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.
Today, you're still likely to bump into the offspring of the industrial-era elite here -- a Ford heiress tooling around in her Rolls-Royce, perhaps, or a descendant of the Dodge automobile dynasty. (Palm Beach is not really about Hollywood-style celebrity sightings, Amy had told me. It's more like, "Wow, there's the guy who invented Jell-O.")
Of course, the nouveau riche converge in Palm Beach, too. Donald Trump's kids are often spotted, Jimmy Buffett goes biking around the island and Rod Stewart is regularly out and about. The Breakers is a reliable celebrity haunt (Matt Lauer and Bryant Gumbel are frequent guests, and Milla Jovovich and Emmitt Smith have also vacationed here), but small standard rooms sans ocean views will set you back $520 a night in the high season (at least a thousand clams if you want to see the sea).
But while no Breakers boudoir was in my budget, it didn't mean I had to steer clear of the joint.
* * *
For the price of a 50-minute spa service, non-guests can spend the day enjoying the Breakers' pools, private beach, fitness area, spa and restaurants. So I scheduled the least pricey service on the menu -- a pedicure -- and got set to indulge.
The Breakers' spa is an ambrosial place, with raspberry-infused drinking water at the ready, a doting, discreet staff and plush areas for lounging between services. That said, my $108 pedicure (including the 20 percent tip automatically tacked on) was no different from the $25 variety I'm used to at my favorite Orlando salon.
As soon as my nails dried, I headed outside to take advantage of the resort's real lure. Fewer than half of the lounge chairs were occupied at the main pool, where an attendant helped me settle in. The wind combed the palms, and the pounding waves were muffled against the seawall behind me. The chatter of the pool patrons was similarly subdued.
The closest thing to trouble in paradise came when a trio of guests splashing about in the pool struggled their way through a cocktail order with a "Baywatch"-esque server.
"We want the strawberry," said the man in broken English, as the two beauties flanking him bobbed their heads in agreement. "The strawberry smoothie or strawberry milkshake?" questioned the server, eliciting much befuddlement. "The strawberry with the rum," they finally communicated, retreating to their lounge chairs to await the daiquiri delivery.
Inspired, I made my way to the alfresco bar at the Beach Club restaurant for my own $8 nonalcoholic version.
"Kind of feels like you're on a cruise ship, doesn't it?" remarked the bartender.
I nodded in agreement. I didn't feel it necessary to mention that my only high-seas adventure had been a losing and decidedly lowbrow jaunt on a casino cruise out of Port Canaveral.
The Lake Trail is a six-mile paved pathway running along the north end of the island (Palm Beach is 14 miles long), along Lake Worth's waterfront. To the west are views of West Palm Beach's skyline and moored yachts. And to the east, where the tall ficus trees (dubbed "security bushes") don't block the view, you can peek into the yards of the island's rich residents.
The best part: It's free.
Biking over from the Breakers, I was hoping I might see someone I'd recognize pedaling along the pavement. Where's Jimmy Buffett when you need him? But save for the curly-tailed lizards darting brazenly beneath my tires and the hired help clad in white uniforms pushing strollers and walking shi-poos, I had the trail largely to myself.
A yacht rumored to belong to a Florida sugar baron was anchored like a multitiered wedding cake in front of a palatial estate. And when I spooked the birds perched on the pier, I found myself envying their high-flying view of the opulent surroundings.
Finally I spotted a strolling family, mom and dad in matching shades of salmon and khaki, a snoozing infant cradled inside a BabyBjorn. Surprised by my approach, the couple seemed to be as spooked as the birds.
Backtracking to the bridge on Royal Palm Way, I passed Whitehall, a white marble mansion that houses the Flagler Museum and was once Henry Flagler's home. (He had the 55-room mansion built in 1901 as a wedding present for his wife.) Along the waterfront, a fisherman tossed a net into the shallow waters, pulling up a few flopping mullet.
As I darted across the bridge back to West Palm Beach, I felt as if I were entering the real world again -- the traffic suddenly louder and the sidewalks busier with walkers, joggers and bikers.
* * *
After dark is a sublime time to experience Worth Avenue, Palm Beach's legendary retail runway. It's lined with big-name boutiques, graciously colonnaded walkways and a mosaic doggy fountain that's a work of art in itself. Daytime power purchasers give way at night to lollygagging window-shoppers, who venture forth in their finest strolling attire. Celine Dion, who owns property in nearby Jupiter, is among the famous faces known to shop the avenue.
There was something magical about having the well-lighted strip nearly to myself on this off-season evening. The click of my shoes on the cool tiled sidewalk. Ornate lanterns swaying in the sea breeze inside sheltered arcades. The passages that open into moonlit courtyards filled with bougainvillea, sculptures and fountains.
Hungry, I popped into Ta-boo, open since 1941. (Local lore claims the bloody mary was invented here.) I'd changed from my beach attire to a black dress and, alone at the bar, couldn't help but feel like a gold digger in search of my Palm Beach prince. The lighting glowed low, tropical fish fanned their fins in an aquarium behind the bar, jazzy music played softly, and groups of diners leaned in close over circular tables surrounded by zebra-print chairs.
Three men a few stools down were celebrating their 50th birthdays together, and they eyed me with a look I wasn't used to on the bar scene -- interest, tinged with suspicion. The ruddy-cheeked ringleader -- three sheets to the wind and sporting stereotypical resort casual attire (more pink and khaki, braided belt, leather loafers) -- let fly that he had just purchased property in Palm Beach. "One thing about Bobby," he slurred, referring to the bartender. "He throws me out of here every night."
I looked at my watch and hoped the hour was approaching.
Happily, the birthday boys left on their own volition to continue the party elsewhere, leaving Bobby at my disposal for night-life advice. He suggested I trade in Ta-boo for nearby Cucina dell'arte for its "younger, happier scene."
Shakira was blasting on my approach and patrons spilled onto the sidewalk: Cucina, as the locals call the Italian restaurant that morphs into a night spot after 10, looked more my speed.
I snagged an empty seat under the disco ball, ordered a margarita (a steep $11) and started talking to a Californian next to me who was in town for an American Bar Association meeting. He said several up-and-coming lawyers had been invited from across the country, and he was part of the group.
The promising attorneys were shaking their suit-clad booties to Rihanna, opening invisible umbrellas on the dance floor, and I asked him if Palm Beach was how he imagined it.
"The bed at the Breakers is the best I've ever slept in," he said. "But I still think Florida's weird."
It wouldn't be Florida if it wasn't weird, I assured him.
* * *
Before my return to Orlando, I decided on one last drive around the island. Something was pulling me south on Ocean Boulevard to ogle Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump's enormous estate and private club.
Wasn't that what you were supposed to do as an outsider in Palm Beach? Peek over security bushes for a look at how the other half lives? Then head back to the mainland, buy a lottery ticket and dream of one day crossing the bridge to the island for good?
As the sun rose in the sky, what was really beckoning me came into view. Where Peruvian Avenue meets the ocean at Mid-Town Beach, surfers were riding the real breakers, and families played in the water along Palm Beach's public stretch of sand.
I parked my car, chucked a few quarters in the meter and made my way down to the surf, still tropically warm in early October.
The current was gentle, and it pulled me sideways along the shore. Life was good. With sand under my newly pedicured nails, I bobbed in the surf and finally felt I belonged.
Terry Ward last wrote for Travel about the Kennedy Space Center.