex appeal in one broad stroke. Then he built a 52-room hotel and guest cottages, dining room, marina and golf course, and named the place the Ocean Club. The resort soon became the darling of the celebrities, European royalty, fashion designers and assorted hangers-on who constituted what was then called the “Jet Set.”
Those names and faces may have disappeared over the course of the intervening 50 years, but Paradise Island’s charms remain. Its warm sands are timeless, as are its gentle breezes and turquoise waters. Ditto for the luxuriant gardens that Wenner-Gren created and Hartford embellished with statuary, terraces and even a 12th-century cloister—all of which remain in place for leisurely strolls and romantic interludes.
The basics thus assured, as the 21st century arrived the Ocean Club was poised to be reborn as a first-rate contemporary destination. With an investment of well over $100 million from Kerzner International, Ocean Club was thoroughly reimagined and expertly recommitted to luxury. There are now splendid beachfront accommodations; a restaurant, Dune, the brainchild of famed restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten, that strikes the perfect, much sought after balance between casual and elegant; a championship golf course designed by Tom Weiskopf; and a new Balinese-inspired spa where the sounds of the sea and press of expert fingers induce a sense of well-being bordering on euphoria. There’s even an awkward new name—One&Only Ocean Club.
Be that as it may, the resort remains especially friendly to honeymooners. The rooms are luxurious, attractive, and in most cases delightfully private. There are very handsome one- and two-bedroom suites, where we lodged happily during a recent visit. You should also consider the residential-style villas that perch above the surf beach and offer the services of a “villa host” who is dedicated to catering to your every whim. In addition, honeymooners are automatically eligible for an upgrade based on availability, early check-in/late checkout, a special welcome amenity and departure gift.
If you are getting married this fall, you might also look into the resort’s Celebrating Romance in Paradise package, valid for travel by Dec. 17, 2011. The five-night special includes luxurious accommodations, private round-trip airport transfers for two, daily full breakfast for two at Dune or in-room dining, a romantic amenity, one 140-minute Swedish massage for two and a romantic turn-down service on the final night.
For more info, call (888) 528-7157 or visit oceanclub.oneandonlyresorts.com.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
by Dale B. Salm
At first blush Fort Lauderdale may not have the romantic cachet of, say, bali, but it’s a surprisingly delightful—and multifaceted—destination. Since the city’s spring-break heyday, upscale hotels have moved in along the three-mile beach, restaurants and shops have gone up several notches in sophistication and Fort Lauderdale today qualifies as a top vacation spot. It’s especially alluring fall through winter, high time for couples who like the idea of spending a few relaxing days in the sun in a small city by the sea in mainland USA, and that includes honeymooners like you from Connecticut.
For our honeymoon trial run we decided on The Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale, and loved it from the moment we stepped into the grand marble lobby and glimpsed the sun-splashed beach just beyond. We were greeted with a cool drink and a warm smile, a sign that true to its Ritz-Carlton mantra (“ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen”), it’s all about gracious service here—and luxe accommodations.
And indeed our room, a class act with balcony overlooking the beach (some rooms overlook both the beach and the mansion-and-yacht-lined Intracoastal, a bonus in the water-view department), was richly appointed and spacious. We could have danced all night/day here, but first things first.
We quickly discovered what would become our base of operations: the eighth-floor pool deck, and a row of private cabanas—with flat-screen TVs, fridges, iPod docking stations and couples’ massages on request—one level below. From pool and cabana, our eyes were drawn across the way to the blue Atlantic, with surfers surfing, kites flying, megayachts and cruise ships gliding by. Midafternoon, when the sun went down poolside, we’d head to the beach, or to the hotel’s serene all-organic spa (we suggest a deep-tissue massage for your love, the Intuitive Ocean Treatment for you—ask for Maria of the magic hands). Suitably tanned and refreshed, you’ll enjoy dinner in the hotel’s elegant Via Luna, whose memories to savor run from Via Luna meatballs (the chef’s mother’s recipe) to heavenly Nutella beignets. For a wine tasting before dinner or a more private dining venue, reserve the wine vault (they supply wraps since, baby, it’s cold inside).
Dining options don’t end in the hotel, as sublime as it may be, and you’ll want to explore, of course. A block away we found piano bar/restaurant Casablanca, complete with whirlng fans, sidewalk tables ideal for people watching and a crowd-pleasing menu (recommended: “Up East” chowder and Chilean sea bass with ginger-mango chutney). Another night found us at the über-hip W Fort Lauderdale and its sleek Steven Starr restaurant, Steak 954 (named for the local area code), the place for Kobe cuts, sinful sides (e.g., truffle potato gratin) and a cool aquarium backdrop.
For downtown action, we hopped a water taxi—“the Venice of America” is known for its canals—to Las Olas, a lively allée of chic shops and galleries, restaurants and night spots (think Florida’s answer to Paris’ Left Bank), and the nearby Broward Center for the Performing Arts (look for Rain, Jersey Boys and Billy Elliot). Farther afield we alighted on Butterfly World, a dreamscape of butterflies, birds and blossoms that was pure enchantment.
