Where Dreams Come True: Palm Beach

As the late afternoon sun drifts downward, Peter and I quickly change into our suits and rush down to the sparkling oceanfront pool. The attendant can see that we’re desperate for some sunshine and chooses two comfy lounge chairs positioned to get the maximum amount of warm rays before the sun disappears from view.

He chooses perfectly. Before long Peter and I are still enveloped in the sun’s cozy glow while other sun worshippers start packing up and calling it a day. Not us, we relish the Florida sun as long as we can and thank the pool attendant when we finally leave for taking such good care of us.

His thoughtful assistance is just one example of the stellar service we experience at The Breakers, a five-star, five-diamond luxury resort in Palm Beach. Peter and I have been invited here to research an article about destination weddings for a magazine in Atlanta, and we feel lucky to stay in such a stunning resort. In fact, Palm Beach in general, known for more than a century as the go-to winter retreat for the rich and the glamorous, has lots to offer visitors—even those on a budget—so we opt to extend our stay and learn more about why this vacation destination continues to capture the hearts of those who visit.

OLD WORLD VIBE

I hoped to be able to crash a wedding during our stay at The Breakers—wouldn’t that be a hoot?—but alas no weddings are planned while we’re here. So I’ll have to use my imagination instead.

This will not be a problem. One look at the majestic resort rising up against the eastern sky, its signature flags waving atop twin towers, assures me that this is a place where dreams come true, making it a perfect choice for my wedding assignment.

At first the resort’s Italian Renaissance architectural style seems incongruous with its oceanside setting, but soon the two concepts meld into one, a natural symbiosis. Inside the vibe is elegant and Old World. Outside it’s casual and carefree. Yet everywhere staff await to satisfy every need—beginning at the porte-couchere, where smiling valets whisk away our rental car, to the ornate lobby, where welcoming staff hand us room keys and a map—much needed at this 140-acre resort—before wishing us a lovely day.

After our relaxing poolside retreat, we change yet again and head to dinner at The Flagler Steakhouse, nestled at the edge of one of The Breakers’ four golf courses. It’s a mild night, so Peter and I dine al fresco on the restaurant’s verandah as romantic jazz plays in the background. While fish courses are available, Peter and I opt for beef, a caveman-style Tomahawk chop for Peter—attached to a huge rib bone—and a more demure but equally delicious N.Y. strip au poivre for me. A smooth Côtes du Rhone provides a perfect complement to the tasty beef as do truffle fries with parmesan and coarse salt. My favorite dessert—a simple bowl of seasonal berries—arrives to finish the meal, paired with a delicately sweet dessert wine. We stroll back to the resort on a path bordered by flowers that smell like paradise.

After a sumptuous breakfast in The Circle, an elegant restaurant featuring a stained glass ceiling, huge windows, and a sophisticated vibe, we head out for a bike tour of Palm Beach with Kristen, a member of the resort’s activity staff. She shows us highlights of the barrier island, including the Flagler Museum, an immense mansion Henry built for his third wife. Homes in Palm Beach start at a million and skyrocket from there. Kristin tells us about Billionaires’ Row, elsewhere on the island, but says the mansions—located behind twenty-foot hedges—are impossible to see, so we content ourselves with glimpses of the magnificent estates along Millionaires’ Row.

The “season” is just beginning, and many homes are a flurry of activity as staff prepare the houses for the arrival of their esteemed owners. Gardeners with mowers, leaf blowers, and chain saws prep and primp vast lawns and gardens to perfection. Kristen says security is one of the reasons the world’s elite come to Palm Beach, which has a larger-than-average police force, as well as strict codes and requirements to ensure the safety and well being of its residents.

The closest we come to any celebrities is lunching at Green’s Pharmacy, an old-fashioned drug store and soda fountain frequented by the Kennedy clan, who attend Mass at the Catholic Church across the street when they’re in town. As Peter and I share a tasty Philly cheese steak, Green’s fills up with a varied lunch crowd wearing everything from business attire to flip flops. “We’re an institution,” our waitress confides. “Everyone comes in here.” I can see why: the food’s good and easy on your wallet.

PLAYGROUND FOR THE ELITE

Food is of course a major component of planning the perfect wedding, and that afternoon I meet Jeff Simms, The Breakers’ executive chef of banquets, who grew up in Virginia Beach. He’s the top guy in charge of all the details that add up to the perfect destination wedding.

