48 Hours Palm Beach: The Best of a City in Two Days
A New Look at a Florida Classic
From opera to alligators, shopping to snorkelingPalm Beach County balances a cosmopolitan core with wild fringes, and opulence with openness.
At the turn of the 20th century, business magnate Henry Morrison Flagler arrived in Palm Beach, felt the sun warm his skin, and set about building luxury hotels in the midst of what was subtropical jungle. He also decided to build a railroad along the Florida coast to drop wealthy Northerners just steps from the lobby doors. Today, the sunny climate and sumptuous oceanfront accommodations remain an irresistible draw, and getting here is easy, thanks to a nearby international airport. Downtown revitalization in neighboring West Palm Beach and strong conservation efforts in the county's undeveloped edges make for much more to do than gazing at pastel mansionsalthough that's certainly part of the fun.
The town of Palm Beachthe historical and cultural heart of Palm Beach Countywas established on a barrier island just 14 miles long and a half-mile at its widest. Three bridges spanning the Intracoastal Waterway make it easy to walk, bike, and drive from the island to mainland West Palm Beach. Temperatures average 78 degrees, but beware of afternoon rain showers and the occasional hurricane between June and November. Crowds here are seasonalwhich means increased activity from Thanksgiving to Easter, and hotel accommodations at half-price in the off-season (May-October).
“You don't need much physical strength to play croquetyou just have to be a killer,” says Bob Alman, marketing director at the new National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach, the American headquarters of the sport. Golf croquet, the simpler form of the game (Alman calls it “chess on grass”), can be easily learned in 30 minutes, and pros are on hand for complimentary coaching when you sign up for a two-hour play period. Or you can get a free three-hour session that includes a lesson and play on the first Wednesday or Saturday of each month.
The bourgeoisie bump elbows with royalty during Saturday afternoon matches at Palm Beach Polo, where general admission is free and champagne is sold at the concession. The Player's Club restaurant overlooks the international polo field and is open for dining on the veranda during Saturday polo matches.
“This is the golf capital of the world,” declares local TV sports director Pat Murphy, who has sampled many of the area's 160-plus courses. Emerald Dunes has one of the town's most highly rated public greens, and the satellite ProLink GPS system on every cart helps golfers track their yardage. The less obsessed can enjoy a bargainand an oceanfront viewat the Town of Palm Beach Golf Course, a par 3 course where 18 holes cost just $22.
For a local's look at Palm Beach, rent bikes or in-line skates from the Palm Beach Bicycle Trail Shop and ask to be pointed toward the island's secluded Lake Trail. On one side of the paved six-mile path, yachts cruise against the West Palm skyline; on the other lie backyards of grand Mediterranean-style estates.
“Make time for recreation,” suggests part-time resident Donald Trump, whose Mar-a-Lago mansion (now a private club and spa), with 58 bedrooms and 22-karat gold leaf ceilings, is Palm Beach's grandest estate. His favorite outdoor activities? “Golf, tennis, beach time, boating, and scuba diving.” But, should you care to join local surfer Jimmy Buffet in the 78-degree water, p.b. Boys Club will rent you a board. Upon request, surf instructor Jeremy Wyche will take you through residential neighborhoods to the break at Reef Road, one of the East Coast's premier surf spots. The Scuba Club leads divers to encounters with manta rays, manatees, and underwater wrecks.
Outdoor sculpture, which is omnipresent, is viewed best on a stroll through the gardens at the Society of the Four Arts or the Gothic Revival-style Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the Sea. More than 300 species of Florida's native plants and trees are on view at Pan's Garden, a quiet oasis just off Worth Avenue. The expanding Norton Museum of Art has a permanent collection of Chinese and American works, including Andy Warhol's “Flowers” and several paintings by Georgia O'Keefe. For live performances, catch Ballet Florida, the Florida Philharmonic, or the Palm Beach Opera at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.
EATERIES AND NIGHTLIFE
In the morning, grab your favorite newspaper (check out the Palm Beach Daily News for local events) at Main Street News and settle at a sidewalk table at Chuck & Harold's for Salmon Benedict (salmon medallions topped with poached eggs and hollandaise on an English muffin) and a Chambord spritzer.
