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Palm Beach is on sale - discreetly

It's easy to snare a table at Charley's Crab in Palm Beach. It's easy to snare a table at Charley's Crab in Palm Beach. (Bill Ingram/The Palm Beach Post)
By Drake Bennett and Rebecca Ulam Weiner
Globe Correspondent / May 17, 2009
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PALM BEACH, Fla. - "There's no one here!" whined an intensely tanned older woman into her cellphone, as she waved her cigarette feebly at a persistent fly. It was breakfast time on the flowery terrace of Café Boulud, at the Brazilian Court hotel, where the ratio of servers to guests was a healthy 3 to 1. While her date yelled into his Blackberry, she paced in slow, irregular laps around the courtyard as her crème fraiche omelette congealed in the sun. Judging by their New York accents, the couple appeared to be snowbirds. They had arrived earlier in an old white Rolls Royce, declaring to the valet that they had decided to breakfast out.

She was right. The hotel was next to deserted on a late March weekend despite perfect weather, cheap airfare from the Northeast, and room discounts of up to 70 percent. Of course, those were the very reasons we were there - the island, long off-limits to hoi polloi like ourselves, was letting down its guard just a bit.

Perhaps because of its small size - the town, on a barrier island, is less than 4 square miles - Palm Beach has always been remarkable, even among enclaves of the extremely rich, for its concentration of opulence. Henry Flagler, the robber baron and Standard Oil cofounder who created modern Florida, built his vacation home in Palm Beach, and ever since the town has done its utmost to keep the spirit of the Gilded Age alive.

The island is ringed by resplendent waterfront mansions. Donald Trump sold his to a Russian fertilizer mogul for $95 million last summer. Italian supercars and sloop-sized English sedans prowl the streets, and sockless old men in loafers squire willowy young women in and out of the town's glittering luxury boutiques. In the 1942 Preston Sturges film "The Palm Beach Story," Claudette Colbert's character goes to Palm Beach to find a rich suitor, and presumably that's where she would head today.

But while she would have an easier time finding affordable digs, the wooing these days might be a little less lavish. Like everywhere else, Palm Beach is feeling the pinch of late. The town has been rocked by the saga of Bernie Madoff - formerly a pillar of the town's Jewish community - whose Ponzi scheme dissolved millions, if not billions, of dollars of that community's wealth. And so the face Palm Beach presents to the world is one on which the gilding is wearing through in a few places.

We hadn't come to examine this, at least not primarily, but to visit a relative a few miles inland. Still, we found ourselves spending part of our stay in a Palm Beach that, at least by its own standards, was relatively affordable - and that seemed happy to have us.

The first night we spent in West Palm Beach - originally built to be Palm Beach's "service town," it now dwarfs Palm Beach both in population and in the gleaming cluster of skyscrapers that throw their shadows onto the Intracoastal Waterway. We stayed at the Hotel Biba, a sleekly renovated old motor inn near the water on a commercial strip in the El Cid neighborhood south of downtown. There's a lovely pool and a bar reputed to be a local hot spot, though things were fairly sedate the night we were there. A couple of packs of young men showed up, only to leave when they discovered that there weren't corresponding packs of women there.

The afternoon we arrived we checked in and walked the few blocks to Flagler Drive, which runs along the Intracoastal, into downtown, and across the wind-whipped Royal Park Bridge into Palm Beach. We then made our way to Worth Avenue, the town's famed shopping boulevard.

It takes a little while to notice the discreet signs of economic distress. The "for sale" placards in front of homes, for example, are subtle, roughly the size and shape of a woman's wallet - this was, we later learned, mandated by law. Once we got used to them, though, they seemed to be everywhere, winking out from the battlement-like privet hedges and abundant sprays of brightly colored flowers.

And Worth Avenue, while still lined with high-end stores, was noticeably quiet. Nearly every block had at least one vacant storefront, its emptiness imperfectly hidden by white linen drapes behind windows. Elegantly dressed women holding signs advertising steep discounts stood outside stores, like upscale versions of the knock-off vendors on New York City's Canal Street.

The restaurant Taboo, a local favorite where we stopped for a lunch of pizza and poached salmon, was far from empty on a sunny Saturday afternoon, but, eavesdropping on its carefully lifted and sculpted patrons, we heard several conversations about shriveled portfolios and canceled parties.

Dinner the following evening was even more drastic. Perhaps 9 p.m. was simply far later than the typical reservation, but we shared Charley's Crab, overlooking the Atlantic, with only a handful of diners, allowing us uninterrupted enjoyment of expertly prepared seafood dishes like snapper Hemingway (parmesan encrusted, with lump crab on top) and swordfish Oscar (topped with crabmeat, asparagus, and béarnaise). The stone crab claws were fresh and the fancy bread basket bountiful.

The sense of easy sybaritic excess was interrupted only during dessert, when we heard the couple at the table behind us ask the waiter for a stopper so they could take home the remaining quarter bottle of the sparkling mineral water they had ordered.

The sun and sand and surf, however, are still free, and the next morning on the beach on the Atlantic side of town we had ample space to stretch out, take a swim, and relax on the chairs in the beach bags that the Brazilian Club, our hotel for the night, provides free to guests. After the beach, we made our way back to the hotel to lounge by the pool, where the few hotel guests who joined us appeared unmoved by the prospect of $17 cocktails. But the chance to stay in an $800 hotel room for $300 does not come every day, so we indulged ourselves with a delicious aperitif and savory curried peanuts.

And, if the beach and cocktails and gawking at the misfortunes of the rich get old, there's always Lion Country Safari, a huge drive-through zoo and wildlife park 20 minutes inland from the center of West Palm Beach. The park boasts an impressive range of animals: lions, elephants, giraffes, rhinos (including, when we went, a baby), ostriches, several species of antelope, giant tortoises, monkeys, and an 80-year-old chimpanzee who in her youth starred in the Ice Capades.

Like Palm Beach itself, she's a diva who has seen more glamorous days.

Drake Bennett and Rebecca Ulam Weiner can be reached at drbennett@globe.com.

If You Go

What to do

The beach: The main beach runs several blocks north and south of where Royal Palm Way dead-ends at the Atlantic side of the island. Less frequented beaches preferred by locals are toward the northern end of the island.

Worth Avenue: Window-shop and observe the strolling locals.

Lion Country Safari

2003 Lion Country Safari Road

Loxahatchee

561-793-1084

www.lioncountrysafari.com

A sprawling drive-through safari zoo. Adults $24, seniors $22, children $18.

Where to stay

Hotel Biba

320 Belvedere Road

West Palm Beach

561-832-0094

www.hotelbiba.com

An old motor inn sleekly renovated for the frugal shelter-magazine set. Doubles $110-$170, deals available on website.

Brazilian Court Hotel

301 Australian Ave

Palm Beach

561-655-7740

www.thebraziliancourt.com

A grand Palm Beach institution with rooms from $550, but deals are available online or by calling the reservation line.

Where to eat

Taboo

221 Worth Ave.

Palm Beach

561-835-3500

www.taboorestaurant.com

A longtime watering hole. Pizzas from $10, main course salads from $16 and steaks from $30.

Charley's Crab

456 South Ocean Blvd.

Palm Beach

561-659-1500

www.muer.com

Upscale seafood overlooking the Atlantic. Appetizers from $10, main courses from $20.