Finally, since Fort Lauderdale is America’s cruise-ship capital (55 ships set sail here), you can easily extend your honeymoon onto the high seas—which we did. If your style is small and classy, you’ll find Nirvana on the 225 all-suite Seabourn Sojourn. We felt blissfully comfortable and cosseted on the liner that’s raised the bar for small-ship luxury, even on our all-too-short two-day cruise to nowhere. If time and money allow, Sojourn cruises the world.
If big and glitzy is more your style, go for Royal Caribbean’s 2,700-room megaship, Allure of the Seas. Everything here is on a grand scale, from 26 restaurants to a 29-room spa to a Vegas-style casino. Again, we did a two-day cruise to nowhere but if you’re island-minded, Allure sails the Caribbean.
And you thought Fort Lauderdale was stuck in spring-break time! It’s clearly come of age, and is beckoning you and your love to test the waters, and sail on.
Beaches of South Walton, Fla.
by Patricia Grandjean
Some call it the “Redneck Riviera.”
A joke, of course, but still unfair to the Beaches of South Walton, implying that these 15 distinct planned communities situated largely along scenic Scenic Route 30-A of the Northwest Florida panhandle—right on the Gulf of Mexico—all offer the same kind of glitz. Not at all. They each provide far differing vacation options, and all with class. There’s Sandestin, home to the ginormous, family-friendly Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort; Rosemary Beach, quaint and funky, recalling the architecture of the Dutch West Indies; Alys Beach, a blend of Bermuda and the Arabian Nights (and whiter than John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “white period”); and Grayton Beach, known for Grayton Beach State Park, a hiker and naturalist’s paradise.
Then there’s WaterColor, impossible to overpraise. Encompassing 499 acres with 1,000 homes and homesites, bordered by 1,400 linear feet of beachfront (the sugar white-sanded Santa Rosa Beach) and nestled up against a rare 220-acre coastal dune lake (Western Lake), its crown jewel is the 60-room WaterColor Inn and Resort, the region’s only AAA four-diamond hotel. Defined by the Southern vernacular architecture of the surrounding community, the resort was designed by New York City wunderkind David Rockwell, CEO of the internationally famed Rockwell Group, whose clients include Disney, NBC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
A fan of immersive environments, Rockwell designed the inn so that every room looks out over the water; in an attempt to give guests the sensation of showering in an outdoor cabana, he created oversized, glass-topped walk-in showers with unfettered views of the gulf. The illusion works, and it contributes to the oxymoronic feel of the resort as a luxurious beach cottage. So do innumerable little touches: the custom metal door handles resemble sea-grass reeds, the evening turn-down service comes with homemade chocolate-chip cookies, and bath amenities (shampoo, body lotion, etc.) are packaged in faux watercolor-paint tubes. All the accommodations have been recently renovated to strengthen the cottage metaphor, redesigned in colors of sand and ocean blue.
Diversions abound. Fish Out of Water, the resort’s signature restaurant, offers incred-ible, just-out-of-the-ocean seafood—we could have made many meals out of the Apalachicola Bay Oysters—and landlocked entrées like an Oregon Lamb Tasting (loin, ribs and sausage) and Amish Bricked Chicken. Guests gather like pilgrims at a shrine on the roughhewn wooden beach bridge that connects with Fish’s wraparound porch to view the spectacular sunsets. There’s a small spa in the inn and golf courses, tennis courts and pools readily at hand, but for something completely different, we suggest stopping by the WaterColor Boathouse for a YOLO (You Only Live Once) paddleboarding lesson on Western Lake—kind of like kayaking while standing on a surfboard. The best way to explore all the possibilities is to tour the community on your complimentary beach bikes.
As the bike rolls, it’s just a blip of a trip down Route 30-A (and really, a not much longer walk) to South Walton’s neighboring community, Seaside, our favorite simply for its diversity. The population is so small (1,228) that cats and dogs are included in the official count, yet within its 80 acres you’ll view every style of architecture from Victorian to Deconstructivism—making Seaside a “must-visit” for design schools all over the U.S.—and discover a lively cultural scene that includes a weekly farmers’ market, the thriving Seaside Repertory Theater and the Seaside Neighborhood School, established in 1995—one of Florida’s first charter schools.
For a quick nosh, head to “Airstream Alley”—a lineup of outdoor cafés in classic silver trailers adjacent to the Seaside Post Office—and pick out The Meltdown on 30A, local chef Jim Shirley’s gourmet grilled-cheese shop (we wish we could mail-order the goat cheese, prosciutto, arugula & tomato combo). When it’s time for serious dining, Shirley’s main gig, The Great Southern Café, couldn’t be more aptly named—especially for its magical signature dish, Grits à Ya Ya, which we doubted at first glance, but can assert that once you try it, you’ll be hooked.
Maximum wallet damage can be achieved at Fusion Art Glass Gallery, offering many beautiful shimmery things; Central Square Records, enlivened by one of the most iconic indie record store clerks who ever lived (ask for Hunter); and La Vie Est Belle, almost entirely devoted to fabulous leather and pearl jewelry by Connecticut native Wendy Mignot—you’ll see it worn widely in South Walton County. A small connection to home that we were charmed to find in a panhandle far, far away.