THE PALM BEACHES: The enduring appeal of America's First Resort Destination
Written by Bridget Williams
The last time I visited The Palm Beaches in Southeast Florida, I was excited to attend a cabaret show at The Colony Hotel in the Town of Palm Beach. While the show, a bastion of a bygone era, lived up to my expectations, it was clear from the sea of silver topping the heads of my fellow showgoers in the hotel's celebrated Royal Room that my affinity for the genre was an anomaly for my age. When we headed up to bed that evening humming tunes from the Great American Songbook, I couldn't help but notice that the nearly 75-year-old hotel was certainly showing its age. The former raucous realm of the 'Rat Pack' crowd felt more "Sleepytime Down South," à la The Greenbrier.
My how things have changed.
The brainchild of Henry Flager, who, in 1893, declared Palm Beach a "veritable paradise," built the largest hotel structure in the world—The Royal Poinciana—in Palm Beach, enabled by his Florida East Coast Railway system. Since then, The Palm Beaches has grown to encompass 39 towns and cities, stretching from Jupiter/Tequesta to the north and Boca Raton to the south.
Even though The Palm Beaches has been a renowned warm-weather getaway for 125-years, you'd think the world had discovered a new playground based on all of the buzz of late in travel magazines. "For generations, The Palm Beaches has provided matchless service that complements its definitive reputation as a world-renowned vacation destination. As the world embarks on a new era of travel, The Palm Beaches has remained enduring and timeless," said Nick Parks, Vice President Marketing, Discover The Palm Beaches. While there's so much newness, there's still a discernable level of comforting familiarity to be found for repeat guests.
In town for a long weekend to take in the Palm Beach International Boat Show (pbboatshow.com), The Colony once again served as our home base. Perfectly positioned to have a flipflop on the sand and a well-heeled toe on Worth Avenue, New York investment banker Andrew Wetenhall and his wife Sarah bought the 89-room property in 2016. They immediately set about transforming it into their vision of a family-friendly boutique luxury resort that nods to its legacy without leaning on it too heavily. A similar hint of nostalgia pervades The Palm Beaches during its current renaissance, due in part to affluent East Coasters, who, rather than WFH in the doldrums of winter, have decamped to a warmer and sunnier shore.
At The Colony (rooms from $275/thecolonypalmbeach.com), a newly refreshed Living Room, designed in collaboration between Kemble Interiors and the venerable French firm de Gournay, is quintessentially Palm Beach and the most recent phase of a complete hotel restoration. Playfully popping up throughout the bespoke, hand-painted de Gournay wallpaper, the design of which is based on a mid-century mural that adorned the lobby when the hotel opened in 1947, is Johnny Brown, the hotel's mascot. The cheeky spider monkey pays homage to the island's most famous primate of the same name that was a fixture on the shoulder of famed architect Addison Mizner throughout the 1920s. "I discovered an old postcard image of the mural titled 'The Early Days in Palm Beach,'" said Sarah Wetenhall. "We worked hand-in-hand with de Gournay to create this unique 'love letter' to The Colony and Palm Beach." With a host of small, inviting vignettes, each with head-turning furniture and accessories, the Living Room feels more like a private home than a lobby, a notion further supported by the steady stream of guests that choose to linger in the chic space.
The Colony also recently unveiled 'AERIN Villa Jasmine,' a 2,100-square-foot guest villa that dates to 1929 and reimagined by Aerin Lauder using pieces from both her eponymous collection and woven rattan furniture by British brand Soane.
If the Living Room is The Colony's heart, then Swifty's is its pulse. Launched this past December, the indoor/outdoor restaurant is a "pop-up" of a Manhattan institution beloved for decades until it closed in 2016. A hub of activity throughout the day, during dinner, the scene is the place to be seen, with the "who's who" of the area packed around the pool and under the tented hanging gardens. "Everyone is here," I heard one smartly dressed gentleman remark as he surveyed the room before sashaying into the crowd. Don't miss the crushed avocado appetizer, accompanied by addictive tortilla chips drizzled avocado honey and sprinkled with sea salt.
The Colony's beach shuttle, topped by a paddleboard wrapped in the same whimsical sea grapes-leaf print found on its seats, is cute-as-a-button, but the beach setup provided to guests is even more so with pink-and-white striped beach chairs, fringed umbrella, a bubblegum pink Yetti cooler.
