Rippling turquoise waters lapped at the palm-lined causeway that was taking me across Clear Lake from the South Florida mainland to downtown West Palm Beach.
Ahead, tall office and condo towers with faux cupolas atop pitched tile roofs provided a respite from the low-rise sprawl and tangle of highways I was leaving behind. Farther ahead, on the far side of the city’s downtown, a bridge would take me across the Intracoastal Waterway to the storied island enclave of Palm Beach, home base not just to President Donald Trump, but to legions of millionaires and billionaires — celebrity and otherwise.
The city of West Palm Beach, however, is quickly becoming a destination in its own right.
West Palm Beach has a split personality. Vibrant urban neighborhoods sit cheek-by-jowl with vast stretches of empty lots, the detritus of urban development schemes that crashed during the Great Recession. The striking Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, which draws big-name productions (“The Phantom of the Opera” was there), sits near a gargantuan empty block once earmarked for the much-ballyhooed Opera apartment tower, never built.
Nearby, however, is City Place, a retail and residential center filled with 80 tony shops, upscale chain restaurants and another performing arts center, the Harriet Himmel Theater, cleaved out of a landmark church. Across the street, the Palm Beach County Convention Center is anchored by a gleaming new hotel, the Hilton West Palm Beach.
Lively West Palm Beach
While West Palm Beach lacks Palm Beach’s panache, it offers a lively, pint-sized downtown centered on Clematis Street that is chock full of restaurants and bars.
Among them is the lauded, if noisy, Avocado Grill, a small-plates restaurant with a breezy patio whose menu finds inspiration in — but is not limited to — its namesake fruit. Another, Pistache, has earned kudos from diners as the best French bistro in the area.
Food tours are popular, as are the pedal buses that take revelers on bar tours. More upscale imbibing can be had at the Hilton, where the contemporary Galley cocktail lounge serves some of the best drinks in town.
The hotel is a favorite of baseball teams playing at the nearby Ballpark of the Palm Beaches (it’s home to spring training for the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals). On a recent Saturday night, two sleek buses disgorged the New York Yankees, some of whom patiently posed for photos with fans gathered at the hotel entrance.
Beyond sports, West Palm Beach also has a thriving arts and entertainment scene.
An amphitheater on the downtown waterfront offers outdoor entertainment all year; this year’s SunFest, which is an annual event, will bring in some 50 bands May 3-7. The festival will end with fireworks.
The Norton Museum of Art offers exhibits worthy of a much larger city; it is undergoing a $60 million expansion. Admission is free until the end of construction, expected in December 2018.
South of the Norton, new art galleries, antique stores and edgy restaurants are rejuvenating Old Dixie Highway, breathing new life into the rag-tag thoroughfare. Among the restaurants, Table 26˚ (named for the city’s latitude) was a game-changer.
Grato, which serves Italian and is especially popular with a hip crowd at night, beckons from a soaring space in an old warehouse, serving up new takes on traditional dishes.
Also popular, the nearby Culinary Art restaurant, cafe, juice bar and bakery share a space with the Artist Independent Republic gallery; together they are known as EmKo.
Old-time residential neighborhoods share boundaries with the new businesses. One, Flamingo Park, is especially enticing because of its modest homes — often set in beautiful gardens — built in the area’s Spanish hacienda-style heyday of the 1920s and 1930s.
Less appealing, and a striking point in contrast, are the two twin Trump Plaza condominium towers that puncture the West Palm Beach skyline and typify the up-ended shoebox style of architecture popular in the mid-1980s when the buildings were built.
Palm Beach’s panache
The skyline of Palm Beach, reached by three drawbridges across the Intracoastal Waterway from West Palm Beach, is topped mainly by palm trees and flagpoles.
With a predominantly pastel palette, the town is a chic counterpoint to brash and plebian (but livelier) West Palm Beach. Here, in gargantuan seaside mansions, live the country’s moneyed elite, the target audience for local television commercials that extol the virtues of Bentleys and Maseratis.
The mansions, which mimic everything from Tuscan villas to Greek temples, are worth a good look. The most stunning march south of downtown along coastal South Ocean Boulevard.
But don’t even think of heading there when President Trump is visiting his 126-room, 39-bathroom mansion, once the home of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. (Trump’s home improvements included installing four gold-plated bathroom sinks at a cost of $100,000).
When the president is in town — and his weekend visits, it should be noted, have become the source of some controversy about the cost of security and transportation — South Ocean Boulevard is closed to all but local drivers with identification, causing consternation for residents and disappointment for tourists.
Worth Avenue, the town’s counterpart to Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, stretches from a clock tower at the city’s magnificent public beach west to the Intracoastal. Shops include Tiffany, Emilio Pucci, Kate Spade, Armani and Worth Avenue Yachts, which has a vessel in its colossal showroom.
Like Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, Worth Avenue and its environs have a good number of watering holes. One, Ta-boo, has been host to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy, and Hoda Kotb and Kathy Lee Gifford, among others, and, over the years, to more than its share of Palm Beach socialites of indeterminate age.
The bar, which sports a monkeys-in-the-jungle motif with zebra-striped upholstery, is one of the few places in town open for afternoon snacks and drinks.
Meanwhile, the Leopard Lounge at the exclusive Chesterfield Palm Beach Hotel attracts well-heeled patrons intent on discretion (to protect the privacy of guests, no photography is allowed), while the legendary Colony Hotel offers New York-caliber entertainment in its Royal Room.
At the northern end of town, the fabled Italian Renaissance-style Breakers hotel’s HMF Lounge packs in hotel guests and a socially ambitious younger set.
