PALM BEACH, Fla. — On a postcard-perfect day here, tourist Kinsey Hoffman saw many things she had never seen before: mansions with 12-foot-high gold-painted eagle statues decorating the driveway; million-dollar mega-yachts lined up 10 abreast, bobbing in the Intracoastal Waterway; chic boutiques on Worth Avenue, where a dog collar costs $475.
But as impressive as all that was, Hoffman was dazzled by what she saw crossing the bridge to get to the island.
“Seeing boats with Secret Service people and machine guns, that’s kind of not what you expect when you’re going to the beach. That’s really something,” said Hoffman, 22, of Louisville. “We don’t see things like that back home.”
Hoffman was vacationing with her family in Palm Beach for the Thanksgiving weekend, the same time President-elect Donald Trump came to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home, for the holiday.
The difference between a visit by candidate Trump and President-elect Trump was evident from a mile away.
When he was just a candidate, the police presence around the estate was minimal. A local police officer was stationed at the front Moorish-style gate and another one at the back entrance.
This weekend, the security was far more intense. Secret Service agents on two small boats patrolled the Intracoastal behind Mar-a-Lago. They also set up a small temporary communications tower, about the size of a lifeguard station, on a dirt lot to the east of the estate. A half-dozen police cars were spaced along Ocean Boulevard, the narrow two-lane road that winds past the front entrance and follows the property as it curves around the southern tip of Palm Beach. Officers flagged down any trucks that approached, sending them in a direction away from the compound.
Trump’s first visit to his lavish Mar-a-Lago estate since winning the presidential election signaled a change in the way life in Palm Beach will be when the sprawling compound becomes the winter White House in two months. The biggest change appears to be traffic.
“Traffic was a lot worse. It took us longer to get to the beach,” said 21-year-old Cooper Podosnik, a nurse who lives in West Palm Beach. He was lying in the sun on Midtown Beach, about a mile away from Mar-a-Lago. “So I don’t like that part of it. But it’s still kind of cool to think that the next president of the United States is right down the road from us now.”
Like a lot of other aspects of Trump’s relationship to this wealthy town, traffic woes will have to be handled the same way Palm Beachers have handled Trump in the past: They’ll just have to deal with it.
“I suppose we’ll all adapt,” resident and business owner Catherine Louis said. “There’s not much else we can do at this point. But this time it feels a little different. When George W. Bush was elected, people in town were celebrating. When President Obama was first elected, a gloomy pall settled over Palm Beach. This time, nobody wants to outright celebrate, but I’m sure half the island is thrilled.”
Louis and her husband own Bibi’s Boutique, a shop for pet accessories on Worth Avenue. She still carries two popular stuffed toys left over from the campaign — one a figure of Trump, the other of Hillary Clinton.
“People would come in and buy one of each,” Louis said. “I always wondered if one was meant to be a keepsake and the other one a chew toy.”
Old-money Palm Beach may have never truly embraced Trump, but he never let their disapproval slow him down. Trump has expected the town to deal with him, on his terms, since he bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985. Trump’s brash style, coupled with his ostentatious taste, rubbed the old-money social set in Palm Beach the wrong way from the start. His flurry of lawsuits, on issues from the local airport to the size of his flagpole, have alienated even those who gave the billionaire developer the benefit of the doubt at first.
Trump succeeded in turning the aging 1927 compound, built by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, into a private club and resort, overcoming town ordinances and social pressure. He spruced up the property inside and out, transforming Mar-a-
Lago from a hulking historic artifact into a fashionable resort that caters to the ultra-wealthy (memberships at Mar-a-Lago cost $100,000, plus fees of $13,000 a year).
After much resistance, the town of Palm Beach has learned to love Mar-a-Lago, if not necessarily the man who owns it. The resort is the go-to spot for a slate of prestigious charity balls every year, rivaling the old-guard Breakers Resort and Flagler Museum as a high-end hot spot to hold a ball. Celebrities including Elton John, James Taylor and Tony Bennett have appeared there. Rock star Rod Stewart, Trump’s Palm Beach neighbor, has also been a guest.
Trump brought glitz and glamour to the staid island that had been more accustomed to a low-key patrician kind of wealth.
President John F. Kennedy and his extended family spent winters at the Kennedy estate on the northern end of the island. The Kennedys attended services at St. Edward’s Catholic Church when they were in town and frequently ate lunch across the street at Green’s Pharmacy.
Trump is not seen much around the island, residents say.
“He has everything he needs right there at Mar-a-Lago,” one Palm Beach resident said. “He doesn’t need to come into town.”
Robin Bernstein, a founding member of Mar-a-Lago and now a Trump elector for Florida, said members see him all the time and they’re happy he came back for Thanksgiving.
“If there is a love-hate relationship with Donald Trump, I’m in the love category,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein, who worked in the Commerce Department under President Jimmy Carter, has known Trump for about 23 years. She credits him with allowing a diverse membership to Mar-a-
Lago without putting up some of the subtle racial and religious barriers other clubs on the island were accused of doing.
Trump may not make it out into public when he’s in Palm Beach, but he is a frequent presence at his club.
“He was always here, talking with us, eating dinner here; he lives here,” said Bernstein, who saw Trump at Mar-a-Lago on Wednesday night. “We’re so glad they came down for Thanksgiving. He was happy, relaxed, taking pictures with people. We missed him during the 18 months of the campaign. We’re glad to have our Donald back on Palm Beach.”