At Renato's, delicate appetizers (like Terrina dello Chefpaté of duck, pork, veal, and truffles in a pastry) and homemade pastas are served at outdoor tables in a tucked-away courtyard. Hamburgers and liver with onions are menu items within the mahogany walls at Derby's, where the proprietor table-hops among friends, creating an upscale yet down-home vibe. Listen to live jazz and sip a fine scotch at the Leopard Lounge and Restaurant (located in the intimate Chesterfield hotel), here leopard-print carpet, paintings of leopards, and leopard-print tablecloths create an unforgettable visual experience. You might expect the new French restaurant L'Escalier (located in the Breakers hotel) to be described as “impressive” or “exquisite”but “fun”? Well, that's the word on the street, largely because the passionate young bloods (the entire management team is under 33 years old) spice things up in the kitchen with entrées like potato-wrapped halibut served with sweet-pepper compote and wilted pea shoots plated on Versace china. A fromagier moves from table to table with his cheese cart, and sommelier Virginia Philip will help with choosing a wine from 800 selections.
For a casual evening out, head to West Palm Beach's Clematis Street. Children run through the fountain at Centennial Square and delve into ice cream sundaes served in flowerpots filled with “Oreo cookie soil,” at Sloan's. Every Thursday evening, for the “Clematis by Night” festival, crowds jam the square to hear bands play on an outdoor stage while vendors sell fruit smoothies and conch fritters, and drafts are poured from a beer truck. As the night progresses, revelers move into the bars, restaurants, and clubs along the five-block strip. People of all ages mix and mingle to the sounds of music at the Lounge or guitar jams and jazz at Ray's Downtown Blues Club. Sometimes the doors don't shut until 4:00 a.m. While the party crowd sleeps in on Saturday mornings, the health-conscious crew takes over Narcissus Street to pick up locally grown oranges, mangoes, orchids, and herbs at the bustling Green Market.
Boutiques, jewelry stores, and galleries line world-renowned Worth Avenue. Its winding alleyways overflow with tropical flowers, Spanish tiles, and exclusive shops. Grande Armée sells toy soldiers, bearskin hats, and military artifacts from the imperial age (the result of a “hobby that got out of hand,” says owner Jim Muir), and Otten Von Emmerich specializes in antique Louis Vuitton handbags and luggage. Superior Italian stationery is available at Il Papiro, and treasures at the Meissen Shop include soup tureens and snuffboxes made of rare, antique Meissen porcelain. Two blocks over, on Peruvian Avenue, visit certified master horologist Gerhard Hutter in his Austrian Clockshop. His mechanical creations are more works of art than timepieces; the precision instruments track movements of the sun, moon, and planets in addition to minutes and hours.
Shoppers wanting Chanel suits but not four-digit prices head to the island's consignment boutique Déjá Vu for “gently used” designer fashions. At the Church Mouse thrift shop, unusual finds include children's tuxedos and oil paintings.
The legendary Breakers hotel boasts a Mobil five-diamond rating, four swimming pools, 560 guest rooms, 32 beachfront cabanas, and one Children's Secret Garden, complete with a hedge maze. The pampered life can get addictive: One guest arrived at this resort 12 years ago and has yet to check out. For nonguests interested in a closer look at the hotel, a resident historian leads weekly tours of the property.
Celebrities and socialites have taken shelter in the five-star Brazilian Court Hotel (and its two lush, flower-filled courtyards) since 1926. The nine rooms and four suites at the affordable Palm Beach Historic Inn receive the personal touch of innkeepers Jody and Sean Herbert. The lobby feels more like a living room; a chessboard and guitars are laid out for guests to toy with. A fresh alternative can be found at Hotel Biba, where mod furniture, colorful walls, and an outdoor patio lit by tiki torches draw the style-conscious.
Restaurants, Cafés, Bars:
Chuck & Harold's, 207 Royal Poinciana Way; +1 561 659 1440.
Sports & Culture:
Emerald Dunes, 2100 Emerald Dunes Dr., W. Palm Beach; +1 561 687 1700.
Austrian Clockshop, 233 Peruvian Ave.; +1 561 832 1000.
Brazilian Court Hotel, 301 Australian Ave.; +1 561 655 7740. $235-575. www.braziliancourt.com.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.