“HMF” refers to Henry Morrison Flagler, the tycoon whose railway opened up South Florida to development in the late 19th century. (Flagler also built The Breakers.) His 75-room, 100,000- square-foot beaux-arts mansion, Whitehall, built in 1902, has been restored and is open to the public, as is a private rail car dating to the era.
Tours dwell on the art collection and may not be interesting to children.
Nearby, President Trump wed future first lady Melania Knauss in 2005 at the gothic revival Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea. It’s also where, in 2013, Michael Jordan married model Yvette Prieto.
The church’s Cluett Memorial Garden, a two-tiered, one-third-acre plot, was designed for restful contemplation.
That garden, however, is just one of a number of parks and gardens that some consider the area’s crown jewels. Among them, Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach, near Palm Beach International Airport, delights visitors with 2,000 species planted along winding trails. There are also butterfly and fragrance gardens.
Another, the Ann Norton Sculpture Garden and Museum, exhibits sculpture in a jungle setting.
If Mounts and the Norton sculpture garden are the crown jewels of the cities, the Four Arts Garden, near the foot of the Royal Park Bridge in Palm Beach, is the crown itself. (The Four Arts Society, proud owner of the garden, is a charity focused on providing art, music, drama and literature to area residents.)
The gardens were designed and planted in the 1930s by seven society matrons (with the help of one gentleman) to display the diversity of plants suitable for gardening in South Florida’s warm climate.
They provide a pristine welcome to Palm Beach visitors. Destroyed by hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, the park was redesigned and replanted.
As at the Norton garden, sculpture is interspersed among the flower beds and architectural features. One piece is especially popular: a life-size bronze of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill seated on a bench with space for a visitor to sit between them.
These leaders, both statesmen of their time, are fixtures in Mr. Trump’s neighborhood.
If you go
Where to stay:
West Palm Beach
- Hilton West Palm Beach: moderate to expensive, next to the convention center and across from City Place, 561-231-6000, www.hilton.com.
- Palm Beach Hibiscus: moderate, a Key West-style bed-and-breakfast, 561-833-8171, http://palmbeachhibiscus.com.
- Best Western Palm Beach Lakes: Inexpensive, across from the Palm Beach Outlets, 800-780-7234, www.bestwestern.com.
- The Breakers: Very expensive, oceanfront property with four pools and five whirlpool spas, 877-724-3188, www.thebreakers.com.
- The Chesterfield Palm Beach: Very expensive, Leopard Lounge and Restaurant, 561-659-5800, www.chesterfieldpb.com.
- Palm Beach Waterfront Suites: Moderate, six miles south of downtown, 3031 S. Ocean Boulevard, 561-566-8898, www.palmbeachwaterfrontsuites.com.
Where to eat:
West Palm Beach
- Table 26˚: Expensive, American, 1700 S. Dixie Highway, 561-855-2660, www.table26palmbeach.com.
- Pistache: Expensive, French, 101 N. Clematis St., 561-833-5090, www.pistachewpb.com.
- Avocado Grill: Moderate, small plates, 125 Datura St., 561-623-0822, www.avocadogrillwpb.com.
- Grato: Moderate, Italian, 1901 S. Dixie Highway, 561-404-1334, http://gratowpb.com.
- Culinary Art Gallery at EmKo: Inexpensive to Moderate, 2119 S. Dixie Highway, 561-227-3511, http://emkopb.com.
- Galley, West Palm Beach Hilton: Moderate, 600 Okeechobee Blvd., 561-231-600, www.hilton.com.
- Leopard Lounge and Restaurant: Very expensive, American, formal afternoon tea, 363 Cocoanut Row in the Chesterfield Hotel, 561-659-5800, www.chesterfieldpb.com.
- Royal Room: Very expensive, dining and entertainment at the Colony Hotel, 156 S. Hammon Ave., 561-655-5430, http://www.theroyalroom.com.
- HMF Lounge: Craft cocktails and bites at The Breakers, 1 S. County Road, 877-724-3188, www.thebreakers.com.
- Ta-boo: Moderate to Expensive, American, happy hour 4-6:30 p.m. daily, 221 Worth Ave., 561-835-3500, www.taboorestaurant.com.
What to do:
- Mar-A-Lago Club (President Donald Trump’s home, not open to the public), 1100 S. Ocean Blvd., Palm Beach, 561-832-2600, www.maralagoclub.com.
- Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach, 561-832-7469, www.kravis.org.
- Harriet Himmel Theater, City Place, 700 S. Rosemary Ave., 561-865-1408, www.cityplace.com/the-harriet-himmel-theater.
- The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, 5444 Haverhill Road, 844-676-2017, www.ballparkpalmbeaches.com.
- Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., 561-832-5196, www.norton.org.
- Artist Independent Republic at EmKo, 2119 S. Dixie Highway, 561-227-3511, http://emkopb.com.
- The Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea and Cluett Memorial Garden, 141 S. County Road, Palm Beach, 561-655-4554, www.bbts.org.
- Henry Morrison Flagler Museum (Whitehall), 1 Whitehall Way, Palm Beach, 561-655-2833, www.flaglermuseum.us.
- Mounts Botanical Garden of Palm Beach County, 531 N. Military Trail, West Palm Beach, 561-233-1757, www.mounts.org.
- Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, 2051 S. Flagler Drive, West Palm Beach, 561-832-5328,
- Four Arts Botanical Garden, 2 Four Arts Plaza, Palm Beach, 561-655-7226, www.fourarts.org.