Palm Beach, Florida, has been built on its exclusivity and made famous as the indulgent stomping grounds of the “One Percenters.” Just across the Flagler Bridge over the ICW from West Palm Beach this ritzy four-square-mile island has been preserved and celebrated for over 100 years. Perfectly manicured landscapes and Queen Palms line streets named Cherry Lane or Angler Avenue. With easy access to three notable marinas this is a cruiser haven for the likes of those who crave luxury, history and all things fine—even for those of us in the 99 percent group. But it’s when you discover who and what lies behind the prestige of this illustrious island sprinkled with decadent eateries, high-end designer shops and magnificent mansions that Palm Beach leaves a lasting impression.
In 1892, Henry Flagler shifted his focus from Standard Oil to establish this lush coastal area—at the time known as Lake Worth—into a high-end resort town for Northerners. He immediately had investors support the construction of hotels, residences and shops, soon referred to as Palm Beach Island. His expansion of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks provided easy access, and soon the South Florida shore bustled with antsy vacationers—it hasn’t stopped since.
Palm Beach’s rich history is as deep as the checkbooks that frequent Worth Avenue, and while the authentic feel of the posh, resort glamour is preserved, nowadays it adapts to the individual lifestyles of its guests. While it is still geared toward the fortunate few who can treat Worth Avenue as a playground, even the most modest cruiser will enjoy the sightseeing, history, dining, and activities offered on this island that’s bordered by a peach and white scalloped seawall to guard against the Atlantic’s waves.
Today, many visitors grace Palm Beach’s picturesque shores by boat. Two full-service ports––Rybovich Marina and Palm Harbor Marina—are located on North Flagler Drive in the ICW on the West side of “The Island.” Near the heart of both downtown West Palm Beach and historic Palm Beach, these two harbors are just steps away from all the shops, restaurants, beaches, and activities the area is known for. A stone’s throw north of The Island across the Palm Beach Inlet is Sailfish Marina. Don’t miss their weekend breakfast buffet (served 8AM-1PM) with fresh, local seafood. Sailfish Marina is a short boat ride to Peanut Island, a popular place to beach your boat for a sunny day of barbeque and bevvies.
Once your boat is safely docked, start exploring this one-of-a-kind beachfront resort town at the Breakers Palm Beach Hotel (known as the Palm Beach Inn in Flagler’s era) and Flagler’s private home, Whitehall, which is open to the public year-round as the Flagler Museum. The Breakers Palm Beach captures an authentic Italian-Renaissance feel and is set directly on one of the coast’s softest sand beaches. Stunning architectural elegance is displayed throughout each corner of the resort and everywhere you look solidifies why it has been in a class of its own among North American luxury resorts for many years. Even if you plan to stay on your boat, treat yourself to an afternoon exploring the Breakers’ gardens, courtyards, restaurants, and spas.
The Flagler Museum is a mega-mansion from the Gilded Age, with an extravagant double-staircase entry cloaked in floor-to-ceiling marble. Elaborate décor, flourishing courtyards, expansive rooms, and authentic memorabilia are all on display. On a warm, sunny day—the norm in Palm Beach—enjoy a bike ride on the Lake Trail to discover the secluded shops and beautiful homes hidden behind lush landscapes. The Society of the Four Arts sculpture garden on Cocoanut Drive is the perfect spot for a picnic and a short walk from the white sand beaches. Phipps Ocean Park has unspoiled snorkeling waters, R. G. Kreusler Park is another perfect picnic setting, and Flagpole Beach is ideal for sunbathing, shell collecting and kite surfing when the wind is just right. The beaches on Palm Beach are different from other tourist areas—you won’t find bars or restaurants fronting them—and are most famous for their pristine sand and seclusion. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be amply entertained. In addition to snorkeling you’ll find kayaking, parasailing, surfing, and jet skiing.
Prepare to be awed as you walk along Worth Avenue’s impressive storefronts, including Brooks Brothers, Gucci, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Vineyard Vines, and Tiffany’s & Co.––to name a handful. This street displays the type of style, charm and sophistication that earned its reputation as one of the most beautiful and lavish shopping venues in the country. Bentleys, Rolls Royces and Maybachs line the streets, which give way to dozens of lantern-lit alleyways leading to courtyards and secret gardens with European-style restaurants and unique boutiques.
In the heart of Downtown West Palm Beach—just a two-minute drive across Flagler Bridge—is Cityplace, an open-air plaza reminiscent of a European town center. Over 80 shops are tucked inside dramatic Mediterranean architecture––some major retailers and specialty boutiques––each a little more reasonable than the high-end shops on Worth Avenue. The many restaurants feature enough delicious options to satisfy nearly any craving on any budget. As the afternoon turns into evening, swap your iced latte for cocktails. Couples on date nights walk the plaza hand-in-hand while the palm trees light up and the fountains dance to lights and music. Families young and old also frequent Cityplace’s cobblestone sidewalks in hopes of an extra-special treat at Sloan’s Ice Cream and Confections––a South Florida native that turns every sugary fantasy into reality. If you’re looking for entertainment, the Improv Comedy Club, Muvico’s IMAX theater, or the brand-new bowling alley with bar and grill, Revolutions, might do the trick. For something more quaint, take a horsedrawn carriage ride along the twinkling plaza as live bands play at the Blue Martini or BB King’s Blues Club.
If you’re cruising as a couple or the kids are already tucked into bed, Clematis Street is a busy strip known for its eclectic bars and restaurants, and bustling nightlife. Bring your dancing shoes and a little liquid courage for one of the many nightclubs, or grab a slice of pizza from City Girls Pizza and savor a low-key evening swinging on the waterfront benches as the shimmering lights reflect from the many mega-yachts berthed in the ICW harbors. Look across the water to see Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s Palm Beach digs.
For an upscale evening, enjoy dinner at The Palm Beach Grille on Royal Poinciana Way––don’t skip appetizers or dessert; the fire-grilled artichokes and hot fudge sundae take center stage. Afterward, sit front and center for a show at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts—it’s home to the Palm Beach Opera and welcomes a variety of musicians, orchestras, Broadway shows, and plays each month.
Palm Beachers delight in this world-class escape that allows visitors to experience the ultimate lifestyle of beachfront living at its finest. The pristine shores treat you to the luxury, history and entertainment only this unique coastal gem offers. Once you cruise the waters and walk the streets you’ll understand why The Island has been famous for over a century. I won’t be a bit surprised if you plan a return engagement.
By Christine Carpenter, Southern Boating March 2014