PALM BEACH, Fla. — It’s “the season” in Palm Beach, as the society mavens say (in other words, winter), and there are lots of things to do that are fun — and free.
My family and I have been visiting this Gilded Age outpost on the Atlantic for a quarter century, mostly because we have a close relative here. We have found Palm Beach much more accessible than many other warm weather spots. You can arrive at Boston’s Logan International Airport after breakfast, fly to West Palm Beach in three hours, pick up a rental car, and drive the short distance to “the island,” as the society gals call it, in time to be by the pool for lunch.
While our two now-grown daughters groaned regularly as teenagers about the excesses and absurdities of Palm Beach and while everything they said is fundamentally true, over the years I’ve come to really like the place. Not only is the weather great on this 16-mile-long barrier island at the easternmost edge of Florida, but oddly enough, if you enjoy walking, swimming, biking, sunning, looking at tropical gardens and birds, going to concerts, lectures, plays, museums, theater, and — OK — gawking at some pretty amazing displays of conspicuous consumption, then Palm Beach may be for you, too.
No matter your age, you’ll probably feel young here, since half the population is over 65. As one remarkably youthful 88-year-old winter resident put it, “In Palm Beach, 90 is the new 70.”
A good way to begin is by stretching your legs. The Palm Beach Lake Trail is not well known to first-time tourists but is worth visiting. Five miles along the Intercoastal Waterway, and running from the middle of the island to its northern tip, it is a wide, paved, car-free path restricted to walkers, runners, skaters, and bikers.
Across the water from you are the skyscrapers, condominium towers, shops, and swaying palm trees of West Palm Beach, which was originally conceived as a service town for Palm Beach and where hotels and restaurants are significantly cheaper. Huge yachts are anchored at private docks along the water. To your right as you walk north are endless mansions, impressive manicured gardens, and gorgeous tropical greenery and flowers.
A friend jokingly calls the path the “trail of conspicuous consumption” and perhaps it is, but it is also an exceedingly pleasant place to walk four or five miles. There are many places to rest — benches and fountains — and it is easy to do bits of the trail if you are not up for going the whole way.
Access is free. This public trail begins just north of Worth Avenue near the Publix Supermarket. If you park on any nearby side street, head one block west by foot to the trail, which can also be accessed at several other points along the way — at the end of any cul-de-sac street going north as you drive along North County Road. There is a bike rental shop near the beginning if you’d rather ride than walk. When you get to the end, if you walk or bike your way through a small maze of lanes, you end up at a public boat dock at the northern tip of the island. There you can sit and enjoy pleasant views of Peanut Island and the Lake Worth-Palm Beach inlet to the sea.
The Lake Trail was built for hotel guests in 1894 by Henry Flagler, the larger-than-life founder of Palm Beach, Miami, Key West, and most of the rest of eastern Florida. Flagler also created the Florida East Coast railway. A giant among robber barons during the Gilded Age of the late 1880s and early 20th century, Flagler was born in Hopewell, N.Y. With only an eighth-grade education and leaving home at 14, he went on to gain and lose many businesses before making his first vast fortune as John D. Rockefeller’s partner at Standard Oil.
Originally visiting Jacksonville in 1876 at his physician’s recommendation with the first of his three wives, Mary, Flagler eventually headed south through the Florida swamps and founded Palm Beach, building hotels, roadways, railways, gardens, and mansions along the way. His idea, he said, was to create an “American Riviera.”
From the Lake Trail, you can still see many monuments to Flagler’s vision including the Royal Poinciana Hotel, which he built on the shores of Lake Worth; his first so-called “cottage,” called Seagate; and his 55-room beaux arts mansion, Whitehall, named after a main thoroughfare in London and designed by the architects who created the New York Public Library.
Built as Flagler’s winter retreat and as a wedding gift for his third wife, also named Mary, Whitehall remains. It is open to the public year round and is now called the Flagler Museum. On the National Registry of Historic Landmarks, this immense, white-pillared mansion offers art exhibits, docent-led tours, a beautiful garden, a museum store and cafe, and the 60,000-square-foot house.
The Flagler museum and gardens are well worth a visit as are the gardens attached to another property adjacent to the Lake Trail, the Society of Four Arts. Little known to first-time tourists, it provides a dizzying treasure trove of cultural opportunities including art exhibitions, music, notable speakers, workshops, films, two libraries, stunning gardens, and children’s programs.
Alas, many of these assets are limited to members, some of whom wait years to be able to join. But many, including strolling in the gardens behind the library, art and photography exhibits, and some lectures and workshops, are free or open to the public for a small fee.
If you visit the Society, start in the Philip Hulitar Sculpture Garden on the corner of Royal Palm Way and Cocoanut Row. An elegant park recently remodeled by the Society, it was designed, in the words of its brochure, “to be a showplace for Palm Beach” and visitors are invited to stroll the grounds.
No visit to Palm Beach would be complete without visiting the beach. And it’s a nice one, free, with big waves if you like to surf.
The main public beach is located on State Road A1A, in the middle of the island and center of town, at the end of the chichi shopping street of Worth Avenue. Overlooking the beach are pricey low-rise apartments named after Harvard dorms like Winthrop and Kirkland. There is metered parking along the beach. Lifeguards and flying flags let you know if there are riptides that day — or stray sharks.
There are many dining options in town, including a terrific pizza restaurant, Pizza al Fresco, in an outdoor courtyard in one of the vias — or alleyways — off the main street. There are many fancier restaurants like Taboo on Worth Avenue, a Palm Beach landmark, or Trevini, a good nearby Italian restaurant that recently moved close to the Lake Trail.
Nothing is cheap, but a local church runs a great secondhand clothing store stocked with designer baubles and gowns. It’s called Churchmouse but it is, not surprisingly, chic.