“It’s about giving the client choice,” says Jeff, whose easygoing attitude is reflected in his smiling blue eyes. Together with the resort’s 30 chefs and sous chefs, Jeff has a multitude of resources to help the bride and groom plan the perfect menus.

As you would imagine, seafood plays a prominent role in most wedding menus. One of Jeff’s specialties is the crab trio: she-crab soup, crab cake, and crab-salad served in an avocado half. “We serve a ton of my crab cakes at weddings,” says Jeff, who learned to make crab cakes in Virginia Beach as a young cook. Another trend he shares is the individual raw bar: a small ice carving is presented to each guest with delicious mounds of fresh stone crab, lobster, shrimp, and caviar.

After meeting Jeff, Peter and I enjoy a peek at some of the resort’s wedding venues on a tour with Jim Ponce, a retired employee of the resort. He also gives the history of The Breakers, built by Henry Flagler, who earned his wealth as a partner in John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Flagler, a colorful character with three wives, saw Florida’s potential as a playground for New York’s elite and built a string of hotels along the coast as the railroad he owned journeyed further southward. He fell in love with Palm Beach, a picturesque spot where locals had planted hundreds of coconuts found in a Spanish shipwreck. The tall majestic palms that sprouted along its shores gave this picturesque city its name.

Flagler built a 2000-room hotel on Lake Worth about a half mile inland from the Atlantic and a smaller overflow inn by the beach. Guests began to request accommodations by “the breakers,” and the name stuck. The original hotel burned down, and Flagler decided to rebuild by the ocean. The current version of The Breakers was built in 1925 and features fresco work by 73 artists from Florence.

“The most outstanding feature is the ceilings,” Jim says during the tour, and he’s right. Nearly all the resort’s public spaces—including the lobby, the magnificent ballrooms, and The Circle—feature stunning ceilings with frescoes, intricately carved molding, and glittering chandeliers.

Our second evening begins at The Breakers’ newest venue, HMF—Henry Morrison Flagler’s initials, in case you wondered—a glamorous space with a 50s vibe—think “Mad Men”—subtle lighting, plush couches with lots of throw pillows, and hip music. Our cocktails—Peach Collins for Peter and a Redhead, HMF’s take on a Cosmo, for me—taste divine with the elegant small plates we order: roasted artichokes and steak tartare. Cocktail waitresses circle about in ooh-la-la dresses with gorgeous smiles framed by ruby-red lipstick. The DJ is a former Russian dancer who plays music with a sizzling beat.

A dinner reservation at Echo, The Breaker’s offsite Asian restaurant, lures us away. Again we choose to dine outside, where designer patio heaters with dancing flames add cozy warmth to the restaurant’s modern vibe. Our meal begins with a spicy ginger martini for me and a gin-and-grapefruit libation for Peter accompanied by cobia sashimi paired with lovely bites of melon. The salt-and-pepper calamari we try next is the best we’ve ever eaten—toothy but not tough and no oily aftertaste. Tuna tataki—luscious thin slices of ahi tuna—and a festive dragon roll round out the meal—tasty and artfully presented.

A PEACEFUL GIFT

Unlike other beaches along the Florida coast, only a few hotels dot the shores of Palm Beach. The next day we check into The Omphoy Ocean Resort, a lovely boutique hotel on the southern end of the island whose name combines “Om,” a word traditionally used in yoga and meditation to connote peace, with “phoy,” the Scottish word for gift. Peter and I love the Asian décor, water features, and hip vibe, and a stay here does feel like a peaceful gift.

That afternoon we escape to the pool, where cushioned lounges invite repose underneath swaying palm trees. Peter takes a dip in the Jacuzzi, while I sunbathe. Nearby the beach beckons so we head out for a stroll. Along the shore kite surfers fly in stiff breezes, taking flying leaps above the waves in colorful kites. A cozy oceanfront restaurant, The Terrace, offers dining inside and out with stunning beach views, cushioned furniture, and sunbrellas in a tranquil setting.

