Living the Vida Boca

Contributing Editor Andrew Nelson is back from a long weekend along Florida’s Gold Coast, where he found the economic downturn has had an impact on the high life.

More posh. Less dosh. For travelers looking for resort bargains, these are, as Natalie Merchant said, the days. No more so than the Sunshine State. Last winter tourism fell off the stove along with the stock market. “There was no season this year,” complained one taxi driver heading up the Gold Coast from the Ft. Lauderdale Airport. “I’ve never seen it like that.”

The recession combined with the traditional slow season – the humid Florida summer – offers bargains for the traveler. Even Boca Raton, one of East Coast’s glossier destinations, is discounted this year.

Exhibit A is the august 1047-room Boca Raton Resort and Beach Club, now part of the Waldorf-Astoria collection. The resort, which started life as the aristocratic Cloister Inn (more on that later), just dropped $110 million on rejuvenating its Beach Club, a swankienda rising like a mid-mod Phoenix from the Atlantic sands. Despite the new pool and a terrific, South Beach-style lobby that makes even the knobbiest-knee-ed schlump feel himself George Clooney, the Club and the Cloister are lopping their rates during the summer with prices starting at $99 a night. Some deals offer a third or fourth night free.

Ironically, Boca Raton has been at this rodeo before. Founded by Florida’s own Great Gatsby, the Jazz Age architect and shameless self-promoter Addison Mizner (1872-1933), the town owes its very existence to real estate speculation. The roly-poly Mizner, who was often accompanied by a pet monkey on his shoulder and a gaggle of swells in tow, was a driving force behind the creation of Palm Beach in the early 1920s. Looking to replicate his success further south, he began purchasing land in Boca Raton, first building the preppie-pink Spanish Revival Cloister Inn in 1926 with the hopes of attracting Northern investors. It all worked like a charm until it didn’t. Mizner sold $26 million worth of real estate in 24 weeks, but then speculation and the infamous Miami hurricane that year popped the state’s property bubble. Boca was “nixed by nature” observed Addison’s brother, Wilson. Mizner’s Boca holdings were finally sold for $71,500. He died broke in 1933.

Luckily Mizner’s concrete and plaster dreams outlived his financial crack-up. The original buildings still show why Mizner was celebrated as a dream weaver. The hotel’s aged limestone entrances; Mediterranean detailing and graceful walkways are both grand and seductive. The resort, still a center of local social life, rules the Intracoastal Waterway – a millionaire’s bathtub full of yachts and catamarans. Its lush grounds and tasteful updating are peppered with contemporary restaurants like Morimoto and Old Homestead restaurant. The resort exudes an understated sex appeal destined to survive the current financial drought.

You won’t hear any pennies from heaven plinking off rooftops soon, however. With the economy in the dumps, so are Boca shopkeepers.

Downtown at the Tipsy Salon (100J Plaza Real South; +1 561 338 1095), a manicure and drinking establishment – it’s Florida, anything is likely  – their usual martini-mani/pedi is 20 percent off. The town’s open-air, palm-fringed mall Mizner Park still host shops like LF, a well-toned arm of the LA women’s boutique, and the high-end men’s haberdashery Plattinni (440 Plaza Real, Mizner Park; +1 561 394 2999), but other storefronts are dark – victims of the ragged retail market. Even “50% off” signs weren’t pulling the punters into the shops. You’re better off ordering some good Tex-Mex at Uncle Julio’s (449 Plaza Real; +1 561 300 3530) and perusing the Boca Raton Museum of Art on Mizner’s Park north side.

If there’s any retail bustle to be found it’s at Festival Mall, a gigantic bazaar/flea market with 500 sellers located in the shadow of a landfill referred in Boca with a French accent as Mt. Gah-bage. The mall suffers from no such pretense. Its stores are actually booths and the crowded aisles reverberate with accents from Bogotá to Brooklyn.

Such is the eclectic nature of Festival that beside the designer duds there’s even a good Jewish deli and a food court. Check out New York Pickle, which has been selling barrels of the tangy treats for the last 16 years.

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But it’s the deals that pack them in, even drawing that society fixture known as the “Bocahantas.” The ladies nose their Bentleys in the direction of Pompano Beach, pulled by the lure 35 percent off name brands and dirt cheap knock offs of designers like Chanel, Hermes and Mary Frances. Bargains include: Mont Blanc men’s sunglasses retailing for $600 were on sale for $390 at the “best price” (and always ask for the “best price” at Festival. Shopkeepers dicker. It’s part of the fun). For clothes try Ed Hardy jeans, normally at $260 now going for $90. Or what about a “previously enjoyed” Rolex for $6,000. A steal.

“After Festival you learn: Never. Shop. Retail,” declares honey-haired Annie Green, an impeccable-in-pink Boca socialite, who with her daughter-in-law, is eyeing racks of $10 sunglasses that were dead ringers for Roberto Cavalli lenses. The same might be said of Florida after the recession is over. Once they get used to today’s bargains will travelers ever pay higher prices again? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, Boca Raton is determined to keep up appearances even as it battens down its hatches. Hurricane season began this week. Whatever happens next, the town is going to look fabulous.

Photo: Courtesy of the Boca Raton Resort and Beach Club 

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