Palm Beach in May? Why not? New Yorkers tend to regard Florida as the ultimate winter destination — a balmy, palm-shaded escape from frigid wind chills around Chanukah time.
But May and June are my favorite Florida months, with more reliable weather and a deliciously warm ocean. When the official high season ends as snowbirds fly north for Passover, all of a sudden Palm Beach takes on the feel of a friendly small town, with locals making small talk at the deli and fishing off the beach. And this year the deals are as sweet as the temperatures.
Add in the lingering effect of the financial crisis, and the Palm Beaches — the tony, pastel barrier island of Palm Beach and its middle-class urban counterpart on the mainland, West Palm Beach — are wide open in May for budget-minded visitors craving a sunny weekend getaway (with plenty of kosher food).
Take, for instance, the Founders’ Special offered through the Palm Beach County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Stay two or more consecutive nights at a featured resort and the next night is $19.09, in honor of Palm Beach’s founding year. Participating hotels include The Breakers, Palm Beach’s historic oceanfront grande dame; the Boca Raton Resort and Club, another fabled destination a half-hour south; and a selection of upscale chain hotels and intimate bed-and-breakfasts.
Other hotels, such as the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach, are offering a third free night with two paid nights. Dining is still pricey on and around rarified Worth Avenue, Palm Beach’s main commercial strip, but in late spring during a recession, proprietors are eager for customers, offering enticing happy hours and prix-fixe specials.
Flights between New York and Palm Beach International Airport are generally a good deal this time of year. But if you’re planning a getaway, JetBlue has particularly good air-and-hotel packages from JFK. A sample Thursday-to-Sunday vacation in early May, with three nights at the luxurious Colony Palm Beach Resort, airfare for two people and all taxes, costs $861 in a recent search.
Of course, for kosher vacationers, there’s no more convenient destination than Palm Beach. The website www.floridajewish.com has countywide listings of kosher dining and drinking spots; from nostalgic deli and Israeli falafel to classic steaks and Italian-style gelato, you can dine at a different kosher spot every day for a week and never run out of options.
While Palm Beach has long been affluent, West Palm is in the grips of gentrification. The centerpiece of this effort is CityPlace, a New Urbanist shopping and residential complex that replaced 72 blighted downtown acres in 2000. Its Mediterranean-fantasy buildings in terracotta and yellow, fountain-laced piazzas and vibrant street life sent a deliberate jolt of chic into a long-faded urban core.
From both appearances and statistics released by the developers, CityPlace is thriving despite the downturn. High-rise buildings keep sprouting, with more apartments underway to connect the retail center with the waterfront. At CityPlace, you can cool off with an Italian gelato cone, sip prosecco at the Bellagio’s outdoor café in front of the fountain, shop a mix of major chains and local boutiques, and browse art at galleries like Eg2.
“Do you think we can walk from here to the Norton?” my father asked me after one such afternoon of retail therapy, referring to the Norton Museum of Art. People reacted to his question with dumbfounded stares. This is Florida, land of the car!
But CityPlace’s New Urbanist spirit and a sunny 75-degree day put us in the mood to stroll. And stroll we did, perhaps 20 minutes south down empty sidewalks and matter-of-fact 1960s buildings. The success of CityPlace, Miami’s South Beach and Fort Lauderdale’s reinvigorated Las Olas district is a reminder that urban living has its fans amid the broad car lanes of the Sun Belt.
The Norton Museum of Art, West Palm’s other major attraction, is a joy to discover or to revisit. Founded in the early 1940s by Ralph Norton, a Chicago industrialist and art collector with a Palm Beach winter home, the collection has expanded on its high-quality original core of European, American and Chinese art, with newer acquisitions rounding out displays of Dutch and Flemish masters, Renaissance paintings and contemporary art. A newly renovated building features spiral staircases and a delightful café, where you can nosh amid a light-filled solarium and indoor palms.
This is the last weekend to catch a fabulous exhibit of black-and-white fashion photographs from the 1950s, ’60s and beyond by Richard Avedon; an exhibition of abstract sculpture opens for the summer on June 5. On the second Thursday of each month, the Norton hosts an “Art After Dark” series from 5-9 p.m. with live music, cocktails, films and guided tours.
Over in Palm Beach proper, let’s face it: the most fun activity is gaping at other people’s mansions (at least those that are visible and not tucked behind ficus hedges). One house you can walk right into is Henry Flagler’s, now the Henry Flagler Museum and a national historic landmark. Inside the imposing, white-pillared façade are Rococo rooms filled with Versailles-style gilt, distinguished portraits, lavish furnishings, as well as rotating fine art exhibitions. On June 5, the museum holds its annual Founders’ Day celebration, with special events and free admission.
The beach, of course, is always free. While West Palm Beach itself is tucked behind the scenic, yacht-filled Intracoastal Waterway, coral-white expanses are open to the public along A1A and Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach.
Midtown Beach, recently spruced up, has the most accessible sand from the center of town; it lies just east of Worth Avenue, and is the best beach for people-watching. But my favorite beach is at Phipps Ocean Park at the southeast end of the island, just off Ocean Boulevard. Here you’ll find green lawns, shaded picnic tables and calm seas — all you need for a perfect Florida day.
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