Palm Beach For the Rest of Us

By Terry Ward
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 18, 2007

To reach any East Coast beach in Florida, you must cross the Intracoastal, the brackish waterway that divides the mainland from the seashore. And nowhere is the cultural gap between surf and turf more noticeable than on the Intracoastal approach to Palm Beach.

Pedaling my beach cruiser from West Palm Beach across the bridge to "the island," as the uber-rich enclave of Palm Beach is called in these parts, even the perfectly aligned trees on Royal Palm Way seemed to peer down their slender trunks at my questionable attire.

Back at West Palm's Grandview Gardens Bed & Breakfast, where I stayed during my October visit to South Florida, proprietor Rick Rose had worried openly about my flip-flops, tank top and shorts ensemble.

"You might feel weird," Rose had warned me, ever so diplomatically. I'd just told him I was heading to the Breakers, the renowned Palm Beach hotel, for a pedicure.

"Entering the Breakers is sort of like entering Westminster Abbey," he said. "But it's the offseason, so you should be fine."

The first time I'd visited the resort, it had been for my friend Amy's wedding reception. At that time, the place had seemed more hallowed than the church where she had said her vows. Right after the open bar had ended, my friends and I -- fresh out of college and all class -- bolted back across the bridge to the more-affordable watering holes in West Palm.

Now, pedaling my way toward the guard gate at the Breakers, I couldn't help but congratulate myself for making it back.

* * *

It's not that I scoff at the lifestyles of those who are rich and possibly famous. It's just that I can't relate. Living in Orlando for six years, where flip-flops and tank tops pass for evening wear, I often wondered: Could a normal person of average means find some semi-affordable fun in Palm Beach, the playground of the ultra-rich?

Palm Beach roughly marks the start of the tropics in South Florida, and the differences between Central Florida and South Florida are vast. The water takes on a deep-blue Caribbean hue in these parts. And winters are milder, with average highs in the mid-70s. The ficus, royal poinciana and banyan trees here won't grow in the colder climes to the north.

When railroad tycoon Henry Flagler began developing the island for tourism in the late 19th century, he found not only a perfect winter climate in Palm Beach but also an idyllic setting: Coconut cargo that had washed ashore during the 1876 shipwreck of the Providencia, en route from the Caribbean to Europe, led to the planting of a cash crop of palm trees on the island (hence Palm Beach's name).

Flagler opened Palm Beach's first resort, the Royal Poinciana Hotel, on the shores of Lake Worth in 1894, followed by the Palm Beach Inn in 1896, on the oceanfront. The latter property became the Breakers and the preferred wintering grounds of America's elite, including the Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Rockefellers.

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