Miami’s Key Biscayne is an ultra-exclusive enclave with a long, colorful past. Most people associate the barrier island with presidential digs (Richard Nixon had a summer home there during his presidency) and fictional drug lords (Tony Montana’s monstrous estate in Scarface commanded a stretch of this oceanfront), but the history of Key Biscayne goes back much farther than that. Pirates, Indians, explorers and coconut farmers all left their mark here, contributing to a legend that survives to this day.
The Tequesta Indians came first, probably about 1,500 years ago, settling along the coast and taking advantage of the prolific fishing. No European had laid eyes on the place until 1513, when Ponce de Leon spotted it during his search for the Fountain of Youth. The next couple of centuries saw a lot of seafaring activity off the island’s coast, mostly by gold- and silver-laden Spanish galleons en route home from their Inca and Aztec raids—and a few pirate ships, too. Many of these galleons never made it, meeting their demise on the coral reefs and littering the waters with treasure untold. Then, in the early twentieth century, Key Biscayne became a coconut plantation, with 36,000 trees and all the requisite infrastructure for processing the island’s native fruit.
Why do we mention all this? Because it still has a bearing on the island’s character, and it colors the experiences to be had here. Landmarks like the Cape Florida Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in Florida and one of the oldest nationwide, are testaments to Key Biscayne’s sometimes tumultuous past—the lighthouse was stormed and burned by Seminoles during the Seminole Wars in protest of the new settlers’ presence—and rank among the many reasons to visit the island. At Crandon Park, the ruins of a Tequesta Indian dwelling site remain, and reminders of the coconut-farming heyday exist throughout.
At the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne (above, right), by all accounts the island’s premier resort, history is honored every day. The spa, for example, offers a number of “Coco-luscious” treatments (including a mani-pedi with a coconut milk soak and coconut-sugar scrub) in tribute to the coconut. Cioppino, the signature restaurant, offers moonrise dinners monthly during the full moon, as a nod to the “Favorite Path of the Rising Moon,” as Key Biscayne was originally christened by the Tequestas. Private walks along the Atlantic to the lighthouse are offered by the fitness center so guests can get a close-up look of the landmark, and even climb to the top for the best views. And young mateys, as part of the Ritz Kids program, clamor for the treasure hunts, where they uncover buried treasure and even take home some of the “pirate booty.”
There is a palpable connection to the past here, from the coconut palms that are literally everywhere across the resort grounds to the history-themed activities to the Old Havana feel of the popular Rumbar. And yet it’s super-modern too: We love the newly renovated guestrooms with their ocean-inspired colors and chic finishes; the new and improved Cantina Beach restaurant, with its authentic South of the Border fare and resident tequilier; and the glorious Sunday brunch, with an entire room devoted to desserts alone.
Needless to say, the beaches here are perfection—a combination of natural beauty and a sense of tranquility that’s rare in Miami. Of course, there is more than a handful of people combing the beaches for washed-up doubloons and nuggets, all of which are plentiful in the waters offshore. Most aren’t successful in their amateur treasure hunts, but the romantic notion of claiming a piece of Florida’s history remains.
Dining oceanside is one of the pleasures at the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne.
Rooms were recently renovated to reflect the oceanside vibe with luxe materials and vibrant colors.
Cioppino, the resort's signature restaurant