The Denver Post Travel Section
Sunday, June 25, 2006


A WORKING STIFF VACATIONS AMONG THE RICH ... IN PALM BEACH
Bill Husted Denver Post Staff Writer

Let me tell you about the rich: They vacation very differently from you and me.
  
But if you're just a working stiff - say, a newspaperman, for instance - can you vacation among the rich? That was the question I kept asking myself recently on an excursion to Palm Beach, Fla.
  
The answer was ... yes. And no.
  
Nearly nine of every 10 residents in Palm Beach are millionaires, so there's no point denying that cash is king here. To have the full Palm Beach Experience requires lots of money. But many Palm Beach pleasures are inexpensive, and the best things to do and see here won't cost you a cent.
  
Strolling the beach, window shopping, strutting along Worth Avenue, people-watching. You can have a superb time and never once reach for your wallet.
  
The island is beautiful, fringed by some of the best beaches in America. Rows of palm trees greeted me as I entered town, and Bentleys and Rolls-Royces went whizzing past. Enhanced blonds in enhanced Jaguars waved and laughed. Were they laughing at me or with me? I couldn't tell. But I didn't care. I waved back.
  
I was a stranger at the gates, but an interesting assortment of strange people call Palm Beach home. This sliver of privilege, just 12 miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, is called home to "the worst members of America's best families."
  
Its scandals are legendary: The sordid Peter and Roxanne Pulitzer divorce. The William Kennedy Smith rape case. The Rush Limbaugh drug arrest. The roster of current and former residents and visitors reads like someone collated a script from "Entertainment Tonight" with the Social Register. Donald and Melania Trump, John Lennon, Jimmy Buffett, Rod Stewart, Estee Lauder, E.F. Hutton, Marjorie Merriweather Post, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., George Hamilton - and just about every Kennedy who doesn't live in Massachusetts. Or jail.
  
Watching this upper crust takes a keen eye and a wry sense of humor. Sit on a beach or a bench and watch the May-December marriages go by, or the extravagantly dressed women with Paris Hilton yap dogs, or the well-coiffed ladies lunching at Bice (pronounced BEE-che) and air-kissing at Ta-boo. It's a day-long parade, more decadent and colorful than you'll see at any other resort.
  
Everyone drips money, and no one seems to care if it's recently minted. Men wear ascots and blazers without irony, and ladies tool around in Ferraris as if they were golf carts. Celebrities and sports figures breakfast together at Cucina. Humanity on parade, cost of admission: nada.
  
Believe it or not, however, many of the local swells insist they're just folks. One told a reporter: "We have the same problems everyone else has. You just add a few zeros."
  
Here's the inside scoop on what to check out.
  
The shopping
  
Worth Avenue, a gleaming artery in the heart of Palm Beach, is the island's iconic symbol of style, wealth and swagger. It's three blocks of charming Mediterranean storefronts punctuated by narrow shopping alleys called vias.
  
The names above the doors say it all: Tiffany, Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Gucci, Hermes, Ferragamo, Escada, Cartier, Saks, Neiman Marcus, Lacoste, Van Cleef & Arpels, Dana Buchman, Jaeger, Valentino, Armani, Maxmara.
  
So if you're on a budget, steer clear. And cheer up. Just around the corner from all that primo retail is the Church Mouse. Run by the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea, this thrift store is world-famous for selling Palm Beach's lightly worn leftovers.
  
The beach
  
The beaches are free and open to everyone, like all beaches in Florida. The bad news? They are not particularly user-friendly.
  
At the eastern end of Worth Avenue is Municipal Beach. It has great surf and a battalion of life guards. It doesn't have any concessions, however, nor bathrooms, nor changing facilities. Metered parking along the beach is limited. But if you're staying on Palm Beach, all the hotels are within one or two blocks.
  
Beaches at the north end of Palm Beach are very quiet and known for voracious surf. But there's no public parking in that area, so ride a bike if you want to visit.
  
The restaurants
  
Palm Beach has seen a vast improvement in the quality of its restaurants in recent years. More than just a place to see and be seen, the town's eateries now offer some spectacular grub. Its first celebrity chef, Daniel Boulud, opened Café Boulud in the Brazilian Court Hotel a few years ago. Expensive but excellent.
  
The Palm Beach Grill is owned by the people who brought you Houston's and the Cherry Creek Grill. It has many of the same menu items, and it's just as bustling.
  
Then there's Hamburger Heaven. Good burgers, good breakfast, good prices. And you can find the richest folks in town chewing an egg salad sandwich at the counter at Green's Pharmacy, an authentic local experience.
  
The houses
  
The Moorish-Mediterranean style of the eccentric Addison Mizner sets the tone for Palm Beach's classic architecture. You can see some of his best houses on South Ocean Drive between the middle and south bridges.
  
On the north end of the island, it's best to rent a bike to travel the Lake Trail - and peek into the backyards of the estates.
  
The Breakers Palm Beach hotel is the island's signature structure, an Italian Renaissance-style eye-popper with 560 rooms. It sits proudly on 140 acres on the ocean, with a 36-hole golf course, 10 tennis courts, a croquet court, a multitude of pools, bars and restaurants.
  
Be sure to visit the Seafood Bar that overlooks the Atlantic. The bar itself doubles as an aquarium. The owners continue to pour money into the hotel, $15 million last year to update the pool area and add 20 private beach bungalows (concierge, wireless Internet, day sofas.) They're $735-$795 a day during peak season (October-May), $179-$219 (June-September). This is in addition to your room. (Hey, I told you it gets expensive here.) But if you can afford it, you should stay at the Breakers.
  
If you're not feeling all that Trumpy, you can overnight it at the Heart of Palm Beach Hotel, starting at $129-a-night offseason. It's modest, but it's in the center of town, just a block from the beach with a small pool in back.
  
So, sure, it's better to stay at The Breakers than the Heart of Palm. Better to eat at Café Boulud than Hamburger Heaven. Better to shop at Armani than the Church Mouse. But Palm Beach on a budget is still better than most places on a binge.