Travel
6 min

Exploring Florida’s Gold Coast: Palm Beach

This opulent and historical beach town is filled with architectural gems

The Breakers resort sits on 140 acres of pristine beachfront. Credit: Palm Beach County CVB

Let’s just get this out of the way: Palm Beach is an affluent town, arguably the richest in the US (the per capita income of residents is $109,000; that of visitors is undoubtedly much higher). But once you get past that, if that’s something you need to get past, you’ll find a beautiful and friendly town that’s rich in history and flush with all the amenities that surround the super-rich — and it has great potential for celebrity spotting.

Perched on a narrow, 25-kilometre-long barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Worth (now part of the Intracoastal Waterway, a 5,000-kilometre route along the US Atlantic and Gulf coasts), this town of 10,000 was established as a winter resort by Standard Oil founder and railroad tycoon Henry Flagler (known as the father of Miami) in the late 1800s and flourished in the Roaring 20s.

During the “season,” which peaks in January and February, the population swells to approximately 30,000 as wealthy cold-climate dwellers from all over the world descend to find comfort in its luxury hotels, fine restaurants, high-end shops and beautiful beaches. In 2003, it was named the United States’ best place to live by the Robb Report for its “abundance of pleasures,” its community-oriented sensibility, and its reputation for safety and security (it’s accessible only by boat or by drawbridge).

If you’re in the mood for out-and-out luxury, this is the Florida destination for you: dive in, embrace it and let yourself be spoiled.

Where to stay
If you can afford it, stay at the historic Breakers resort. If you can’t afford it, consider blowing your budget — this is a truly grand hotel that lives up to its reputation. The original Breakers was built by Flagler to accommodate travellers on his Florida East Coast Railway and opened in 1896. That structure and another that was built after were destroyed by fire; the current 540-room version, situated on 140 acres of beachfront property, opened in 1926 and is still run by Flagler’s descendants. From the moment of arrival in the spectacular cathedral-like lobby, the service is top-notch. (Its staff of 2,000 makes it one of the largest private employers in the state.) With nine restaurants and five bars; 11 boutiques; five pools, with private bungalows; golf courses and tennis courts; a spa and fitness centre; a family-entertainment centre; a range of recreational activities; and a “culture of excellence” that sees millions of dollars reinvested in the resort every year, there’s no reason to leave unless you want to. Tip: splurge on a beachfront room so that all you’ll hear at night are the waves breaking against the seawall.

What to see
Palm Beach is all about its architecture, much of it designed and built by a group of architects known as the Fab Four: Maurice Fatio, John Volk, Marion Sims Wyeth and, especially, Addison Mizner, a reputedly gay “bon vivant” who kept a pet monkey named Johnnie Brown. Each created his own distinct look, but all four embraced the Mediterranean Revival style that characterizes the town today. Many residences are hidden behind sky-high hedges since visible fences aren’t allowed (just one of many rules laid out by the very restrictive/prescriptive building code), but a slow cruise around the island by bike will offer lots of glimpses; El Bravo, El Brillo and El Vedado are particularly lovely streets.

One of the best ways to see Palm Beach is through the eyes of retired financial advisor Leslie Diver, on one of her Island Living architectural/historical tours. A 26-year resident who’s served on both the Architectural Review and the Landmarks Preservation commissions, Diver is a wealth of information about the town and its residents; try to stifle your gag reflex when she points out the homes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and David Koch, the main funder of the Tea Party and the town’s richest resident. Canadians will be interested to learn that Conrad Black’s old house, where doting Barbara was forced to hole up while he served his prison sentence, is somewhat south of the most desirable part of the island, among a strip of more “modestly” priced homes. On Billionaires’ Row, ask Diver to point out the still-standing Mizner creations. If you opt for her bike tour, she’ll take you to the island’s more eclectic and funky north end, with its overgrown landscaping, lack of commerce and excellent surf.

Even if you can’t afford to shop, take a stroll down the iconic Worth Avenue, Florida’s Rodeo Drive, home to one high-end shop after another. Duck into the Via Mizner, a twisty-turny European-style pedestrian walkway that’s home to a number of shops, residences and outdoor cafés, and the adjacent Via Parigi. At 1 Via Mizner is the architect’s own five-storey residence, Villa Mizner. 

The fully restored 55-room Flagler Museum, also known as Whitehall, features rotating exhibits and guided tours. (Here’s a brochure from an older exhibit of Mizner’s work in Palm Beach; the list and map are still useful.) Built by Flagler as a winter residence and completed in 1902, it was hailed by the New York Herald as “more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.” Afterward, wander over to the humongous kapok tree nearby for some great photo ops.

Where to dine
If you opt to stay at The Breakers, you might be tempted not to leave the property, and if that’s the case you’ll do very well for food and drink. Each of the resort’s nine restaurants and five bars has a distinct focus and culture, all impeccably executed.

The Circle is a must for Sunday brunch, for its 30-foot frescoed ceilings and oval murals decorated with Renaissance landscapes, if nothing else. The indoor/outdoor Beach Club, in the beach club/spa complex, is also excellent if you want to head straight to your pool chair or bungalow after. Have lunch at the casually elegant Seafood Bar; its vaulted, beamed ceilings, plantation shutters and airy openness are meant to evoke Old Florida. Ten to 15 types of fish arrive daily, sourced from nearby waters, and the raw bar offerings are first rate. Come cocktail hour, head to HMF, The Breakers’ unapologetically decadent ode to the golden era of Palm Beach, for a classic gin fizz or their signature Redhead (lemon vodka, blood orange liqueur, a splash of cranberry topped by lime fizz). Even if you think you’re over the small-plates approach to dining, hang around for dinner; they shut down the five-star L’Escalier to create this space, and the food coming out of the kitchen is every bit as good.

The town proper has a number of super-luxe establishments, including the well-established Chez Jean-Pierre and Palm Beach Grill and an outpost of Café Boulud, but check out the more recently arrived Buccan, where chef Clay Conley turns out his “small plates with big flavours” in an unpretentious, high-energy and cavernous space. Conley describes his style as progressive American; his ever-changing menu blends flavours from his New England childhood with those picked up over years of working and travelling in the Mediterranean, Asia and South America. The adjacent Imoto (Japanese for “little sister”) is an intimate, Asian-focused extension of Buccan. Conley is also one of the founders of the multi-day Palm Beach Food and Wine Festival, now one of the staple events in the Palm Beach social calendar.

LGBT Palm Beach
Aside from the still-standing Mizner buildings and the lingering rumours that Henry Flagler’s son was gay (which might explain why he was disowned by his father — although most sources say it’s because he decided to become an “artist” rather than go into business — but not necessarily the children, whose descendants now run The Breakers), there’s not much of an obvious gay presence in Palm Beach, and with a median age of 67, there’s not a lot of nightlife either.

For that you’ll need to head to Lake Worth, the neighbouring town to the south, where the annual PrideFest of the Palm Beaches takes place at the end of March (this year it’s on the 29th and 30th). Bigger than Palm Beach and much more diverse, Lake Worth is the artistic centre of Palm Beach County and the home of the Compass Gay and Lesbian Community Center.

For more on Palm Beach, visit palmbeachfl.com.

For the most up-to-date travel information on nearby Fort Lauderdale, see our City GuideListings GuideEvents Guide and Activities Guide.

For the most up-to-date travel information on nearby Miami, see our City GuideListings GuideEvents Guide and Activities Guide.