Planning my cultural escapade while sipping bubbly champagne-and-orange-juice under the gloriously frescoed dome of The Breakers’ Circle restaurant, totally mesmerized by waves curling onto the rocks shielding the shore, it’s intuitive to think that the ribbon of culture cascading down Florida’s eastern coast – from Palm Beach County’s Palm Beach Gardens area to Boca Raton – owes as much to the ambitions of a 14-year-old school dropout as to the high-minded people who – over more than a century – flocked to imbibe the tropical esthetic of the luxurious ocean-side resort he built in 1896.
Most northerners anticipate the Palm Beaches – as the county is dubbed – as a recreational realm of beaches and sports including golf, tennis, sailing and polo. Those who venture beyond find the historic heart of Palm Beach Island sparkles with a breathtaking exuberance of culture.
Archeological artifacts date the Palm Beaches to pre-Columbian days, eons before Henry Morrison Flagler quit school and ultimately forged a fortune with John Rockefeller and Samuel Adams in the Standard Oil Company, masterminded the world’s first business trust, and pieced together tracts of land to build the Florida East Coast Railway from Jacksonville to Key West.
Legends abound of explorer Ponce de Leon’s 1513 landing in his search for the fountain of youth, and of Spain’s 1765 trade of Florida to England in exchange for Cuba. But it’s the story of Flagler – how his construction of railway, hotels and his own mansion cultivated Florida’s agriculture and tourism industries, while imbuing Palm Beach with all the romantic cachet of the Gilded Age – that sets the cultural tone for the area today.
The most inspirational way to sense the magnitude of Flagler’s impact is to start on Palm Beach Island, where an idyllic aura blooms from The Breakers and the Flagler Museum to the entire, palm-fringed 25-kilometre-long barrier island. As both The Breakers and the Flagler Museum are significant U.S. historic sites, both offer docent-guided tours to showcase the architecture and grounds.
Rebuilt in 1926 with the Renaissance pomp of lofty archways and gold-leaf ceilings, the 120-year-old hotel – still owned by Flagler’s descendants – boasts impeccable status thanks to an annual infusion of $25 million dedicated to renewal. Recent additions include a new spa, kids’ playground, and a top-floors boutique hotel called the Flagler Club, which gives guests chauffeured Tesla service during their stay. The most awesome sights are coincidentally popular wedding venues: lavish ballrooms vie for the vast emerald lawn where brides often position the chupah between two palms overlooking the ocean.
Prepare to be dazzled by the Flagler Museum, housed in Whitehall, the railroad magnate’s circa 1902 mansion, celebrated today as a National Historic Landmark. Flagler’s portrait holds court in the lobby of the “white marble palace” built for his third wife. The Beaux Arts-style building, art, furnishings, gold-leaf ceilings and documents speak volumes of the Gilded Age and its lust for glamorous social affairs. The era’s architectural marvel, Whitehall was built with indoor plumbing. Treasures include a rare painting by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Interestingly, the docent tour reveals a vast dining room floor facing the waterway that is used today as a concert venue. Built and designed by Addison Mizner as part of a 1925 addition (since removed) when Whitehall was sold and temporarily turned into a hotel before being repurchased by Flagler’s kin, it prompts you to wonder if not for Addison Mizner’s appearance and penchant for Mediterranean-style architecture, would Florida have developed with Beaux Arts influence.
Thanks to the railway, Mizner’s architectural influence pervaded Palm Beach, noticeably on Worth Avenue where narrow laneways or vias branch to scenic courtyards. Scattered with sculptures, fountains and bougainvillea cascading from wrought iron gates at shops and eateries, they create the ambience of Italian Riviera villages. For a lovely jaunt, join Rick Rose for a historic walking tour (Wednesdays, starting at Via Amore) that takes in Mizner’s residence; then stop for lunch at Taboo, a Worth Avenue institution for 75 years.
Lured by the railway’s entrée to warm climes, arts aficionados settled and cultivated pockets of culture that produce vibrant programs today. In 1936, they founded the Society of Four Arts. Set amid a lush setting of sculpture and botanical gardens, it offers exhibitions, programs and international speakers. To see close-ups of the early philanthropists’ Mizner-inspired abodes, cycle the 16-kilometre Lake Trail with rentals from palmbeachbicycle.com. You may wheel alongside Rod Stewart, Howard Stern, Billy Joel or Donald Trump.
For culture buffs, West Palm’s Kravis Center for the Performing Arts is a treasure-trove of multiple venues housing the Palm Beach Opera, Palm Beach Pops and Miami City Ballet. It is a lively hub for plays, concerts and cabaret performances. In the area, stop at the Farmer’s Table for the fresh abundance of vegan or organic fish and meat dishes.
Farther south, Delray Beach may be known for the luxe Atlantic Avenue strip housing eateries and galleries, including the stunning Blue Gallery tucked with art glass and paintings by Calman Shemi. But it is internationally renowned for the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens. After touring the six gardens inspired by different periods of Japanese culture, imbibe the spirit in the pretty teahouse.
Inland, Boca Raton developed slowly from Mizner’s dream for “the world’s most architecturally beautiful playground” with golf courses, polo fields and landscaped streets for la crème de la crème of global society. In 1926, Mizner styled The Cloister Inn after Spanish castles. Renamed in 1930 as the Boca Raton Hotel & Club, today it is historically prized as The Boca Raton Resort & Club, and scattered with historic artifacts from the Boca Raton Historical Society.
Today Boca thrives with mind-invigorating culture. Graced by an outdoor sculpture garden, Boca Raton Museum of Art includes works by impressionists Picasso and Degas, contemporary American art, and West African tribal and pre-Columbian art. For pure delight, visit The Wick Theatre and Costume World. After seeing authentic Broadway costumes – including some from Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly and Singing in the Rain – stay for lunch or dinner to hear how the growth of Boca Raton helped a cleaning lady turn a dusty job into theatre impresario, then enjoy a lively musical production.
Though south of Palm Beach County, Pompano holds quirky magnetism for shoppers to digress from extravagant Worth Avenue to the Festival Flea Market on Sample Road. Tucked among the shmattes and discounted stuff, you’d never expect to find Rabbi Eliezer Reiner – certified Sofer STaM – honing his cultural craft, Judaic script on illuminated manuscripts.