Residents know the secrets of Florida summer travel: empty beaches, warm water, less traffic and, perhaps best of all, bargain prices on luxury spots.
To find all of those good things this summer, drive 90 minutes north of Miami to a place that is synonymous with luxury: the island of Palm Beach, winter home to the rich and famous. Palm Beach is an ideal place to snag luxury you can afford in late summer and it’s also full of things to do and places to explore — snorkeling, biking, museums, history and shopping.
“The island,” what some consider the pretentious way to distinguish the town of Palm Beach from the county of Palm Beach, is pretty empty now. I stood in the middle of a major street to take a picture on a Sunday afternoon, and there were no cars in either direction to worry about.
If Palm Beach lacks the bustle of The Season, it loses none of its manicured beauty in the summer. The estates there are protected by walls of greenery pruned into such perfect shapes that it looks like gardeners are competing in the ficus-hedge Olympics.
The opulence is evident in all sorts of details: The pets are so pampered that there are four dog-watering fountains built around the city including one on Worth Avenue that is a picturesque basin made from Italian ceramic tile. Of course you see the flashy new Bentleys and Rolls Royces around town, but year-round residents tend to favor a nicely kept older Jaguar as their “beach” car. You have to look hard for the Publix; in Palm Beach, its only signage is its name subtly carved into the entrance.
If you snag a luxury lodging deal in Palm Beach (details below), you may want to spend much of your time taking advantage of the amenities at your hotel.
But when you’re ready to explore, here are 10 things to see, do and enjoy in Palm Beach in the summer:• Summer, with its lack of traffic, is a great time to tour on bicycle. You can rent bikes at Palm Beach Bicycle Trail Shop, 223 Sunrise Ave. (http://palmbeachbicycle.com/). Palm Beach has one of the best bike trails in Florida, the Lake Trail, which has views of Lake Worth and mansions, but sections of it are closed this summer for road work. Fortunately, the dearth of traffic makes it easy to use the streets where the path is closed. You might use bikes to visit other spots listed below.
• If you haven’t visited it, the Flagler Museum is the top attraction. Whitehall, as it is called, is a 55-room mansion built by railroad mogul Henry Flagler, who founded Palm Beach and built The Breakers.
Knowing about Flagler (1830-1913) is essential to understanding not just Palm Beach, but all of Florida. In addition to his importance to history, his personal story is more dramatic than a season of Downton Abbey and his Gilded Age mansion is just as opulent as Downton. Admission is $18 adults; $10 ages 13 to 17; $3 ages 6-12 ( www.flaglermuseum.us).• Worth Avenue, home to luxury stores such as Hermès, Jimmy Choo, Chanel and Gucci, is a pleasure to stroll, even for those not into shopping. The charm comes from the nine “vias” or pedestrian walkways that lead off the avenue into courtyards filled with fountains, bougainvillea, Old World tile-work and more shops.
The vias are where you will see how architect Addision Mizner captured a bit of Venice here. Via Mizner, by the way, leads to a lovely courtyard with an excellent and affordable Italian restaurant, Pizza Al Fresco. Look carefully in the courtyard and you’ll also spot the grave of Mizner’s pet monkey Johnnie Brown.
While on Worth Avenue, be sure to admire the Living Wall at the corner of Worth Avenue and South County Road. The verdant vertical garden, added four years ago, cost a quarter-million dollars and contains 10,000 plants.
• If you’re interested in the Kennedy clan, which famously had a winter home at the beach here, you’ll want to have breakfast or lunch at Green’s Pharmacy and Luncheonette, 151 N County Rd. It’s an old-fashioned drug store with a soda fountain and lunch counter that hasn’t changed much over the decades.
As a youth, JFK and his brothers would stop here and there are many stories of him sneaking away when president for a bite at Green’s. The soda fountain is famous for its chocolate milk shakes, but all the food gets good reviews and it’s probably the most affordable lunch option in the area.• Across the street from Green’s is St. Edward Catholic Church, 144 N. County Rd. The 1926 Spanish Renaissance church is ornately beautiful with an intricate hand-painted ceiling worth admiring. But a big reason visitors stop is because this is where the Kennedy family worshiped.
When I visited on a Sunday between Masses, a gentleman asked if it was my first visit. Hearing it was, he said “Follow me” and directed me to sit in a specific pew. In front of me was a small brass plaque that read: “President John F. Kennedy knelt here at Mass.” If you want to sit in that pew, it’s easier to find with a guide, but start looking about three-quarters of the way back on the left side of the right aisle.• If you’re interested in JFK, you’ll want to visit Peanut Island, where a secret Cold War-era bomb shelter was built for President Kennedy to use if the end of world threatened while he was in Palm Beach. While Kennedy would have reached the bunker via boat from his Palm Beach estate, you’ll have to leave the island and get a water taxi either at Riviera Beach or Palm Beach Shores.
You can easily spend a day on Peanut Island. There’s a great beach with excellent snorkeling in addition to the Palm Beach Maritime Museum, which operates the Kennedy Bunker and the historic U.S. Coast Guard Station.
Water taxis to Peanut Island leave from Riviera Beach (200 E. 13th St.; 561-844-7969; www.peanutislandwatertaxi.com; $10) and Sailfish Marina in Palm Beach Shores (98 Lake Dr.; 561-844-1724; www.sailfishmarina.com/water-taxi; $12. Palm Beach Maritime Museum admission is $14 adults; $8 children ( www.pbmm.org/pbmm/).• The beaches of Palm Beach are as pretty and well-kept as the rest of the island. The metered parking nearby is not hard to get in the summer. Bring your snorkeling mask because the small rocky breakwaters behind the Breakers Hotel attract schools of fish. (There are public access points to the beaches on either side of the Breakers.)
Another town park, Phipps Ocean Park (2201 S. Ocean Blvd.) is a gem because there are outcroppings of limestone in the beach and near the shore, which attract fish and result in good snorkeling. There are restrooms, picnic tables and grills. Because parking is $5 an hour, it’s easy to get a space.
The 18-hole course occupies some of the most valuable land in Florida — it extends from a fabulous ocean beach on one side to the Intracoastal. Nearly every hole on the breezy course has a view. Its summer rates are a bargain, too: Through Nov. 15, you can golf after 3 p.m. for $14; prices are $23 in the morning and $20 after noon. ( http://golfontheocean.com/).
Even if you don’t golf, the new two-story clubhouse at the course is a great destination. Pizza Al Fresco operates an Italian restaurant there with ocean views and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you want an outdoor table overlooking the ocean, be sure to call ahead.• One way to stay cool is to get out on the water. West Palm Beach, just across the wide Intracoastal Waterway/Lake Worth, is a good place to book an activity by boat. The Seaside Activity Station is on the waterfront at North Clematis Street and Flagler Drive (561-881-9757). There you can book a catamaran and snorkel trip ($55 adults/$25 children), rent jet skis or kayaks or book a kayak tour to Peanut Island.
Bonnie Gross gives tips on visiting the natural and authentic Florida at www.FloridaRambler.com