From on high, Palm Heights is the greenest place on its stretch of Seven Mile Beach: a racy canopy of palm trees and sea grape next to minimalist gray condominiums. Built on the plot of a former Hyatt, the 50-suite boutique hotel feels like a luxuriously bohemian outlier on Grand Cayman, a place as known for its lenient tax laws as its white-sand shorelines. When hotel founder Gabriella Khalil first saw the old property, she says, “It was very manicured. I was like, It needs to be the opposite of that.”
But the beach, like a Mondrian painting or that song by the Used, is a composition of yellow and blue: tanned limbs sprawled on goldenrod-striped towels, a turquoise ocean so bright you imagine that if you poured it into a glass and took a sip it would taste like a briny blue raspberry. Yolk-hued beach umbrellas propped up in sand the color of corn silk, a pale shoreline hung under an aqua sky. There are a lot of reasons to want to visit, but that blue water and those yellow umbrellas are high on the list—especially if you’ve encountered images of Palm Heights on your Instagram feed.
Over the past couple of years, Palm Heights has been the if-you-know-you-know destination for a host of high-profile getaways: Chloë Sevigny celebrated her bachelorette party here. Pamela Anderson shot a bikini campaign on the sand. Emily Ratajkowski and Eric André brought their short-lived canoodle-ship beachside. Bella Hadid rode Jet Skis, and about six months later her sister Gigi was charged while reportedly en route here for “possession of ganja.” (She pleaded guilty and paid a fine, and later captioned a set of photos from Palm Heights on Instagram with: “All’s well that ends well.”)
But why? What makes it so different from any other hotel with a good bar and a good beach? Compared to the splashy all-inclusive Caribbean resorts of TV commercials—or even the glitzy far-flung hotels usually favored by celebrities—Palm Heights is more like a clubhouse populated by a disproportionate number of hip, spiritually bicoastal types. There are no waterslides, playscapes, or pastel-painted murals of sea turtles. Instead, the vision for the space, in addition to making it into a covetable vacation destination, has been to invite a steady rotation of artists, models, designers, chefs—glamorous people with glamorous skills that they could lend to the property, such as hosting a pop-up dinner or leading a fitness course. Stay for a weekend, stay for a month. It can feel like a colony for the creative-director class—and that’s by design.
“There are people that are guests, and there’s people that are part of our community. It’s like Choose Your Own Adventure,” says Bambi Grimotes, who is often referred to as the master of ceremonies here. (The unofficial title, he admits, is sort of hard to explain: “I always make sense at the end of your vacation, not at the beginning.”) In practice, a given guest list is a mix of well-off families, stylish couples on babymoons, or weary hipster parents relieved to leave their kids behind for a long weekend. Or, as I heard one guest describe it, the “Booking.com crowd”—who just so happen to be vacationing alongside well-connected aesthetes and fashion-industry celebutantes.
Indeed, during my visit, the designer Ludovic de Saint Sernin was there with a well-heeled crew in tow; on the beach, he wore one of his own grommet-trimmed swim thongs ($250) that was also for sale at the property’s on-site boutique, Dolores. It was like witnessing fashion’s see-now, buy-now model in real time. The shop features a curated brand selection of designers in the Palm Heights sphere: Luar, Christopher John Rogers, Wales Bonner, Theophilio. There are even terrycloth Bode jackets ($800) upcycled from Palm Heights’ recognizable yellow-striped towels.
Palm Heights opened in October 2019, giving the place an almost six-month head start before Grand Cayman shut itself off from the global pandemic. Starting in March 2020, a group of visiting creatives—including Luar designer Raul Lopez, musician Kelsey Lu, and the Bronx culinary collective Ghetto Gastro—quarantined there. The crew spent that time creating, bonding, and posting, all while sheltering in place in the most beautiful locale imaginable. By the time the Caymanian government opened the island’s borders again, there was a globe-trotting clientele at the ready who were all vying to be there too.
