Exploring Palm Beach

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It’s not for the beaches you go to Palm Beach. There are miles of beaches … and thousands of palm trees. But the lush island paradise which sits off the coast of West Palm Beach, is all about charm and beauty.

By Patsy Robertson

There’s a dichotomy: Palm Beach has the look and feel of a quaint village. Gentle residents and welcoming shopkeepers make you feel warmly at home. It’s accessible, low-key. Little do you realize, initially, that here reside names which run the world. Its heritage includes families of the Vanderbilts, Whitneys, DuPonts, Kennedys, Cabots, Pillsburys, Fords, Posts, Pulitzers, Hiltons and more.

Exclusive private clubs define the Palm Beach elite. Memberships are more a matter of heritage than money.

It is said that more charitable funds are raised, per capita, in Palm Beach than any other community in America. About 9,000 residents live year-round on the island. Additionally some 20,000 arrive for, “The Season,” winter months.

Exclusive private clubs define the Palm Beach elite. Memberships are more a matter of heritage than money. It was for that reason President Donald Trump was excluded when he first arrived more than 40 years ago. He was viewed by locals as “new-money … loud … like a used car salesman … even had a huge flag pole” on his property. But now that he is President of the United States and bestowing on the island its second “winter White House” status, the “Old Guard” is noticeably softening..

Mar-a-Lago is the magnificent estate Trump purchased from Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1986. His plan was to open his own club, after being denied membership in others. The size was adequate –a palatial home with more than 110,000 square feet, 128 rooms, a ballroom reminiscent of Versailles. And located on 17 acres of land, stretching from sea to lake, hence its name.

Moreover, Trump desired to own the home because it was the most splendid trophy in the wealthiest town. He is quoted as saying, “I immediately knew it had to be mine,” after first viewing.

The first “winter White House” belonged to the family of President John F. Kennedy. Its location on the North End is opposite from Trump’s South Ocean Boulevard residence. President Kennedy and his family frequently vacationed at the private, sea-side compound. It is said he worked on his inaugural speech there, recovered from back surgery, composed most of his Pulitzer prize-winning book, “Profiles in Courage.” It was in Palm Beach he rested in November, 1963, immediately before flying to Dallas.

There’s a fascinating trademark in Palm Beach. It’s the ubiquitous hedges. No one ever forgets seeing the manicured, green screens in every shape and size. Most rise at least 12 feet in height. They give a feeling of privacy among charming neighborhoods and along narrow roadways.

High fashion takes its place in Palm Beach along world-famous Worth Avenue, elegantly lined with designer shops. In elite couture prominence, it is considered equal to New York, London, Paris and Rome.

Development of Palm Beach can be traced back to American Tycoon, Henry Flagler. In 1893, it was his vision to transform the sandy jungle land into a vacation paradise. Flagler, the co-founder of Standard Oil and Florida East Coast Railway, saw the potential attraction of the area. It was he who initiated architectural beauty and opulence, reflected in the hotels he built.

The Breakers Hotel, first opened in 1896, remains his crown jewel in Palm Beach. World renowned, the historic Breakers designed along Italian Renaissance lines, has maintained the world’s top guest list of “who’s who” – among celebrities and world leaders.

But absolutely not to be missed is the 75-room, 100,000-square-foot mansion Flagler built as a wedding present for his bride, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler, in 1902. Named Whitehall as their home, it is now called the Flagler Museum – filled with breathtaking furnishings and captivating stories.

In a nod to her Southern heritage, Henry Flagler made sure to acknowledge his wife’s home. Columns were included on the front portico – Mary Lily Kenan’s roots were firmly planted in North Carolina soil. The couple used their home as a winter retreat, establishing the Palm Beach ritualistic “season” for the wealthy. It is a tradition which yet continues.

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