Palm Beach: The Spirit of Gatsby

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Palm Beach The Spirit of Gatsby

Four symmetrical rows of towering royal palm trees line the entry into Palm Beach proper, and the message is clear. Old money. Royal palms take forever to grow that tall. Driving into the exclusive enclave, you slowly start to sense the generations of lofty ambition, the privileges of power and prosperity. On South Ocean Boulevard, you pass one $10 million Med Revival seaside manse after another. Whoever said money can’t buy happiness does not live in Palm Beach.

But cliches are a burden to bear. That’s why president and CEO Jorge Pesquera of the Palm Beach County CVB wants to talk history. I’m thinking about the fabulously long lunches with string quartets, D&G dresses and vintage Dom. Gala balls with Iranian ossetra. The parties, the stories, the intrigue. That kind of stuff.

Mr. Pesquera isn’t having it.

“Palm Beach was America’s first resort destination,” he says. “So we have a richer tradition for culture, arts and history than most any other warm-weather beach destination in the country.”

The well-spoken CEO recounts an era following the turn of the 19th century when Palm Beach bloomed. Numerous grand resorts developed by Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler established the blueprint for cultured beachside luxury on this half of the globe. His Royal Ponciana Hotel was the largest in the world. His railroad introduced wealthy vacationers to unknown levels of opulence in the spas and casinos. They played croquet and tennis in their “winter whites” and hosted tournaments for the world’s polo elite.

“Therefore, Palm Beach from the beginning was a true resort destination in every sense of the word,” Pesquera concludes. “So, we like to say we have the longest tradition of resort hospitality in the country.”

And there it is. The homes with the well-manicured lawns and shops with well-turned ankles are scenery. The salient selling point for Palm Beach is the resolute pride for hosting visitors well. Exceptionally well. Groups are typically pampered with thoughtful sincerity because it’s in the blood, having evolved over a century of mingling with Vanderbilts, Kennedys and Trumps. It’s this collective spirit that values longevity, optimism and practiced grace—even in the face of Madoff and Limbaugh—where Palm Beach is most alluring.

Dining at L’Escalier at The Breakers, for instance, I watch a phalanx of waiters move in effortless choreography. The slightest turn of the head beckons any number of servers.

On Worth Avenue, I almost jump out of my shoes when a lady shrieks loudly behind me. “Ooooh look, Armani,” she exclaims, dragging hubby to the storefront. I cross the street to Ralph Lauren’s flagship and pass a fit, winsome girl wearing real polo gear and muddied knee-high riding boots. The store has a backyard garden with fountains and statuary. Chauffeurs outside wait by their cars while the ladies of the house walk their dogs through Tiffany’s. And in each boutique I visit, the service is unpretentious and unerring even though it’s quite apparent I’m not purchasing any produits de Paris.

ART, HISTORY, HERMÈS

“One of our most popular group excursions is a walking tour of Worth Avenue with Mr. Ponce, who’s a local tour guide and just one of the most dapper gentlemen you’ll ever meet,” says Paget Kirkland, president of Kirkland Destination Services. “We’ll also do things like a fashion show in Gucci’s courtyard. Don’t think the high-end stores won’t work with you. They can really enhance an event.”

Mr. Ponce is considered the history professor emeritus of the city, who provides group tours through Flagler Museum. The revered building was once Flagler’s home, which the New York Herald in 1902 proclaimed “grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.” Today, the Beaux Arts-style museum can host groups up to 350 on average inside a variety of spaces. The Flagler Kenan Pavilion is designed like a grand European railroad terminal, complete with Flagler’s own railcar, while the Grand Ballroom speaks to the gold leaf glamour of Venice and Versailles.

“It’s just staggering in its beauty,” says Kirkland. “We had a group recently enjoying cocktails there and 95 percent of them dropped their drinks to do the tour. The planner was shocked to find so many people interested in Florida history.” Kirkland also books a band there called Steet Talk who play everything from swing dancing to Latin salsa. “In Palm Beach, it’s either a dancing group or an all men group. We’ll do casual or elegant, everything from poodle skirts to black tie.”

Black tie is often the dress of choice at Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago estate. For $100,000 plus yearly membership dues, you’ll have no problem booking an event at the original home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the cereal heiress and wife of E.F. Hutton. Otherwise, you’ll require introductions.

“Well yes, that’s how it works,” explains Kirkland. “It’s considered a privilege to book there, and we can help provide that privilege.” She says the interior of the 58-bed/33-bath mansion is filled with Post’s collection of antiques, tapestries and china collected from around the world. The grand oceanfront lawn is Florida’s Holy Grail for outdoor gatherings.

“Just a fabulous place,” enthuses Kirkland. “Mr. Trump has kept the house much the same as it was.”

“Did that establish a lot of goodwill among the local community?” I ask.

“Yes, he didn’t come in and Donald it up….”

Another true highlight is the Norton Museum of Art. I’m attending a party promoting in-house caterer Lyon + Lyon, so everyone is nibbling on loup de mer and roasted poussin. Later, a few of us wander through the galleries where we come face to face with Georgia O’Keeffe’s Red Flower.

