A South Florida sibling to the conspicuous consumption that once defined Newport, Rhode Island, Palm Beach (pop. 10,468) has been a winter refuge for the rich and famous since Henry Flagler started work on his fashionable (but long-vanished) resort hotel, the 1,150-room Royal Poinciana. It was the world’s largest wood building when completed in 1894, but the site is now an upscale shopping district at the center of town. Away from here, most of Palm Beach is well-guarded private property, off-limits to most mere mortals. The best way for anyone not named Kennedy or Pierpont to get a look at Palm Beach life is to spend some time at the Hearst Castle of the East Coast, the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum (561/655-2833, closed Mon., $18), on the inland side of downtown Palm Beach, at the north end of Cocoanut Row. Officially known as Whitehall, this opulent 60,000-square-foot mansion was Flagler’s private home, and the 50-plus rooms (many of which were taken from European buildings and re-installed here) contain historical exhibits tracing the life of Flagler, the Standard Oil baron (John D. Rockefeller’s right-hand man) who made a fortune while making Florida into an immensely popular vacation destination.
Inland from Palm Beach, you can wave at rhinos, lions, and wildebeests in a 500-acre, drive-through simulation of African ecosystems at Lion Country Safari (561/793-1084, $29.95), 18 miles west of I-95 via US-98. No convertibles allowed
Not surprisingly, there are some very good and very expensive restaurants in and around Palm Beach, but happily there’s also a very nice, all-American luncheonette, just two blocks north of The Breakers: Green’s Pharmacy Luncheonette (151 N. County Rd., 561/832-4443) serves very good diner-style meals.
Even bigger and better than Whitehall is The Breakers ($450 and up), a stately resort hotel that faces the ocean at the east end of Palm Beach and retains much of its 1920s Mediterranean style and grace. Even if you don’t stay the night, you can enjoy the lobby, have a drink or afternoon tea, or take a tour (561/655-6611, Tues. 2pm, $15).