America’s First Resort Destination: that’s the impressive claim for Palm Beach: the long, narrow barrier island that protects the mainland from the Atlantic. In little more than a century, Palm Beach has gone from being a mosquito infested swamp to one of the most desirable places on the planet.
The Palm Beach Lake Trail threads along the west side of the island, and reveals a fascinating story of how one of America’s final frontiers acquired the glory it has today.
The oldest structure on Palm Beach is Seagull Cottage, built in 1886. Seven years later it was bought by a visionary entrepreneur named Henry Morrison Flagler. He decided to put South Florida on the railroad map.
Flagler had long been a colourful businessman who, in his early thirties ran a salt company – then teamed up with J D Rockefeller to start an oil firm called Standard Oil.
In 1883 he travelled to Florida for the first time on holiday, but found the transport and hotel facilities poor. So he decided boldly to invest in both. In a classic example of the concept of “build it and they will come”, the rail connection from New York and Washington triggered a tourism boom.
So successful was Henry Flagler that in 1902 he built his third wife, Mary Lily, a magnificent mansion to celebrate their marriage. Whitehall is now home to the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, which conveys the opulence of the Gilded Age. One of my favourite exhibits is Henry Flagler’s private railcar, built in 1886 to take him to the furthest reaches of his railroad empire.
At the heart of Palm Beach is a half-mile thoroughfare that’s claimed to be the “Street of Dreams”. London has Bond Street. Beverly Hills has Rodeo Drive. Palm Beach’s response? Worth Avenue. Italian artisans were brought to Florida to create the Palm Beach look. Shady, Italianate lanes known as vias ripple away from what has become America’s ritziest road.
But Palm Beach, the island, posing prettily in the Atlantic Ocean, is just one dimension of a very significant swathe of Florida. Palm Beach County embraces 39 cities and towns, in landscapes laced with waterways. The county has not one coast, but two: to the east, the Atlantic, to the west Lake Okeechobee, America’s largest freshwater lake south of Lake Michigan.
You can view the collection of communities known as The Palm Beaches from the rooftop of The Ben (the latest downtown hotel in West Palm Beach) or from Jupiter Lighthouse – built in 1860 to protect mariners taking advantage of the Gulf Stream. The current along America's East Coast comes closest to the shore at this point.
A useful travel maxim: never miss an opportunity to get your feet wet. Handily, Palm Beach County’s Atlantic shoreline measures 47 miles, which gives you plenty of choice.
One of my favourite stretches is Delray Beach, which calls itself “the village by the sea”. No high-rises separate the ocean from the action, and Delray Beach has two winning attractions: the Silverball Museum, celebrating pinball wizardry, and a free electric golf cart to get you there (or anywhere else in the district). Just download the Freebee app. While Luxembourg may have just acquired free nationwide public transport, Delray Beach offers private rides with no need even to tip.
Palm Beach County is also an excellent place to eat out. US 1, the longest north-south highway in America, slices through West Palm Beach on the way from the Canadian border in Maine to Key West at the southern tip of Florida. This stretch is known as South Dixie Highway, and Howley’s Diner has been an institution at number 4700 since 1950. It is the only place I know where you can order a seared ahi sesame tuna salad at 7am, any day of the week.
Another early restaurant is Grandview Public Market in West Palm Beach’s Warehouse district. Eat your way around the world from the Middle East and Japan to El Salvador and Hawaii. After multicultural feast, head east.
“Enriching lives with nature, art and history“: that is the mission statement of the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, two acres of tropical jungle populated by nine monumental sculptures. This garden in the city was created by the late 20th-century sculptor, Ann Norton. She was the wife of Ralph Hubbard Norton, a steel magnate whose memory lives on in the dazzling Norton Museum of Art: born in 1941, transformed in 2019.
The greatest experience of my stay, though, took place in the shadow of a highway bridge. Phil Foster Memorial Park, located on a small isle, is the jumping-in point for an 800-foot-long artificial reef. Park the car, grab the snorkel and enjoy close encounters in the undersea world of South Florida.
With coastline, culture, cuisine and adventure in abundance, the Palm Beaches are well worth 48 hours of your time.
West Palm Beach has its own airport, with frequent connections from Atlanta, New York, Washington DC and other US hubs.
You can now arrive in West Palm Beach by Brightline train from Miami and Fort Lauderdale – soon to be rebranded as Virgin Trains.
The journey from West Palm Beach takes just 40 minutes from Fort Lauderdale, about half-an-hour longer from Miami. Coming soon: a link direct from Orlando airport.
I paid £311 ($397) return for a Delta Airlines/Virgin Atlantic combination.
I paid $197 (£153) per night at Hotel Biba in West Palm Beach, and $169 (£132) at The Colony in Palm Beach. Both rates include a buffet breakfast.