An amazing facial at Exhale Spa has left a red welt in the center of my nose, and I notice that my sandals are coming a bit unglued. As I enter Hermès on Palm Beach’s famous and notoriously high- end Worth Avenue, I wonder if I’m throwing myself to the wolves — if my disheveled, makeupless appearance will elicit the dreaded salesclerk snub like the one that Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman character receives on Rodeo Drive. I can’t help but think that the typical Worth Avenue client would probably pull off a red welt on the nose with elegance and aplomb. I realize that I’m thinking of the Palm Beach stereotype: perfectly polished denizens dripping with diamonds and wielding platinum credit cards. Being one of the most moneyed destinations in, well, the country, this island city can be intimidating. After all, its parttime population includes a cadre of the world’s wealthiest and most famous, who live behind towering hedges that obscure their mansions and estates along Ocean Boulevard, Highway A1A and the Intracoastal Waterway.
Palm Beach has been synonymous with high society since 1896, when oil tycoon Henry Flagler built his first luxury hotel on the Atlantic Ocean, luring those who had the means to do so to escape winter’s wrath. Created specifically as America’s first winter resort town, this city, which celebrates its centennial this year, has entertained a host of celebrities, world leaders and Fortune 500 billion- aires. Yesteryear’s VIPs are memorialized in suite names and cocktails — Bogart, Brando and Hepburn. Today’s glitterati are carefully guarded by hoteliers, who name drop — Bill Cosby, Billy Crystal and Joan Rivers — only when given prior authorization to do so.
So, here I am, a nobody, in Hermès, running my hand along the so-so-soft leather of the $7,000 saddle I’ve been coveting for years. A saleslady approaches, and I self-consciously cover my nose. “What kind of horse do you have?” she asks with a smile, seemingly oblivious to my condition. I shake my head and stammer, “I don’t have one … yet.”
She turns confidante, admitting that many of her clients use the saddles and horse blankets as home decor. And she follows me around — not in that creepy, keeping-an-eye-on-you sort of way, but helpfully pointing out potential gifts for my daughter, who, unlike my horse, does exist.
“So many people have this image of Palm Beach and the people who live behind the hedges,” says Sherry Frankel, a Worth Avenue merchant. “They’re intimidated. But most people here don’t wear their wealth. We’re really just down-home people who happen to live in a pretty area.” That pretty area is a barrier island snuggled between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic. Tree bridges connect it to the mainland, including the central span that leads ironically right into the palm-lined financial district of downtown West Palm Beach, home to 55 banks & wealth management companies.
As I browse Worth Avenue’s other international design houses, like Gucci and Giorgio Armani, and its locally owned antique shops, galleries and boutiques, I’m greeted with the same pleasant treatment. I don’t think to apply Julia Roberts’ most famous line to myself (“Big mistake — huge,” she tells the clerks afer a spending spree).
Because of Worth Avenue, which is often compared to Rodeo Drive, Palm Beach has that luxury cachet, a mystique that has enticed celebrity chefs to come, and top-rated resorts and spas have opened here too, with beauty-industry stars like Kate Sommerville and Frédéric Fekkai in tow. I’m mesmerized watching Fekkai creative director Bernard Arapoglou (a Frenchman with rock-star locks) wheel around on his stool, snipping and blow-drying a client’s $205 style to perfection. It’s pure genius. My husband, Clinton, and I see two Aston Martins, a Maserati, a Bentley and a Rolls- Royce during our three-block stroll from the Brazilian Court Hotel to Worth Avenue.
Come high season in January, Palm Beach becomes a playground for the wealthy, who, for a few brief months, stage extravagant charity galas, host six-figure campaign dinners and enjoy wintertime golf, boating and fishing. But it’s also appealing to those of us further down the wealth spectrum, particu- larly during the summer, when the Gulf Stream ushers in a continuous breeze, resorts and restaurants offer deep discounts, and Worth Avenue stores slash prices.
Even in-season Palm Beach is no longer the stuffed-shirt spectacle it once was. Patrons no longer arrive at the Leopard Lounge decked out in full gala regalia or dance the night away at Ta-boo, a Worth Avenue restaurant and Frank Sinatra hangout rumored to be the birthplace of the bloody mary cocktail. The city rolls up its red-carpeted sidewalks long before midnight.
“Palm Beach has changed,” says Ta-boo general manager Marc Mariacher. “People think Palm Beach is just for the wealthy. It may have more money per capita than just about anywhere else, especially between January and March, but our restaurant has always appealed to Joe Public.”
Clinton and I discover, between counting luxury cars and glimpsing jaw-dropping menu prices, that just about everyone here is nice. A local resident, midway through his morning walk, invites us to lounge with him in a secluded sitting area overlooking the famous Front lawn at the Breakers, the third rendition of Flagler’s 1890s Atlantic resort (Nos. 1 and 2 were lost to fires) and the epitome of luxury, with its elaborately carved and painted ceilings. Residents, who emerge from behind the hedges for dog-walking duty, stop to chat.
We also learn that Palm Beach has a whimsical side, preordained perhaps by a man and his monkey. The man, Addison Mizner, created Palm Beach’s signature architecture, an eclectic mix of Tuscan, Moorish and Mediterranean styles, in the 1920s, and was often seen with his monkey, Johnnie Brown, perched on his shoulder.
Leslie Diver, a retired financial advisor turned tour guide, gives Clinton and me history and geogra- phy lessons as she tools us around town in her Beetle — this is after rain prevents us from going on our bicycle tour with Island Living Tours (islandlivingpb.com). She name-drops too, pointing to the homes of Rush limbaugh, Rudy Giuliani and Ann Coulter (hmm, a pattern?), plus rocker Rod Stewart, actor Tommy lee Jones and author James Patterson. The city appeals to the famous, she says, “because it doesn’t permit paparazzi, filming or free-standing nightclubs.”
We drive south, past Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago, where a giant American flag continues to wave proudly despite a cease-and-desist order from the city. (The flag violates size restrictions.) We reach Billionaires’ Row, and the homes, some still-standing Mizner creations, are noticeably larger, their entrances marked by gateposts with carved stone finials.