History buffs will want to check out the nearby Henry Morrison Flagler Museum (flaglermuseum.us). Completed in 1902, this 75-room, 100,000-square-foot mansion truly embodies the opulence of the Gilded Age. For a more active pursuit, book a bike or walking tour with local Leslie Diver of Island Living Tours (561.309.5790), who provides a history behind the hedges experience, during which she imparts her palpable enthusiasm for the Town of Palm Beach's unique architecture.
The Kennedys were among the area's most famous guests, and their enduring appeal is evidenced by a photo of a ski-masked Jackie in the window of many Worth Avenue boutiques reminding people to "mask up." The 35th President's "Winter White House" grabbed headlines when it sold in 2020 for $70 million. A lesser-known Kennedy connection lies across the water from the estate on Peanut Island in nearby Riviera Beach. Visit Palm Beach (visitpalmbeach.com) leads both kayak and boat tours of the eighty-acre island near the Lake Worth inlet, which is also the site of a bunker built for President Kennedy.
On nearby Singer Island, construction crews are busy working on the Amrit Ocean Resort and Residences (amritoceanresort.com), scheduled to open in late summer. Designed around mindful living and proactive wellness principles, the centerpiece of the two-tower development is a four-story, 100,000 square-foot cutting-edge spa with a plant-centric restaurant. The property is part of a hotel building boom that includes the recently opened 32-room White Elephant Palm Beach, and a trio of properties scheduled to open in late 2021 and early 2022: The Ray in Delray Beach, the Mandarin Oriental in Boca Raton, and Banyan Cay Resort & Golf in West Palm Beach.
During our visit, we checked out several newly opened restaurants. At Elisabetta's Ristorante (elisabettas.com) in downtown West Palm Beach, crowds packed the multi-tiered patio overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. The all-scratch kitchen includes a trio of pizza ovens imported from Italy, turning out pies that made this pizza lover very happy. Complementing the extensive menu is a 400-bottle wine list (with 70 wines available by the glass) and classic Italian cocktails.
I loved the airy barrel-vaulted dining room at Lionfish Delray (lionfishdelray.com) on Atlantic Avenue. At this outpost of a San Diego sustainable hotspot (twice recognized as a James Beard Foundation Smart Catch Leader), the sea-to-table cuisine's quality mirrors the clever interior design. The restaurant's namesake is available to order in a multitude of ways, and we opted for a citrus-infused ceviche, as well as a deliciously spiced and perfectly grilled octopus. An inventive cocktail program includes house-made syrups and infusions.
A few blocks away is Avalon Steak & Seafood (avalondelray.com), a concept from New York's veteran hospitality operators Host Restaurants. Sitting streetside on an elevated terrace bordered by a glass partition, we were rapt observing the dinner theatre in the restaurant as well as the constant parade of people from all walks of life making their way up and down the avenue. Their selection of premium wet- and dry-aged steaks are the centerpiece of the menu, and they arrive at the table with a perfectly seared crust. I particularly enjoyed the "Angry" lobster, enlivened by fermented house sriracha and ginger, and served with Pullman toast so as not to waste a drop of the delectable sauce.
Decidedly more casual yet no less delicious is Lucky Shuck in Jupiter (luckyshuckjupiter.com), which opened this past February. Part of the Charlie & Joe's at Love Street (lovestreetjupiter.com) development founded by Charlie Modica and Joe Namath, this welcoming spot is located directly across the water from the Jupiter Lighthouse. Patrons benefit from an on-site boutique seafood market that allows commercial fishers to directly sell their catch of the day to both Lucky Shuck and BEACON, which is the development's fine dining option. The Ahi tuna poke tacos were a highlight from Lucky Shuck's unique menu, a mashup of Southern and Far East influences. Evidently, we aren't the only ones who enjoy the tiny tacos as the restaurant serves as many as 4k each week. After a thoroughly enjoyable alfresco lunch, we conquered the 109-steps of the Jupiter Lighthouse (jupiterlighthouse.org).
Even with everything new and notable in The Palm Beaches, it's nice to know that some things remain the same. For me, no visit to the Town of Palm Beach is complete without a stroll through the exquisitely maintained botanical gardens at the Society of the Four Arts (fourarts.org). Founded in 1936, the 10-acre campus is home to hundreds of events each year. The mélange of visitors at any given time is a testament to the enduring appeal of "America's First Resort Destination." For more travel information and reservations in The Palm Beaches, visit thepalmbeaches.com.