Road Trips

How to Visit Palm Beach on the Cheap

A skinflint's guide to the land of the rich and presidential.

By Robert Plunket March 1, 2017 Published in the March 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Rich old ladies still rule Palm Beach. If you’re female, 80-plus, with $50 million or so in your portfolio, you will be cosseted, catered to, and even carried about. I’ve actually seen a grande dame lifted from the back seat of her Bentley, carried into a restaurant and gently deposited on the banquette by her chauffeur.

And if you’re not a rich old lady, it’s still worth some serious study. Nowhere in Florida—maybe nowhere on earth—will you see such taste. Some good, some bad, but all overpowering in its self-confidence. Everything is carried to an extreme—the enormous mansions, the shrubbery in front of the mansions, the cars, the famous and intimidating snobbery. And now that it’s the winter home of our new president, its importance as a study in taste is greater than ever.

Is it possible to see such a place on a budget? Well, sort of. The big variable is how much you’re going to spend on shopping.

Your one big splurge should be where you stay. True, you can bed down at the Hampton Inn in West Palm Beach, just 10 minutes away, but it’s worth the extra money to stay on the island itself. I suggest the Chesterfield. It’s right downtown, a short walk to Worth Avenue, and it provides the proper atmosphere in spades. My room was the epitome of chic—a black-and-white jewel box, all crisp with mirrored furniture and a marble bath.

I hear the must-see attraction is the historic home of Henry Flagler, the railroad magnate. I’ve never been. Palm Beach is its own museum. There is so much to see that “just driving around” should top your list of activities.

You’ll be driving past one of the most spectacular collections of residential architecture anywhere, including home after home designed by Addison Mizner. These 1920s Spanish mansions are the granddaddies of most present-day Florida homes, both McMansions and tract homes. They’ll be next door to a Palm Beach Regency, totally sleek and elegant. Then a Monterrey Colonial. Then a version of Versailles. Every block has a gem or two.

If you like, you can combine your sightseeing with some exercise by renting a bike from Palm Beach Bicycle Trail Shop. There’s a great bike path that runs along Lake Worth—mansions on one side, water on the other.

Now about shopping. Plan for a stroll down Worth Avenue. Every luxury brand—Hermes, Chanel, Graaf, Cartier—is represented, and they’re all conveniently next door to each other. Don’t hesitate to enter and browse. I’ve found the salespeople genuinely friendly (as opposed to the ones in New York), and if you know the difference between Louis Vuitton’s Damier Graphite and Monogram Eclipse, even better. They love to talk about the merchandise.

But be warned—don’t bother visiting Worth Avenue after dark. When the stores close, they take all the jewelry out of the windows and put it in the safe. You’ll be missing half the show.

Worth Avenue stimulates whatever hormone controls acquisition, and you will find youself dying to go out and buy something. At this point head for the Church Mouse thrift store. It’s run by the chic Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church and serves as a catch-all for discards from the great homes. Also check out Classic Collections of Palm Beach. Martha Stewart shops here and the selection of gently used luxury goods, including jewelry, is superb.

Hungry? My favorite restaurant by far is Testa’s on Royal Poinciana Way. It’s been around forever. There’s a nice sidewalk cafe, but I prefer the main dining room with its incongruous knotty pine booths. The food is good and, at $50 for dinner and a drink, quite the bargain.

I wish I could say that about The Breakers. This classic Palm Beach hotel has prices that will remind you of Paris at its most expensive. But still, you should visit just to soak up the elegant atmosphere. I was headed there for another splurge, their famous Sunday brunch (at $110 a person), when I spied the Surfside Diner. It looked so inviting I made a U-turn.

I got great eggs Benedict for $10.95, and the people-watching was terrific. Across the counter was a dead ringer for Jocelyn Wildenstein, the famous socialite whose plastic surgery gave her the nickname “Catwoman.” Sprinkled around us were townspeople great and small—a couple of decorators, a prosperous grandfather with three grandchildren he was treating to pancakes after church, and an even wealthier-looking Middle Eastern family with kids and nannies and strollers galore.

And yes, the rich old ladies were there, too, sitting at a table by the window—slumming, perhaps, but enjoying the best Hollandaise sauce in Palm Beach.

Tip: The one thing you must never buy in Palm Beach is gasoline. Wait until you get back to the mainland. You’ll save 50 cents a gallon.

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