A South Florida sibling to the conspicuous consumption that once defined Newport, Rhode Island, Palm Beach (pop. 8,348) has been a winter refuge for the rich and famous since Henry Flagler started work on his fashionable long-vanished resort hotel, the 1,150-room Royal Poinciana. It was the world’s largest wooden building when completed in 1894, but the site is now an upscale shopping district at the center of town. Away from here, most of Palm Beach is well-guarded private property, off-limits to most mere mortals. The best way for anyone not named Kennedy or Pierpont to get a look at Palm Beach life is to spend some time at the Hearst Castle of the East Coast, the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum (561/655-2833, Tues.-Sun., $18), on the inland side of downtown Palm Beach, at the north end of Cocoanut Row. Officially known as Whitehall, this opulent 60,000-square-foot mansion was Flagler’s private home, and the 50-plus rooms, many of which were taken from European buildings and reinstalled here, contain historical exhibits tracing the life of Flagler, the Standard Oil baron and John D. Rockefeller’s right-hand man, who made a fortune while making Florida into an immensely popular vacation destination.
Inland from Palm Beach, you can wave at rhinos, lions, and wildebeests in a 500-plus-acre drive-through simulation of African ecosystems at Lion Country Safari (561/793-1084, $35), 18 miles west of I-95 via US-98. No convertibles allowed!
Not surprisingly, there are some good and expensive restaurants in and around Palm Beach, but happily there’s also a nice all-American luncheonette, just two blocks north of The Breakers: Green’s Pharmacy Luncheonette (151 N. County Rd., 561/832-0304) serves good diner-style meals.
Even bigger and better than Whitehall is The Breakers ($369 and up), a stately resort hotel that faces the ocean at the east end of Palm Beach and retains much of its 1920s Mediterranean style and grace. Even if you don’t stay the night, you can enjoy the lobby, have a drink or afternoon tea, or take a tour (561/655-6611, Sat. 1pm, $15). At the south edge of town, along Hwy-A1A just north of the US-98 junction, stand the golden gates of another Palm Beach landmark: the private Mar-A-Lago Club.