Grand Hotels

The Breakers Is a Gilded Age Retreat

Real estate tycoon Henry Flagler named the hotel The Breakers because his hotel guests kept requesting rooms “by the breakers”—the place where the Atlantic breaks on the shoreline.

By Megan McDonald May 27, 2019 Published in the June 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

The hotel's main drive. 

You can’t help but gasp when you pull up to The Breakers resort in Palm Beach. From the palm trees that line the long driveway to the Italian Renaissance architecture, every inch of the 140-acre, 538-room oceanfront property says “luxury.” But it’s a whisper, not a scream. The Breakers is Jackie Kennedy in a world of Kardashians: Its class and pedigree stand on their own.

Real estate tycoon Henry Flagler opened the hotel in 1896, during the height of the Gilded Age, renaming it The Breakers after a brief stint as The Palm Beach Inn because his hotel guests kept requesting rooms “by the breakers”—the place where the Atlantic breaks on the shoreline.

In 1903, the hotel caught fire; it was rebuilt the following year. In 1925, there was a second fire, and the architects in charge of the reconstruction, New York City’s Schultze and Weaver, who also built The Pierre and the Waldorf-Astoria, modeled their design after Rome’s famed Villa de Medici. The result is stunning. It’s no wonder that well-to-do families of the time—Rockefellers, Carnegies, Astors and Vanderbilts—flocked to The Breakers.

The Breakers' grand lobby.

When my mom and I walked into the hotel last fall for a mother-daughter weekend, we felt the history. The 200-foot-long grand lobby is breathtaking with its high, hand-painted ceilings and its towering tropical floral arrangements. As you would expect, employees are gracious and helpful. The female staff is dressed in preppy, colorful Lilly Pulitzer, since the designer started her fashion line in Palm Beach. The perfectly pressed men wear ties.

The cabanas and beach at The Breakers, circa 1930.

The hotel’s original guests had the right idea asking for beachfront rooms, and you should, too. Each one is spotless, meticulously decorated in Palm Beach-perfect coastal colors, with fluffy beds, spacious bathrooms and balconies ideal for relaxing with a good book. Sleep with the balcony doors open at night to smell the salt air and hear the waves crashing on the shoreline.

Take advantage of every luxury here. If one is available, rent a bungalow at one of the hotel’s four oceanfront pools. Each bungalow has outdoor and indoor seating and its own shower. Each has its own concierge, too, who will happily refill your drink or bring your lunch. Hotel staff will also set up a chair for you directly on the beach under a navy-striped umbrella and deliver beverages there. My mom and I fully indulged, sipping our piña coladas while we flipped through magazines and dug our toes into the sand.

You should also avail yourself of the indoor-outdoor spa, which offers everything from manicures and pedicures to full-body treatments using mostly organic products from brands like Tammy Fender, also based in Palm Beach. The resort also has a golf course, tennis courts, kids’ camps and a gym overlooking the ocean. There’s serious shopping, too, including Lilly Pulitzer and Polo Ralph Lauren boutiques, a Guerlain makeup store and a high-end gift shop with Breakers-branded apparel and other merchandise.

The Breakers' HMF restaurant.

And then there’s the food, which is happily not your standard hotel fare, especially at dinner. HMF, in the north loggia just off the main lobby, serves what it calls a “global eclectic” menu, running the gamut from pasta to sashimi. Don’t miss the Brussels sprouts Caesar salad (trust us) or the Maine lobster garganelli with fontina cream—basically adult macaroni and cheese, and delicious. You can’t leave without having a sidecar; according to the hotel, the drink was the preferred cocktail of the Prohibition era and a favorite of the Palm Beach glitterati at the time. The hotel suggests cocktail attire when dining at HMF, and there’s a reason: The vibe is old-school glam. You can easily imagine the Carnegies clinking Champagne coupes here.

If you’re a seafood lover, the slightly more casual Seafood Bar is another standout. With the Atlantic Ocean as its backdrop, the nautical-themed restaurant serves up super-fresh seafood in a chic environment, as well as tasty cocktails and wine from a well-edited list. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, especially the super-crispy calamari appetizer or the salmon and grouper entrées.

Above all, enjoy the history. The hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and flashes of its 123-year-old history are everywhere, from the curved arches of the lobby to framed mementos of days gone by on the first level. There’s something comforting in thinking that 123 years from now, The Breakers’ dedication to its guests’ experience will remain the same. Henry Flagler would be proud.

The Breakers | 1 South County Road, Palm Beach, (833) 777-8174, thebreakers.comRooms start around $360 a night. | Drive time from downtown Sarasota: 3 ½ to 4 hours.

Things to Do

Shop Worth Avenue

This ultra-fancy shopping district boasts stores like Chanel, Gucci, Jimmy Choo and St. John lining its ultra-manicured sidewalks. Lilly Pulitzer’s flagship is here, too, and if you want some truly excellent consignment shopping, visit the Church Mouse thrift shop, just around the corner on South County Road, where you’ll find high-end designer clothing and home goods at a fraction of their original price.

Tour the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum

Housed in Whitehall, Flagler’s sprawling Palm Beach winter retreat, this museum opened to the public in 1960 and is available to tour, as is Flagler’s private railcar, built in 1886. The home has 75 rooms, formal gardens, a coconut palm grove and an atrium; it’s a peek into Gilded Age opulence.

Sail the Honey Fitz

This 93-foot wooden presidential yacht, which served presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, was built in 1931 and is available for private charter. Also known as the “Yacht of Camelot,” because JFK made it famous cruising up the Intracoastal Waterway near his family’s Palm Beach estate, it can hold up to 70 people and has a full bar and outdoor deck. The experience starts at $5,390. (561) 667-8003

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