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Courtney Applebaum, Gabriella Khalil, and Sarita Posada

Dreaming Up a Design-Minded Escape in the Caribbean with Gabriella Khalil

Set alongside the clear blue ocean of Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach is the island’s first boutique hotel, Palm Heights. The all-suite property opened in early 2020 under creative director Gabriella Khalil. Filled with vintage and vintage-inspired furniture, objects, and art, the location harks back to the Caribbean’s height of vacation glamour in the seventies.

Khalil, who is known for her work as a contemporary art advisor and interior designer, put together an all-female design team with Sarita Posada and Courtney Applebaum. Together they found pieces by Marcel Breuer, Pierre Chapo, Pierre Paulin, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and more to create an escape that mixes wellness and culture.

Whitewall spoke with Khalil about creating a design-forward beach estate.

Courtney Applebaum, Gabriella Khalil, and Sarita Posada Courtney Applebaum, Gabriella Khalil, and Sarita Posada, photo by Clement Pascal.

WHITEWALL: You’ve built a career selecting art and design pieces for private clients. What was it like curating the art and objects for Palm Heights?

GABRIELLA KHALIL: The main objective was to embody the essence of an estate and for the property to be a collection of items built over a passage of time. As with private clients, interests and themes develop into certain collections, but there are also idiosyncratic purchases based on aesthetic appreciation or ft. As a result, pieces were not sourced from one particular place but from a range of antique dealers, auction houses, collectors, and sources from the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and North America. It was a challenging process to coordinate purchases from such a variety of places and then shipping them to a Caribbean island, but well worth it.

WW: What kind of environment did you want to create?

GK: The process began by thinking about the environment, the history of the place, and the architecture. The building is in a postmodern style, and I began to think about the 1970s, when the resort was envisioned, which was really the initial heyday of Caribbean glamour and the jet set coming to the region. I started to think about the kinds of pieces people traveling to the region would have collected, the color palettes of the time, the fashion, and studied endless references.

The vision was to create a beach estate as opposed to anything else, and so a lot of thought has gone into soft furnishings in fabrics in both the indoor and outdoor spaces. I also imagined an extremely lush environment and became engulfed in research about tropical gardens in the region, and the outdoor spaces are carved out from abundant greenery.

Palm Heights Courtesy of Palm Heights.

WW: Palm Heights opened earlier this year. A lot has changed since then. Travel is now the ultimate luxury. How has that impacted the kind of experience you want to offer?

GK: I once heard someone say, “Be stubborn on your vision and be flexible on the details.” The estate is made up of 52 suites, and so it was never meant to be a mass market product. The vision has always been to create an extremely personable, warm, private, and attentive environment for guests with experiences built around culture, dining, and wellness. That has not changed. What has changed is how people are able to access the island and the need for greater precautions and protocols in a COVID-impacted world. I think people will spend more time at the property. I think guests are really valuing their time, and we need to give them a greater experience, more than ever before.

WW: What kind of considerations, design and otherwise, did you make when it came to sustainability?

GK: Sustainability, function, and aesthetics guide all design decisions. We utilized a lot of the lessons of good design from the seventies such as exposed concrete floors that cool a space (saving on energy) as well as being durable whilst requiring minimal replacement and treatment. The property also offers energy-saving air conditioning and the highest- grade window valves to ensure minimal energy leakage.

There is also abundant greenery in the public spaces and minimal built structure—Cayman is naturally abundant in flora, fauna, and shrubbery. The property does not offer any paper towels in the room—only washable towels—and there are glass decanters in rooms together with purified still and sparkling water on every floor to reduce plastic bottles for guests. This also stretches to Tillies, where the culinary team have passionately built relationships with local farmers and fisherman and sourced their produce locally.

We have also fundraised for international and local charities such as the Meals on Wheels, World Central Kitchen, Conscious Kid, Cayman Food Bank, and continue to work with organizations that support vulnerable and marginalized societal groups.

WW: As you’ve described, the hotel is all about the views. What’s your favorite spot to sit with a tropical beverage, catching the sunset?

GK: My favorite place to sit is at our beach bar, Coconut Club. It is situated directly on the beach and the built-in banquettes directly face the ocean. The ceiling is draped with a fantastic bespoke fabric tent with an opulent chandelier in the center of the room. It is such an unexpected space (an extravagant yet casual beach bar), and the sunsets from this spot are unparalleled.

Palm Heights Courtesy of Palm Heights.

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