Boca Raton, Fla., via Site59
Boca, via the West Palm Beach airport, was listed as "from $202," while trips to West Palm Beach, Lauderdale and Miami were a bit pricier. That's before the extra fees kick in. Some flights cost more per person, while upgrades to nicer -- or better-located -- lodging can be budget-busters. And if you're going solo, Site59 adjusts prices so that singles absorb the total hotel bill. Of the Lauderdale area choices, Boca seemed the top value, and I liked the description of its Radisson Bridge Resort -- all water views and five minutes from the beach.
Before booking, I called the resort and was told the 22-mile cab ride from the airport would be $55 (ouch), and there were no shuttles. Site59 wanted $102 per person to tack on a car rental. No way. I turned to Orbitz and nabbed a two-day Payless rental for $70.91.
Transportation issues resolved, I placed my order on Site59; within minutes, I was informed by e-mail that a trip confirmation would be coming "shortly." Then I waited. And waited. Four hours later, I e-mailed the service desk and asked for a definition of "shortly." More waiting. At 7:45 p.m., more than 6 hours after my initial order, I got an e-mail telling me there was a problem, with an 800 number to call.
The Bridge Resort was sold out. I could either rebook at another hotel over the phone or cancel everything and start anew. Needing time for more research, I canceled -- a big mistake, since I lost my spots on perfectly timed flights between Reagan National and West Palm Beach.
By the time I decided to stay at Boca's Radisson Suite Hotel, a 20-minute drive from the beach, my preferred return flight was full, though my 8:30 a.m. nonstop from National was still available. In my haste to rebook (which was confirmed within an hour), I mistakenly chose an earlier, connecting flight home . . . to Dulles. At least the hotel change shaved $30 off the package price, and my lift home from the airport didn't bean me.
Okay, Boca isn't exactly retiree-free (Jerry's dad would still feel right at home), but it's hardly the AARP-o-rama cliche I expected. Moneyed, yes. Restaurants starting with "La" or "Le" pock the landscape, and chichi shopping centers with spas and designer boutiques line the streets. Beaches are obscured by tall buildings protected by gatehouses, and yachts clog harbors.
You can't blame the locals if they're loaded, especially when it works to your advantage. Take Miz- ner Park, a midtown entertainment district. Several blocks long and lined with palm trees, it was a great place to watch the well-heeled buy stuff. But when the heat got to me, I ducked into the adjacent Boca Raton Museum of Art (501 Plaza Real), which is much more than just a good place to cool down.
The museum moved to its new digs -- all soaring ceilings and window walls -- in 2001, and it's a peach. I lingered longest in the superb Mayers Collection, which includes works by Picasso, Seurat, Matisse and Degas. Pablo and Co. arrived in Boca courtesy of museum benefactors, of which there appear to be many. Just about everything in the place, from elevators to walls to benches, has a glass plaque saying who paid for it.
Surprisingly, good, cheap food was easy to find all around town. Two particular faves were Flanigan's Guppy's (45 S. Federal Hwy.) and the Neighborhood Sports Grill (6450 N. Federal Hwy.), both with pool tables, drink specials, tons of fried food -- and lots of young, overtanned faces.
Though I was set to spend Saturday lounging on Lauderdale's sand about 25 minutes down the coast, I wanted to see what the Boca beaches were like behind all those walls. At Spanish River Park (3001 N. Ocean Blvd.), I had my chance. But first I had to get past Mary, the elderly woman working the park's front gate.
Mary told me the park fee was $10, and when I winced, she explained that when I saw the beach, I'd understand. She was right: It was lovely, though the sign warning of "sea lice" in the surf gave me the willies. (I later found out these were jellyfish larvae, which didn't make me feel any better.) She also advised me to seek out the nearby Gumbo Limbo Environmental Complex (1801 N. Ocean Blvd.), and since there was something about Mary . . .
The next morning, I prowled the center's boardwalks, which lead to the Intracoastal Waterway and a 40-foot observation deck. Atop the tower, all of Boca was revealed, from beach to bay.
Just beautiful. Morty was a wise man.