Diamond Coast, perfect destination for weekend gateways for couples
Palm Beach County is huge, occupying 2,386 square miles – roughly the size of the state of Delaware – and stretching from the Everglades to the Atlantic Ocean. Though it is Florida’s most populous county, home to 1.25 million South Floridians, this area was somehow missed by early Spanish conquistadors and explorers. The entrepreneur Henry Flagler made up for the lost time in ht elate 19th century, when he became Florida’s first big-time developer. Palm Beach became the terminus of his Florida East coast Railway in 1893. (Eventually it would be extended to Miami and then Key West.) he settled down here, building a colossal mansion (“Whitehall”) that is now a museum. Flagler set an upscale example that many have tried to follow – especially in Palm Beach proper, an enclave of walled estates and obscene wealth located on the 14-mile island of Palm Beach. The words “Palm Beach” are synonymous with the good life for those who have made it (or inherited it) and are now working hard to spend it in a land of sun, sin, and peaceful decadence.
We call Palm Beach County the Diamond Coast, because it is dripping both with real gems, and bejeweled waters. The county is kissed by the Gulf Stream – the closest that this warm current swings toward land. Thanks to its moderating effect, Palm Beach County’s 47 miles of beaches are comfortable all year log. There are swimming areas at all 13 of the county’s beach parks, and they’re life guarded year-round (7:30am – 5:30pm). Moreover, they’re free of charge (except for parking fees at two of them).
The city of Palm Beach is, true to its reputation, an epicenter of snobbery. Better beaches are located in less pretentious towns like Delray Beach, Juno Beach, and Riviera Beach. Even snooty Boca Raton is far preferable, having had the uncommon foresight to purchase its oceanfront acreage in the 1970’s, converting it into a string of lovely, contiguous municipal beach parks.
Those beaches, unfortunately, got hammered when Hurricane Wilma blew through in late October 2005. The hurricane caused severe beach erosion along parts of the Palm Beach coast, and beach parks reopened slowly in its wake. The county suffered massive protracted power outages, and schools were closed for two weeks. Palm Beach County had largely been spared the wrath of the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons but couldn’t dodge this unfortunate bullet, which set hurricane records both for barometric pressure and for the rapidity at which it strengthened.
From an enlightened traveler’s perspective, Delray Beach is the light at the end of Palm Beach’s tunnel of moneyed self-absorption. For beach lovers, it’s the bucket of golden sand at he end of the asphalt rainbow. It is the ideal South Florida beach town, having been blessed with natural beauty and an enlightened populace. It possesses a small-town feel with big-city amenities.
Delray Beach has long been a resort community, but in recent decades it has attracted more college grads, young families, and Kinks (dual income, no kids). They’re drawn by the town’s relative affordability, employer base, and enviable beaches. It’s a growing small city (pop 65,000) with a dynamic outlook. Florida Trend magazine declared it the best-run town in the state.
On the north side, Delray Beach begins at George Bush Road and Ocean Avenue (A1A). As is the case all over Palm Beach County, you see nice beachfront homes out here, too, but the feeling is more open and accessible. For one thing, there are no buildings on the ocean side of A1A along Delray’s lengthy public stand.
During peak season, Delray Beach gets wild but not crazy, perhaps because of its roots are solidly Midwestern. Delray takes its name from a suburb of Detroit. The original plots were sold through advertisements in Michigan newspapers in the 1890s. A century later, we’d compare it to Capitola, California, another beach town of comparable dimensions that is well-mannered and fun, with a tough of arty gentility to balance out the sandy side of the ledger. They haven’t over-commercialized the beachfront at Delray. Moreover, it is a safe, well-patrolled stretch of sand. Though Delray Beach lies only 45 miles north of Miami, its residents and visitors move around in comparative tranquility. You can take a moonlight walk on the beach, for instance, without fear of mugging.
The renovated downtown, with its Old School Square, gives off a homey village feel. A VFW hall, Christian Science reading room, and newly expanded public library are all within walking distance of the beach.
One of Delray’s most unique attractions is the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens (4000 Morikami Park Road, 561/495-0233). Located three miles west of town, it’s living tribute to a clump of Japanese settlers who came here in the early 1900s to establish an agricultural community. Their plan was to farm tropical plants, but the commune (“Yamato Colony”) didn’t pan out. However, one tenacious pilgrim, George Sukeji Marikami, eventually grew rich from his pineapple plantation. He donated the 200-acre property to the twon in the 1970s, along with its meticulous gardens, waterfalls, bonsai trees, nature trail, and two galleries filled with Japanese cultural artifacts. Strict adherence to customs extends to visitors, who are asked to remove their shoes before entering.
For more information, contact the Greater Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce, 64 Southeast 5th Avenue, Delray Beach, FL 33483, 561/278-0424,
Florida’s Palm Beach
Palm Beach is a hedonistic place where the rich lead lives of self-indulgent ease and luxury. The prevailing attitude can best be expressed by a sight we saw one afternoon in front of The Breakers, an exclusive, world-famous beach resort. Two head-turning babes in a red Corvette cruised down the long driveway, wheeled to a stop beside the Florentine fountain and took turns photographing each other striking poses atop the car’s hood. With the posh resort as a backdrop, they seemed to be saying, “Eat your heart out – all this is mine!” Of course none of it was theirs, and even the car was likely rented or borrowed. But it’s the image that counts.
