Florida’s trump card: how to do Palm Beach on a budget

Sunday Times
Published: 6th August 2017

Towering palms at Brazilian Court

Towering palms at Brazilian Court

The grand shorefront properties are coming thick and fast, and my guide, Leslie, is doing her best to keep up. “That’s the house that a guy called Jim Sullivan was so attached to. He had his wife killed by a hitman before she could get it in the divorce,” she says. “He then went on the run for four years.”

A slight pause. “That one used to belong to Conrad Black — you’d see him out walking his dogs. And that’s Rod Stewart’s.” She’s pointing at a yellow mock-Tuscan mansion guarded by stone lions, with badly parked cars on the drive. “We like him. He’s friendly. He hangs out in Starbucks, on Worth Avenue.”

We come to a coral-coloured mansion on South Ocean Boulevard, set well back from the road. It has a tall tower, white gates and a long driveway from which a worker is sweeping up leaves. It looks familiar. “And this is Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s club. When he’s staying, you can’t get anywhere near it.” She pauses again. “He’s never been popular here — new money.”

I’m in Palm Beach, one of America’s most affluent postcodes. This cricket stump of an island — it’s 16 miles long and half a mile wide — sits between Orlando and Miami, but lacks both the theme-park-fuelled frenzy of the former and the preening excess of the latter. It’s pretty and preternaturally calm (as long as Trump isn’t in town). Pelicans perch by white-sand beaches and dive-bomb the blue waters. Visitors drift between art galleries that leave their doors unlocked when the staff depart for lunch. The landscape is deep emerald. And the ocean is never more than a block or so away.

Yet while the residents certainly have a few dollars to rub together (there were 30-plus billionaires at the last count), visitors can enjoy its charms on a pretty modest budget. Out of the Christmas to Easter “season”, when the 10,000 population triples, not only are rates lower, but it’s easier to get tables at the top restaurants and elbow room at the smart boutiques; there are a number of New York outposts of each, with the Big Apple just a 2hr 40min flight away.

I’m staying at the Brazilian Court, just north of Worth Avenue, known as the Rodeo Drive of the East Coast. Built in 1926, the hotel has a British-colonial vibe, with grounds shaded by towering palms and dotted with fountains. My first morning, I can’t resist sneaking off to the beach before breakfast to sink into the warm Atlantic waters, and that evening I dine on my terrace on room-service lobster and crispy crab cakes from Daniel Boulud’s award-winning restaurant. The Tommys Hilfiger and Lee Jones eat there regularly, apparently. Not together, alas.

Black-walled Ta-boo, one of the oldest restaurants in Palm Beach and a haunt of Frank Sinatra, proves my favourite, however. Like everywhere on Worth Avenue, it’s ideal for people-watching. I tuck into a poached salmon salad, mentally debating whether the blonde in the corner in the tight gold top really does love her older companion. Like most of the restaurants in Palm Beach, it’s not cheap, but not prohibitively expensive: my salad is less than £20.

At the Breakers, one of America’s grandest old resort hotels, Sunday brunch of everything from scrambled eggs to caviar and lobster is taken under a frescoed ceiling, to the accompaniment of a harpist. I advise a long walk afterwards. The Breakers was built by the Standard Oil magnate Henry Flagler, along with his private mansion, Whitehall, now the Flagler Museum. The old rogue — the house was a gift to his 34-year-old third wife, whom he married when he was 71 — created Palm Beach as America’s first luxury resort destination in the late 19th century by bringing a railway to it.

From Flagler to Trump, Palm Beach seems to attract big characters. John F Kennedy had his Winter White House here, where he wrote his 1961 inaugural address. You can still visit Green’s Pharmacy, where he used to stock up on burgers and fries at the lunch counter. Not much changes on this island.

Bikes are a great way to get around. There’s a Lake Trail — the intracoastal water of Lake Worth borders the western side of the island — that runs alongside the waterfront mansions. This promenade was built by Flagler for his society men and women to stretch their legs. I hire a bike one evening and enjoy a leisurely couple of hours wheeling past exuberant plants and birds. Later in the week I join a sunset cruise. The boat drifts past palm trees heavy with coconuts, and the occasional porpoise pierces the surface.

Palm Beach sees itself as something of a cultural beacon for this stretch of coast, even offering a complimentary “Cultural Concierge”: a sharply dressed, well-connected lady by the name of Bama Deal. Within an hour of contacting her to inquire about rare-book shops and birdwatching (quintessential British pursuits), I have been furnished with a detailed list of the best spots.

On my final day, I cross the bridge to the younger, buzzier West Palm Beach, with its street art and lively bars. The West Palm Beach Food Tour proves an absorbing three hours, with tastings, chef introductions and even a lesson in how to open a coconut. I’m impressed at how radiant everything is — people included. But I can’t wait to get back to the tranquillity of my island hideaway.

Affluent, undoubtedly, but also wonderfully enriching.

Need to Know

Sally Emerson was a guest of Palm Beach tourism (thepalmbeaches. com) and British Airways, which flies from Gatwick to Fort Lauderdale; from £377 return (ba.com). The Brazilian Court has doubles in low season from £157 (thebraziliancourt.com). The Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach has doubles from £190 (fourseasons.com/palmbeach). Sunday brunch at the Breakers costs £84 (thebreakers.com). Half-day bike hire costs £22 (palmbeachbicycle.com). Private driving tours with Leslie Diver start at £34 and bike tours at £27 (islandlivingpb.com). Cultural Concierge: palmbeachculture.com. Food tours start at £50 (westpalmbeachfoodtour.com)