Island in The Sun - The Other Palm Beach
By Susan Scharfman
In the famous misquote, F. Scott Fitzgerald says: “The rich are different from you and me.” Ernest Hemingway replies: “Yes. They have more money.”
The sedate island of Palm Beach thumbs its Worth Avenue nose at Miami’s flamboyant South Beach. Winter elite never carry cash and party on yachts the size of RMS Queen Mary 2. Best selling author James Patterson lives here thanks to the boatload of fans that buy his books. Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago Club, once home to General Foods founder Marjorie Merriweather Post, is now sanctuary to pampered billionaires. We can pass all this material wealth on US Highway 95 and never know it's here. So why should we care? In the arts and the environment the rich are not different from you and me.
At a writers’ conference in the Brazilian Court Hotel on Australian Avenue, I stepped out of a time machine into the world of Scott and Zelda. Though now remodeled, Gatsby’s ghost lingers. South Florida’s Moorish-Mediterranean revival design owes its genesis to the creative artistry of early 20th century architect Addison Mizner. Yet the essence of Palm Beach lies not in its wealth, personalities or structural design, but its consciousness. In her “State-Of-The Town” address, Palm Beach Mayor Gail Coniglio emphasized “protection” of Palm Beach for future generations— infrastructure, public safety, coastal preservation.
Henry Flagler brought the Over-Sea Railroad to Key West and the world to Florida. In the tradition of Versailles and other European palaces, his Beaux-Arts mansion with antiques and art collection is open to the public at the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, Whitehall Way in Palm Beach. Across the Waterway in West Palm is a cultural jewel, The Norton Museum of Art. Its stunning permanent collection of American, European and Asian art resounds with summer chamber music concerts; I flipped over touring exhibit of American Impressionist Guy Rose. Broadway productions are on stage at the Palm Beach Dramaworks near the waterfront on Clematis Street. The larger Kravis Center for the Performing Arts is in downtown West Palm.
Though Palm Beach Island buzzes with energy, it is rooted in sanity, especially in summer. No horns blowing, nobody’s in a hurry. Life just happens. Across the Flagler Street bridge, on the left is the Society of The Four Arts. Palm Beach loves titles like society and royal, but the only thing royal about it are its towering Roystonea regia (royal palms). The Four Arts is a nonprofit cultural organization founded in 1936. November through April it hosts concerts, films, educational programs and art exhibitions attended by the winter multitude. Summer visitors come not to be seen, but to see. Pace leisurely, light vibrant, ecosystem vigorous, brimming with bougainvillea.
On a drowsy summer day in the hushed library of The Four Arts, I take the elevator to the second floor. Exhibits vary. The Children’s Library is currently featuring a rare photographic glimpse of the Buddhist Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. Skillful photographers Tom Sterling, Kathleen Sweeney and Dr. L. Samuel Wann transport viewers to one of the remotest places on earth, The Cloud Kingdom of the Drukpa people. Roaming among the lost horizons of lamas and fluttering prayer flags, suddenly it feels like winter. Leathered women weave multicolored wool blankets, children’s faces are red as apples. Languid brown-eyed yaks peer through fences of medieval hill towns where maroon robed monks till the primordial soil. Having physically trekked the Nepal range, I’m expecting indigenous yogis running naked in the snow. No luck!
From the frosty peaks of Shangri-La, a short stroll leads to the sunny world of the Four Arts Botanical Gardens. Amid trickling fountains, exotic birds, spiny bromeliads and tropical flowers, a mosaic tile bench invites a shady pause. Brick walkways meander through contrasting gardens of Chinese, British and Spanish influence. A Baroque wrought iron gate opens to a sacred pool in the temple garden where a live blond supermodel poses for photographers. Cool and serene, a sculpture of Kuan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy silently contemplates the photo shoot while the living goddess wilts under the Florida sun.
Kids like Pan’s Garden on nearby Hibiscus Avenue. A large bronze of Pan playing his pipe guards the entrance to the preservation of over 300 native varieties. Pan’s “Plants and Native Americans” program for students focuses on ethnobotany, the relationship between Florida’s Native American tribes and the indigenous plant species that supported their culture. The combination of historical and biological education awakens students to the increasing urgency of environmental preservation and conservation.
Palm Beach owes its quality of life to the passion and enormous capital of local residents devoted to preserving its environment and cultural integrity. Absent the hoopla of the rich and famous, a walk about town unearths fragrant backyard herb gardens visited by hummingbirds and vermillion flycatchers, art galleries tucked within courtyards—and the exotic world of flowers. The Greater Palm Beach Rose Society meets in West Palm. Orchid buffs have tons of resources including Mary’s Orchids on Sunrise Avenue, and the Orchid Society of the Palm Beaches.
Swim Time - Maritime - Lunchtime
South Ocean Boulevard has no shops or restaurants to obscure the view. A fringe of sand dunes with environmentally fragile hummock overlook pristine beaches—a dip in the teal blue briny rejuvenates the body and nurtures the soul. The Palm Beach Water Taxi offers a breezy history of the island with daily 90 minute sailings on the Intra-Coastal Waterway. Oceanfront Breakers Hotel, established in 1896, dates to the pioneer days of Henry Flagler. Breakers renown Sunday brunch will break your bank card, but there are other options including former Kennedy clan favorite, Green’s Pharmacy and Luncheonette, 151 N County Road. The nostalgic drug store with soda fountain and lunch counter serves great milkshakes, affordable food. From Starbucks lattes to local cafes, the thrifty traveler can imbibe the best of Palm Beach on a breeze and a GPS.