Up at the bar, a willowy Bahamian ballerina is dancing... to Cher. A New Yorker in chef whites steps up to croon Sinatra’s paean to his home city, followed by a French chanteuse’s rendering of La Vie en Rose.
Life is indeed rosy here in Paradise – or, to be precise, Paradise Pizza, at Palm Heights, one of the Caribbean’s most talked-about new hotels. Coloured lights strung from palm trees cast a warm glow on diners’ faces, every table is full, and waiters flit about with sharing plates of meatballs, truffle-veined cheese, cannelloni parmigiano ladled theatrically from a hollowed-out wheel of padano, the happy hubbub bordering on raucous once the karaoke gets going.
So diverse is the gathering – young and old, black and white, billionaires and bohemians – that this could be Miami, Tangier, Tulum... Certainly, it is not what I expected to find in the Cayman Islands, with its reputation as a tax haven for English bankers.
Palm Heights is a game-changer for the Caymans. It is the archipelago’s first properly stylish boutique hotel and its bold, unexpected design is bringing a new type of traveller to Grand Cayman. Its buzzy restaurants and inclusive cultural events have made it a hit with islanders, too.
The next morning at breakfast, it is a different scene – more Salcombe than South Beach. Well-preserved empty nesters, well-groomed gay couples and multigenerational families sit at low tables set in the white coral sand of Seven Mile Beach, one of the most sensational stretches of sand in the world. Grandparents sip Earl Grey and read their Kindles in the shade of potted palms, while grandchildren play in the turquoise sea, extraordinarily vibrant even by Caribbean standards.
Grand Cayman’s coastline is where its treasures lie. This is why some choose this particular island over others with richer culinary, musical and artistic cultures. It’s an unusual blend of British, American and Antillian: you drive on the left, in right-hand-drive SUVs, incredibly slowly. Wild chickens strut around manicured roundabouts. And it is a safe, easy playground for watersports.
The island is a horseshoe encircling a lagoon, where paddleboarders and kayakers scull through mangroves alive with butterflies or, at night, the glowing waters of Bioluminescent Bay. Sailing boats streak across the blue.
On a day trip, our catamaran drops anchor at a sand bar where stingrays gather around the boats, accustomed to the fishermen who for decades chucked out their leftover squid bait here. When our fearless captain jumps in, they flock to him, flapping their wings about him in a sort of wet hug. Somewhat more trepidatiously, I join him, trying not to squawk as rays buffet my hips, slippery as mushrooms and affectionate as puppies.
Beyond the lagoon, the ocean grows dark and wild. Waves lash the east coast, where Hurricane Ivan destroyed many houses in 2004. Now, the shore is being reclaimed by sea grape and mimosa. Protected reserves harbour Cuban parrots and the endangered endemic blue iguana. Here and there are rustic bars, such as the Czech Inn Grill (specialities jerk chicken and “Get Up Stand Up” SUP rental), and candy-coloured beach shacks serving fried snapper at picnic tables.
The lo-fi vibe of the east coast is in stark contrast to the high-rise hotels lining the pristine west, where Palm Heights stands out – or, rather, ducks discreetly between them, within a garden of towering palms – as the island’s most considered stay. Founder Gabriella Khalil, from Philadelphia via Sotheby’s Institute of Art, in London, says she wanted the hotel to feel “like a family beach estate, with an accumulation of art, design and ephemera collected over the generations, from the early Caribbean jet-set era of the 1970s to the present day”.
Rather than “the usual Caribbean blue”, Khalil’s references were the paintings of Chris Ofili and the photographs of Slim Aarons; Grace Jones was “an occasional muse”. The design is retro-glamorous, an exuberance of tropical bohemia in a palette of ochre and umber, black and white. There’s a layered richness of leopard-print, bamboo, textured-glass chandeliers, and Afghan rugs found in Paris flea markets.
Vintage books and magazines, which Khalil has spent the past three years collecting from around the world, fill the lounges, the library and the hotel’s 52 spacious suites, with separate living rooms and tiled bars piled with tropical fruits and natural wine. Balconies all overlook the sea and gardens, where that Aarons vibe is most tangible. The blue of the pool is flanked by lush layers of banana plants and princess palms strung with hammocks, and bougainvillea every shade of a Caribbean sunset.
Just as much consideration has gone into feeding the body and mind. In the extensive Garden Club spa, treatments are diverse, ranging from a serious- sounding enzyme-optimising facial and lymphatic-drainage massage to psychic readings. Meanwhile, the one-of-a-kind Palm Heights Athletics goes well beyond the usual hotel gym offering, with classes run by visiting athletes at the top of their game – ballerinas from New York, boxers from London (Somalia-born Ramla Ali is among those to have done a residency here).
Then there is the food, a joyous affair. The hotel’s restaurants have garnered a following among islanders as much as travellers, and beachfront Tillies is very much the place to lunch – if you can get a table. Local specialities are given a global twist by two New York chefs célèbres: Gerardo Gonzalez’s inventive ways with plants pep up Jake Brodsky’s creative conch fritters, snapper ceviche, tuna tartare and jerk chicken fiery with Scotch bonnet, all zingy-bright with fuchsia-pink pickled red onion, salsa and floral salads.
Lunch can last for hours, and a Negril margarita or two should just about finish you off for the afternoon, the beach daybeds crying out for napping beneath their sunshine-yellow parasols. When you wake, with sea spangles in your eyes, someone will bring you the sweetest, orangiest orange you have ever tasted.
At Palm Heights’ Coconut Club, free rum punches and soul music bring guests together at happy hour, as the setting sun turns the sea to liquid gold. Then it’s up to the roof terrace for a full-moon sound-healing session, led by Caymanian yogi Janine Martins. Dozens of guests and islanders are stretched out on antique Moroccan rugs under the darkening sky. Of all Palm Heights’ triumphs – the design, the food, the knockout location – perhaps the rarest is this: it brings together people of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds for a shared experience.
The evening air resonates with Sanskrit chanting, drums and sound bowls, with the shush of the waves and the light snores of a silver-haired gentleman beside me all gathering into a crescendo. When we open our eyes again, the full moon has risen, bright and clear.
Laura Fowler was a guest of Palm Heights (001 345 949 1234; palmheights.com), which offers suites from £650, room only.