Palm Beach is synonymous with money, privacy, and the opportunities for decadence afforded by both. Hunter S. Thompson captured it perfectly wile covering the debauched Roxanne Pulitzer divorce trial for Rolling Stone: “It is the ultimate residential community, a lush sand bar lined with palm trees and mansions on the Gold Coast of Florida – millionaires and old people, an elaborately protected colony for the seriously rich, a very small island and a very small world.”
The term “Palm Beach” is inseparable from the word “socialite.” Just for kicks, we searched the online archives of the Miami Herald for the phrase “Palm Beach socialite” and came up with more than 500 articles over the past 20 years. Many bore the headlines like these: “Millionaire Charged in Wife’s Murder, but Palm Beach Suspect Missing,” “Palm Beach Socialite a Suspect in Daughters’ Kidnapping,” “Jewelry Missing, Police Hint Robber May Have Killed Palm Beach Socialite.” And, of course, there are sad announcements of some doyenne’s passing, such as this: “Nancy ‘Trink’ Gardiner, a philanthropist and socialite who gained notoriety by shooting her husband, has died after a brief illness.”
Though Palm Beach sits beside an ocean, the resorts tend to focus on golf, tennis, and shopping. The game of golf is an obsession down here because it can be played all year long. There are 160 golf courses in Palm Beach County – more than any other county in Florida, which has more course than any other state in the country.
Odds are you’re not coming to Palm Beach for a traditional beach vacation. The town is primarily a winter playground for the wealthy, who jet down from places like New York, Newport, and Nantucket when cold weather arrives. Its reputation as an enclave of high society is a drawing card that’s used to pump up Palm Beach County tourism on the theory that people like to be around money. What they don’t tell you is that an outsider stands less chance of penetrating the social whirl than the domestic help. An outside of the high season (December-April), Palm Beach is honest-to-God not happening.
It is actually a rather small place, with a year-round population of 10,500 that swells to 25,000 in winter. The community’s origins as a winter hideout for the wealthy dates back to Henry Flagler – yes, him again – and his construction of two resort hotels (The Breakers and Royal Poinciana) and a splendid private mansion (Whitehall). A gift to his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan, Whitehall operates today as the Flagler Museum (1 Whitehall Way, 561/655-2833). It has variously been referred to as the Taj Mahal of the South, the San Simeon of the East, and the most magnificent private residence in the nation. Each room in the immense marble mansion was designed and furnished after a defferent period: Italian Renaissance, French Renaissance, Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI. We fantasized a room decorated in early garage-rock: Louie, Louie. At Whitehall, Flagler fell dow a flight of stairs and died of his injuries on May 20, 1913. Don’t feel too sorry for him, though as he lived to the ripe old age of 93. Admission to Whitehall is $10 for adults and $3 for children 6-12.
We can’t help but think that Flagler would be pleased with the look of Palm Beach today. In a droll turn of phrase, the historic WPA Guide to Florida had this to say about Palm Beach in the 1930s: “Its habitués constitute a fragment of international society seeking June in January and the pleasures afforded by right of social prestige and heavy purse.” In all essential aspects, the town has little changed since those words were written. The streets and “vias” of Palm Beach remain lined with private mansions hidden behind huge, boxy hedges. Beyond the torn curtain that afforded glimpses of sordid goings-on in that world during the Pulitzer divorce and William Kennedy Smith rape trials, we’ll never know.
We will make cursory mention of West Palm Beach, a bona fide city lies on the mainland side of the Intracoastal Waterway. Its population is nearly eight times that of Palm Beach, and it is at least eight times less glamorous, too. West Palm Beach is a city of malls girdled by freeways, yet it has in recent years made remarkable strides in reclaimng its downtown and protecting its distinctive neighborhoods. It has a multicultural mix that Palm Beach decidedly does not.
There are other communities with the words “Palm Beach” in them, too. North Palm Beach, South Palm Beach, Palm Beach Gardens, Palm Beach Shores, yada yada yada. They all want a touch of that tony Palm Beach cachet, but only Palm Beach Shores even comes close.
Gradually, it sinks in that the Palm Beaches are scaled-down , East Coast version of Southern Califorina, specifically Los Angeles. If West Palm Beach is downtown L.A. then Palm Beach is Malibu. Varous other towns (Riviera Beach, Lantana, Lake Worth, the other Palm Beaches) are arrayed around it. One travels great distances on highways and bridges to get from point to point. It all adds up to a bulging, spread-out mass of civilization that is utterly dependent on the automobile and seemingly heedless of the consequences of sud dependency. On our last visit, as war raged in Iraq and oil hit $80 per barrel, a new Hummer dealership was opening on traffic-chocked Okeechobee Boulevard.
In the emphasis on wealth and living well beneath the bright and sometimes blinding sun, the Palm Beach evoke all the rewards and frustrations that also make the City of Angles tick so maniacally.
For more information, contact the Chamber of Commerce of Palm Beaches, 45 Coconut Row, Palm Beach, Fl 33840, 561/655-3282, www.palmbeaches.com; or the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1555 Palm Lakes Boulevard, Suite 204, West Palm Beach, Fl 33401, 561/233-3000,