Palm Beach for Beginners

Palm Beach, Fla., is not for everyone. To visit Palm Beach and love it, you must first suspend reality and disabuse yourself of any notions about good taste and humility. Once you’ve done that, double what you’re prepared to spend for a trip to the beach, pack a bag and get yourself on the JetBlue nonstop into PBI (West Palm Beach International Airport).

A surfer on the beach at the North End.

In my past life I worked the red carpet at the Red Cross Ball at Mar-a-Lago. It felt like I was working in the Capital in the Hunger Games. This sums up Palm Beach. Like I said, it’s not for everyone.

My trips to this stretch of white sandy beaches and turquoise blue Atlantic waters always start on the nonstop flight out of DCA. That’s where you’ll get your first taste of the absurdity to ensue: I have never once been on a DCA-PBI flight with fewer than two purse-sized dogs. They’re almost always named Mitzy or Fitzy or Kitty. If the pet isn’t named something like that, more likely than not their owner is.

At PBI I recommend renting a car. Plenty of people do just fine taking an Uber and grabbing ride shares to get around town. I find I get less annoyed by Florida’s frequent rainstorms if I have a car. I do not recommend renting from Budget, having been hoodwinked at the counter there recently.

If you’re feeling very indulgent, get a room at The Colony Palm Beach. This pink, white and green confection of a building has hosted dignitaries and debutantes since 1947. Now it’s an influencer and Instagrammer’s paradise. Room prices are steep, but the service is top-notch and the surroundings delightful, if you can swing it.

Peeking at the pool area of The Colony.

If you, like me, prefer to save on the hotel, get yourself an Airbnb on the island. We stayed at this one recently and it was terrific – really comfortable beds with soft linens in a stark white, clean apartment with millennial-chic accessories in a terrific location. It had parking, laundry, and enough space for two couples for a weekend. Only one bathroom, so you should know the other couple well enough to avoid toilet-related embarrassments.  I’ve also stayed in five or six units at the Palm Beach Hotel, all of which have been perfectly fine but not nice enough to show my mother-in-law, or my mother (two very different sets of standards, both sometimes impossibly high). I love potential, and the PB Hotel has a ton of it. So far, it’s unrealized, with a light dusting of mildew smell everywhere. Of the many, this is the best. Acceptable unit, not-so-great building.

See even better deals in West Palm? That’s fine, but I have very little advice for you. When I visit Palm Beach it’s for the wackiness and the beauty that is life on the jewel-laden jewel of Florida’s East Coast.

My first stop is always Sant Ambroeus for happy hour (5-8 p.m. weekdays, 4-6 p.m. weekends). Nowhere else on the island can you get a $10 cheese plate large enough to call dinner (isn’t that one of the most luscious parts of being a grownup?) and a stiff cocktail pretty enough to paint a picture of. The fritto misto is also indulgent, large juicy shrimps in a tempura batter, with surprising vegetables paired – squash blossoms, a quartered lemon, fat stalks of asparagus.

An unwholesome amount of dessert at Imoto. You don’t have to be wholesome when you’re in Palm Beach.

If I’m not traveling solo, people usually expect more food. If that’s the case, we go to Imoto or Buccan. They’re sister restaurants, Imoto serves precious sushi, Buccan serves heartier new American fare. Inside Imoto you can usually hear yourself think. That’s almost never the case at Buccan. The people-watching is top-notch at both. Pro-tip: Make a reservation for at least 30 minutes before you really want to sit down. After 8:00 all bets are off on tables moving on time.

A perfect Saturday: Wake up and hit the Intracoastal for a run or walk. From anywhere north of the middle bridge (Royal Park Bridge), just head to the Intracoastal (opposite side as the ocean) and you’ll dead-end into the trail. The trail runs past beautiful homes on the Intracoastal, including the Flagler. End your run either at Celis for a juice or Patrick Leze for croissants and quiche and a cigarettes-and-I-don’t-care Frenchiness more appropriate in Paris.

Dinner al fresco at the AirBnb on Oleander.

From breakfast, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure. Hit the beach, go shopping, take in a museum. The public beach at Worth Avenue is usually packed. While I prefer my beaches quieter, I also can get behind sunbathing with a show, which is what you’ll get at Worth. Family photo shoot to the left, engagement shoot to the right, perhaps even a maternity fashion shoot with the iconic clocktower in the background. For a quieter beach, head all the way to the North tip of the island, where you’ll find some public access points near Reef Road.

If you’re shopping along Worth Avenue, stop and treat yourself to a martini at Ta-Boo, or grab a quick lunch at Pizza al Fresco.  Keep your eye out for Mona Lisa the pig, who calls the glorious Villa Mizner  facing Pizza al Fresco home. Even if you’re not hungry, duck down Via Mizner as a reminder to peek into every little via off both sides of Worth Avenue. You’ll find charming stores with beautiful home furnishings, luxurious places with home goods and jewelry and some places with slightly more affordable items, other places that are so beautifully staged you forget they’re stores.

My favorite wander-around store is The Silver Fund. On a rainy day, I could spend hours admiring and gasping at the eclectic art and furniture and barware on display. The men who run it are eager to answer questions, even if you’re more of a gawper than a buyer. Almost every time I leave that store, I add an item to my mental “I wish I’d bought” list. You know, the list of items you think about occasionally years afterward: The lavender coat with lime green lining, the white and blue tiered linen skirt, the embroidered chairs in St. Barth’s.

The next day? Shower, rinse, repeat.


Alicia Amling View All →

Recovering journalist who discovered a life outside of news leaves you time for things like getting angry, cooking and traveling. Plus, hopefully, writing. I’m a wife, dog mom and Washingtonian.

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