When Creative Director Gabriella Khalil founded Palm Heights in 2019, it was the very first all-suite boutique hotel in Grand Cayman, the largest of the Cayman Islands’ three tropical islands. But it’s not just the beachfront location and lush mansion-style gardens that define this restorative retreat. Bringing a dose of polychrome sophistication and whimsy to the white sands of Seven Mile Beach, this brilliantly revamped 50-key hideaway quickly gained exalted status among design enthusiasts seeking respite in the Caribbean.
Several factors prompted Khalil to choose Grand Cayman for his first foray into the hotel industry: “[The island] is particularly unique in the Caribbean because of the level of diversity, with over 100 nationalities living on the island despite a population of only 60,000, ”she said. “The combination of all of these factors was extremely compelling.”
With a low-key decadence and a fiery nod to the West Indies of the 70s, Palm Heights would eventually emerge as one of the Cayman Islands’ most sought-after design and art destinations. But while the property as Khalil found it promising, there was still a lot of work to be done. “The estate is located on one of the most attractive stretches of Seven Mile Beach, which hosts a dramatic light change each evening as the sun sets,” she describes. “The setting was extremely attractive; it had an attractive layout which meant that all suites had ocean views. But still, the [original] the property was in need of a lot of restoration.
The founder’s moodboard was rooted in an aesthetic of the 1970s, a decade that tremendously established the Caribbean as a glamorous travel destination. As the project evolved, it inspired studies of objects from the 70s and 80s, as well as pieces of furniture, artistic, cultural and fashion references. “The property doesn’t just refer to that decade, but reflects a collection of pieces of design, art and learning about a passage of time from that time period,” says Khalil.
For the hotel’s sparkle, Khalil teamed up with interior designers Courtney Applebaum and Sarita Posada. Together, they embarked on a global quest to grab quirky and ephemeral items from places like flea markets in Paris and other design treasures plentiful in Los Angeles and Mexico City. “The vision was to create an esoteric place that looked like a residential house filled with a unique collection of precious pieces,” Khalil continues.
The plush seating area showcases several highlights of the trio’s months-long conservation journey with coveted vintage collectibles from legendary names such as Hungarian designer Marcel Breuer, extraordinary French furniture Pierre Chapo, and Italian duo. Massimo and Lella Vignelli. Guests are greeted by an original Ettore Sottsass plaid rug – one of Palm Heights’ most prominent pieces – which hangs like a tapestry in the lobby.
The 50 suites also impress, decorated with works of art and objects by Pierre Paulin, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Gae Aulenti and Gijs Bakker, among others. Uniting the individually styled rooms is a beach color palette of linen yellows and vivid blues. “Works of art and objects actually come from all continents. Design pieces are chosen for their aesthetic qualities, but also because they represent spectacular deviations from classical traditions, ”she explains.
It’s not just the setting that represents a diverse roster of renowned talent from around the world. For the construction of the property, Khalil and her in-house design team recruited an all-female team of painters from Jamaica, a Turkish tile team and professionals from Scotland to handle the electrical installation. Khalil, Applebaum and Posada maintained a hands-on approach throughout the development of Palm Heights, staying on the ground as they mined stone from Italian quarries or ventured across the Mediterranean to search for woven fabrics and other textiles in North Africa.
For staff uniforms, Khalil collaborated with award-winning American fashion designer Emily Bode. The clothing became an instant hit with hotel guests, prompting Bode to launch a capsule collection of limited edition yellow striped terrycloth jackets available for purchase on-site and in the online store of Palm Heights.
Palm Heights also recently launched a bookstore called Library Fetish. The emerald and blue corner is populated with objects chosen by well-known artists, creatives and musicians. “The library in many ways reflects the spirit of the property and provides insight into the activities and objects deep and layered around the property,” says Khalil. Today, Library Fetish is home to many collector’s titles spanning early editions, Caribbean literature, local historical ephemera, as well as various arts, design, fashion, and history. “They often refer to something in the property, or simply reflect an important or interesting cultural period, gripping read, or are sometimes included in the collection for a bit of fun!” Creative residents of Palm Heights have been invited to make their own selections, including musician Kelsey Lu, Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutolta and Instagram archivist Daniel Obaweya (Nigerian Gothic).
Palm Heights is also set to launch the Garden Club, an outdoor-oriented wellness and fitness center designed in collaboration with the FOOD New York studio. The new sanctuary will be based on several concepts: “[We’re] exploit and create spaces using lush landscaping that reflects the surrounding environment, promoting well-being as a social concept and providing an environment both for high-level sporting activity, as well as for treatments leading restorative, indulgent and relaxing, ”Khalil describes. “It’s a space that fascinates us enormously.” The same will be true for future clients who choose Palm Heights for their next getaway.
While the Cayman Islands opened their international borders on October 1, 2020, leisure travel to destinations is still currently limited. Ongoing trip updates are available on the Cayman Islands government website.