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When in West Palm Beach

Eau Spa, West Palm Beach

Eau Spa, West Palm Beach

As they depart the dock in downtown West Palm Beach to cruise the Intracoastal Waterway, the jovial passengers on the power catamaran Hakuna Matata sip from their cups of house punch. “Kristin [the first mate] makes it taste like bubblegum and it goes down nice and smooth,” warns Captain Brian Marozzi, “so be careful about that.”

The guests on the sunset cruise, a mix of locals and out-of-towners, unwrap BYO picnics of Camembert, cocktail shrimp and bottles of wine while taking in the scenery—mostly superyachts and megamansions. To the west, the towering buildings of quirky downtown West Palm Beach rise. And to the east, the palatial estates of Palm Beach sprawl, sphinxlike, along palm-lined shores.

Diverse experiences await along this storied stretch of Florida’s Atlantic coast, first developed in the 19th century by railroad tycoon Henry Flagler for America’s wintering elite. Will you snorkel and spot an octopus in the Intracoastal Waterway, bask on a golden beach or take in a round of golf at a historic course? When you choose your own adventure in West Palm Beach, your options run the entire range of fun.

The biggest news on this year’s cultural calendar in West Palm Beach was the reopening of the Norton Museum of Art in February after $100 million in upgrades, with new gardens designed by celebrated architect Lord Norman Foster—his first specifically created for a museum. One of the opening exhibitions, Going Public: Florida Collectors Celebrate the Norton (through June 4), displays rarely shown works by such artists as Winslow Homer and Mary Cassatt, on loan from private South Florida collectors.

Nearby, along pedestrian-friendly Clematis Street downtown, you can people-watch and café hop, sipping sangria on the patio of the new Tapeo Tapas (with specialties from Galicia that include grilled octopus and a killer paella) or grabbing a cone at Sloan’s Ice Cream, with its playful Willy Wonka-esque interior. Don’t miss Grandview Public Market—a food hall that opened in early 2018 within a repurposed midcentury warehouse, where Florida craft beers flow and vendors hawk innovative fare à la smoked Florida fish dip with jalapeños and Mesoamerican fusion tacos.

It’s a quick hop east, across the Intracoastal bridge, to the überwealthy enclave of Palm Beach. Here, a driving or bicycling tour with Leslie Diver of Island Living Tours gives a fascinating peek into the lifestyles of the island’s rich and famous. “You get a much nicer perspective of Palm Beach on a bike,” Diver says. “We go down some of the quieter, smaller streets. I don’t think anyone leaves Palm Beach underwhelmed.”

Lined with charming Mediterranean courtyards called vias, Palm Beach’s iconic Worth Avenue is where you’ll find most of the couture boutiques (Chanel, Gucci and the like). But for a fun alternative, stroll the nearby concept fashion and décor boutiques and restaurants at the recently revived Royal Poinciana Plaza, a 1950s Palm Beach landmark that’s having a moment. “[The Plaza] is in the tradition of the Palais-Royal in Paris, and the way the arcades are created, you’re meant to stroll around and spend time here,” says Sarah Gavlak, owner of Gavlak Gallery. She moved her contemporary space—which shows works primarily by female, LGBTQ and minority artists—here from Worth Avenue in late 2018.

Just north of Worth Avenue, the stretch of sand at Mid-Town Municipal Beach is kept perpetually free of seaweed by the town of Palm Beach and is a lovely spot to swim in waters as clear as the Caribbean. For an entirely different water interlude, head just north of West Palm Beach to the Phil Foster Park Artificial Reef and Snorkel Trail. You can bring your own mask and fins or join guided snorkeling tours with Pura Vida Divers for a look at the exciting marine life of the Lake Worth Lagoon. Snorkeling sessions are timed with the changing tide to coincide with that brief window when the water turns crystal clear. In just 15 feet of water, snorkelers regularly spot sea turtles, eagle rays and resident octopuses and seahorses—easily the most fascinating denizens along this legendary stretch of coastline.

Where to Stay

The Jonathan Adler-designed rooms at Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa impress with retro Florida photography and bright colors. But it’s the oceanfront hotel’s whimsical Eau Spa that steals the show. And Palm Beach’s (and Florida’s) grande dame historic hotel, The Breakers, late last year saw the revamping of its Rees Jones-designed championship Ocean Course, Florida’s oldest golf course. 

Where to Eat

Midcentury-inspired digs (think mahogany walls and pink and gray terrazzo floors) set the scene at Sant Ambroeus in The Royal Poinciana Plaza, where charcuterie platters, grilled wild Dover sole and homemade gianduja cakes are among the Italian favorites. For the freshest fruits of the sea, no place tops the Seafood Bar at The Breakers. Live clownfish (Nemo!) that swirl within aquariums built into the bar and stone crabs from local waters (served fresh from mid-October through mid-May) are among the seasonal offerings. 

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