The main drag at Palm Heights is a maze of ample greenery—which, by late summer, is dotted with yellow, orange, and fuchsia bougainvillea—two swimming pools, and umbrella-shaded spots, with enough nooks and crannies to give you the sense that Palm Heights feels like a pretty good place to hide out (or otherwise get away with some light debauchery). These days, any Instagram-candy luxury destination has its color chip calling card: the gray concrete walls of Amangiri, the resort situated in the stark desert of Canyon Point, Utah; or the rust red cliffside façade of Le Sirenuse on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. At Palm Heights, it’s those yellow umbrellas and striped beach towels, which themselves recall the old lemon yellow, circus-style patio umbrellas at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
At the foot of the leafy atrium is Tillies, the property’s main restaurant. The kitchen is manned by chef Jake Brodsky, a second-generation boxer from Queens who is handsome in the sort of way that when he first started out as a 22-year-old cook at Eleven Madison Park his coworkers nicknamed him “GQ.” His menu has earthy tropical fare with a cosmopolitan sensibility—simple grilled fish, Caribbean curries, perfect ceviches—plus big-brass crowd-pleasers like rib-eye steaks and a creamy lobster pasta.
Across the street from the main hotel is a new spa-and-fitness complex called the Garden Club, which is set to open within the year. Inside is another massive labyrinth of palms—you turn a corner and there’s a walk-in temperate pool, only big enough for one or two people, hidden in the leaves. Keep thwacking your way through and you’ll find a massive Turkish hammam rendered in Giallo Siena yellow marble, stone soaking tubs, a cold-plunge suite, indoor facilities including yoga studios and massage rooms, a boxing ring, and an outdoor gym so pristine it looks like a reality TV set. Wellness—conceptually, commercially, spiritually—is a pillar of the Palm Heights universe, as it is for so many in its target clientele, and this new facility is an altar to that end.
Also not quite open to the public is a speakeasy bar on the property called Bambi’s, named after who else but Bambi Grimotes, whom everyone on the property will tell you is the heart and soul of Palm Heights. The space, according to Grimotes, currently functions as something like a room of requirement, complete with an LED dance floor: “Half of the time, Bambi’s, she’s not available,” he says. “But when she is open, oh, my God, what a good time.”
“We often joke about being the next location for The White Lotus,” says Davide Spada, the Naples-born, efficaciously charming manager of Tillies. Brodsky, who is frequently seen wearing a monogrammed Gucci baseball cap, agrees that working at Palm Heights can feel like fiction—but “one of the best parts of living on the TV show,” he says, “is that you meet people in their best state. They’re relaxed. The ego goes out the door. You don’t have the city on you.”
Which is not to say that the team behind Palm Heights isn’t considering expanding that community model to, yes, even the city. They operate a multifloor space in Brooklyn’s Bushwick and an old office building in Manhattan’s Financial District, where they’ve held and hosted ad hoc restaurant pop-ups (like Tillies) and cultural activations, including GQ’s inaugural Global Creativity Awards and an after-party for this year’s Met Gala. Neither space is officially affiliated with Palm Heights, but both have been utilized by those in the hotel’s orbit. If Palm Heights proper is an otherworldly escape, then these satellite spaces might provide a similar service whenever you’re needed back on earth.
But let’s not leave yet.
“Some people will visit this place and think it’s a lovely beach resort. And some people will have an opportunity to see the magic that lies between the guests and the people here,” Grimotes tells me. “Listen, the word iconic gets used here, but it’s really because it is iconic. The girls go off.”
Here at Palm Heights, though, no girl goes off harder than Mother Nature. Grimotes gestures to the view out the window, a cluster of palms leading to a glittering aquamarine sea. “I mean, you’ve seen outside.”
Eileen Cartter is a GQ staff writer.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of GQ with the title “A Postcard From Palm Heights”
Photographs by Tyrell Hampton
Styled by Stella Greenspan
Hair by Amanda Lee for Mane Addicts
Makeup by Leah Darcy
Location: Palm Heights