It was a bit like coming home again and finding a beloved wisteria in full bloom and a soft, favorite bathrobe waiting in the closet — this return to Palm Beach, Fla., after an almost 20-year absence. Best of all, the 16-mile barrier island was pretty much as I remembered it, newly minted, pristine and still boasting its extraordinary beauty and small-town character. A kind of Mayberry with money.
Incorporated in 1911, Palm Beach began in large part thanks to Henry Flagler, a founder of Standard Oil and owner of the Florida East Coast Railway. He and other beneficiaries of the Gilded Age started buying up acres of land and had the foresight to plan exceedingly well, thereby maintaining the green space and integrity of powder white beaches. This brought about the graceful evolution of the island, so apparent more than 100 years later.
The Chesterfield hotel (Four Diamond rating by AAA, No. 1 Trip Advisor Hotels in Palm Beach and a registered historical landmark property) epitomizes the small-town friendliness of Palm Beach. Located in the heart of the palm-lined, bouigainvillea festooned residential area, it is within walking distance of the beach, restaurants and Worth Avenue.
Many of the rooms have recently been redone, but, much to my delight, ours was quintessential 1950s Palm Beach with lovely prints lining the walls, painted white furniture, a soft pastel palette, homemade chocolate-chip cookies delivered nightly and 20 — yes, 20, some needlepoint — pillows in which to sink. The newly renovated Leopard Lounge Bar is one of the most spectacular bars and dining spots I’ve ever seen, and with live music nightly and award-winning cuisine, it is simply perfection.
Top restaurants include Cucina, a happening night spot at “The Bar”; Nick & Johnnie's, for local music and seafood; HMF for high-style decadence and Gilded Age cocktails; Echo, for acclaimed Asian cuisine; Café via Flora, for great food in a romantic setting; the Palm Beach Grill for classy American dining; and Ta-boo for bistro dining since 1941 and a haven for celebrities, sugar daddies and facelifts gone amok.
Sights to take in on the island are Whitehall at the Flagler Museum; the Society of the Four Arts with its lovely gardens; Bethesda by-the-Sea, the beautiful Episcopalian church; the Palm Beach Par 3 Golf Course with the Atlantic on one side and intra coastal on the other; Royal Poinciana Playhouse; the entire Breaker experience; and Club Mar-a-Lago, once the "humble abode" of Marjorie Merriweather and Donald Trump.
If you feel the urge to leave the island for a while (and I can’t imagine why one would), you can experience the modern version of a Gilded Age mall at Palm Beach Gardens Mall featuring 1.4 million square feet of specialty shops. My favorite spot there is Christopher’s Kitchen, serving the highest quality organic plant-based food. Not to worry, it tastes great!
Also off the island is Wellington, home of the International Polo Club of Palm Beach, a world-class venue for the exciting sport of kings. Drop dead gorgeous polo players on sleek polo ponies remain one of the best reasons to go west over the bridge.
And shopping — ahh, yes, shopping. Not even William Wordsworth could capture the rapture of shopping on Worth Avenue. Conspicuous consumption is alive and well here, but don’t let the $$$$$ scare you away from window shopping. Drool over the emeralds and diamonds sparkling in the windows of Graff and Patti Esbia; play Cinderella and slip into a pair of classic Stubbs & Wootton slippers; wander into Tagliatella Galleries and marvel at the diamond dust artwork of Russell Young; and when reality sets in, check out the stylish and gently used garments discarded by Palm Beach socialites at The Church Mouse.
How reassuring to know that some things never really change.