It stops you. Her quote above reads: Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small we haven’t time. I’ll paint big…. We follow that up with Miró, Pollack, Matisse and Picasso while the cellist and violinist provide the mood.

“All those types of venues contribute to making Palm Beach such a classy, upscale destination,” says Susi Knight, a planner with Houston-based Meridinet. “But at the same time it’s quiet and has that resort feel, it’s more casual than New York but very agreeable.” Knight arranged a couple groups of 150-200 attendees, booking The Breakers and Four Seasons. One was an oil and gas company whose trip to Argentina was repositioned. Knight suggested Palm Beach.

“It’s beautiful, it’s that ambience of the rich and famous,” she says, wistfully. “I mean, they just nail it on the head, don’t they? It’s like a dreamworld.”

WICKETS ’N CHUKKERS

David Fletcher was once an unknown sheep farmer from middle-of-nowhere Australia. But he was the toast of Palm Beach society this past season. Fletcher had to sell 700 sheep in order to bring his three sons to play in the World Croquet Federation Championship in May.

But still, croquet for Fortune 500 groups? Like for real?

“I always laugh when people ask about croquet like that,” answers a gracious Sandy Coto, director of events at The National Croquet Center. It’s the largest such facility in the world, with an Old Florida grand plantation vibe. “Sure, some people have to be arm twisted, and it can be a challenge explaining the facility to planners. But once they arrive and hear the click of the balls and smell the fresh cut grass, people can’t wait to get out there.”

Coto explains groups are divided into teams of 16 and paired with a croquet professional to learn strategy about working together as a team. She says dress is typically “croquet whites or tropical brights, in the spirit of Gatsby.”

Another experience that shouts Palm Beach is polo. The International Polo Club Palm Beach offers demo games for visiting groups, best enjoyed with champagne, canapes and big floppy hats. Four men or women and their mounts per team will play a few chukkers (periods), and it’s really a surprising thing of beauty and brawn when the horses dance in circles as riders fight to position themselves near the ball. Afterwards, everyone helps repair the grass field by “stomping the divots,” including tottering women in manageable heels.

“I absolutely love the polo grounds,” says Kirkland. “It’s so much fun during season when we’ll rent a private box for a group. Just amazing WOW factor, and so Palm Beach.”

A LITTLE MORE PLAYFUL

I’m not sure which is most appealing: the everglades barbecue frog legs with raspberry coulis, or the boudoir decor at Angle Restaurant inside the revamped Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach. The recent $130 million renovation touched on every aspect of the 310-room hotel, and it’s a jawdropper, from the classic all-white elegance in the great room to the tangerine-colored Temple Orange restaurant. The overall redesign is a direct attack on the myth that Palm Beach is for older folks.

“There’s a new lifestyle in Palm Beach and we’re a reflection of that,” says Reggie Dominique, director of sales/marketing. “We’re not South Beach, now. But we are more relaxed—a little more stylish and playful.” The new communal fire pit for making s’mores by the sea is part of the new 3,000-sf oceanfront terrace, the only one of its kind in Palm Beach. And nothing in the region compares to the new 41,000-sf Eau Spa. Reason enough to book, especially with group rates starting at $159 nightly during select dates.

The Waldorf Astoria Collection welcomed Boca Raton Resort & Club into the fold this May, following a $220 million refurb/expansion to the 1,047-room grand dame resort. There’s a sweeping romance enveloping the lushly verdant grounds and 1920s-era buildings drawn up by architect Addison Mizner. He molded Italian, French and Spanish motifs into his own tropical Mediterranean oeuvre, reaching its pinnacle here in Boca, about 35 minutes south of Worth Ave.

Boca Raton Resort has long been celebrated for its dining options. Masaharu Morimoto—the Iron Chef himself—opened Morimoto Sushi Bar this winter, but you’ll have to break up larger groups to gather at the intimate 32-seat restaurant. Also part of the renovation, the new Beach Club houses SeaGrille Restaurant for 88-person buyouts. And for something special, Cielo seats 125 or 40 in private. Chef Angela Hartnett helms the kitchen, the first woman ever to earn a Michelin star.

More South Beach than Sotheby’s, The Omphoy Ocean Resort is a new 134-room, $100 million boutique property with a sassy, moddish tone expressed on the outside by a Japanese trellis porte cochere and long waterfall pool facing the entrance. Really, the entire property is an interplay between Asian motifs, running water and sun-kissed light.

Inside, there’s a fantastic flow of light and energy in the public areas with all the open spaces and natural light pouring in through the sunroof. That continues back outside onto the large beachfront terrace, which almost feels like the deck of a young billionaire’s private home. If NBA team owner Mark Cuban lived in Palm Beach, he’d live here.

“There’s a healthy modern energy here, something fresh and luxurious in an unpretentious environment,” says Suzanne Epps, director of sales/marketing. Function space is 7,500 sf.

Omphoy is grabbing buzz thanks to celeb chef Michelle Bernstein moving in. She, who bested Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. Standing on the beach terrace, one feels a world away from Worth Avenue. But close enough for lunch.

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