The next morning we take advantage of The Omphoy’s fitness center and lounge in the sauna before heading out to explore Palm Beach. First stop is the Norton Museum, founded in 1941 and currently home to a collection of over 5,000 works from around the globe. Notable among the collection is the Persian Sea-Life Ceiling, commissioned by Dale Chihuly, a stunning compilation of 693 individual pieces of blown glass depicting sea life forms—mermaids, starfish, coral, snails, shells—in a rainbow of colors, textures, and light.

“There’s a feeling of water,” Chihuly said about the ceiling, “at least there is to me. I suppose somebody else could think it’s something they might have seen in the sky or a dream.” Comfortable furniture placed in the room encourages visitors to lie on their backs and admire the glass. 

After enjoying visual art for a while, Peter and I head to lunch at a place I found on the internet that specializes in a different art, the culinary kind. Casper’s on Park, owned by a lively Italian named Giuseppe, offers a European café experience along with excellent food at affordable prices. I discovered it while searching for restaurants to try in Palm Beach using one of my favorite search engine tricks. Two words: cheap eats. Whenever I go to a new city, this trick helps me find unique off-the-beaten-path eateries, which rarely disappoint.

Casper’s is a delight. Peter and I spend two hours enjoying a leisurely lunch of Giuseppe’s specialties: gumbo he learned to make during a stint in New Orleans; a salad of fresh-from-the-garden greens, corn, and haricot vert, dressed in a delicate vinaigrette; and a hearty sandwich of grilled chicken with spicy creole mustard on a crispy baguette accompanied by French-style potato salad. We chat with Giuseppe and his friend, Greg, and enjoy sipping red wine as we while away the afternoon.

A ROMANTIC ESCAPE

An appointment for a tour at the Flagler Museum lures us away, and we spend the next hour or so learning about this legendary figure who created Palm Beach from the swampy jungles that once covered this coveted stretch of real estate. David, the director of PR, clearly delights in sharing this mansion with visitors and points out its Beaux Arts architectural features while providing ongoing commentary about Henry Flagler’s glamorous life.     

Nature lovers will find lots of recreational opportunities in Palm Beach, including the John D. MacArthur State Park, which Peter and I explore the next morning. A fine example of subtropical coastal habitat, the park comprises a 500-acre ecosystem that includes an estuary, hardwood hammock, and unspoiled beaches and dunes. Trails and boardwalks offer opportunities for viewing wildlife, plants, and a natural environment that’s rare in this part of Florida.

That afternoon we enjoy another two-hour lunch at Vic & Angelo’s Enoteca, which was recommended to us. Sitting outside, we relish the warm temperatures one last time before returning north to Virginia’s chilly temps. Daniel, our friendly server—originally from Romania—charms us with his accent and witty banter. Based on his suggestions, we opt for the cioppino, a hearty seafood stew in a savory tomato broth. It’s outstanding especially when paired with the flavorful rustic bread brushed lightly with garlic butter. The secret to the tasty bread is the restaurant’s coal-fired stove, which reaches temperatures of 900°F, giving the bread a toothy crunch without compromising its moistness.

As you would expect, the coal-fired stove is perfect for cooking pizza, which is what we indulge in next. We choose the Poppa Angel, a spicy combination featuring finger peppers, sweet sausage, and mozzarella. A juicy Malbec proves the perfect accompaniment.

Palm Beach with its aura of glamour and glitz has satisfied us on so many levels. Staying at The Breakers is a dream come true, and while it may not be within your budget, it’s perfect for fairy-tale weddings, special occasions, and a once-in-a-while splurge. At the very least, plan to stop in for a tour of its grand rooms and a bite to eat in one of its terrific restaurants. Or consider a stay at The Omphoy, where the resort’s cozy setting and Zen vibe offer a romantic escape. Be sure you take advantage of the area’s rich history, art, and culture as well as its recreational opportunities—bike riding, beach combing, golf, and swimming. And when you get hungry, schedule a two-hour lunch, sip a glass of wine, and pretend you own Palm Beach—because in fact for that moment in time, you do.

• The Breakers - thebreakers.com
• Omphoy Ocean Resort - omphoy.com
• Flagler Museum - flaglermuseum.us
• Norton Museum of Art - norton.org
• Casper’s on Park - caspersonpark.com
• Vic & Angelo’s - vicandangelosfl.com
• Tourist info - www.palmbeachfl.com

Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com
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