Event Venues

5 Days in the Palm Beaches

Just a 75-minute drive north of Miami, the Palm Beaches dwell in their own, more relaxed world.

palm Flagler_museum
The Henry Morrison Flagler Museum.

As the story goes, in 1878, the Spanish ship Providencia wrecked off the south Florida coast, and its cargo of 20,000 coconuts washed onto shore. The palm groves that eventually sprang up lent Palm Beach its tropical vibe, as well as its name. When I saw their frilly tops from my airplane window as we descended into the Palm Beaches, it looked as though we were about to land in paradise.

Although the communities that make up the Palm Beaches are just a 75-minute drive north of Miami, they dwell in their own, more relaxed world, and are even served by their own airport: Palm Beach International. Within 20 minutes of landing, my driver had deposited me at the PGA National Resort & Spa, the first stop of a five-day press trip hosted by Discover The Palm Beaches in September.

The sprawling, lush PGA resort is eight miles from the ocean, but guests visit for other reasons, too: five championship golf courses, a string of pools, and a massive spa. During a pre-dinner tour, we wandered from the resort’s ultra-modern suites through some of its 45 meeting spaces — including a traditional ballroom and breakout rooms, plus terraces and courtyards — to the brand-new health and racquet club. Later, we devoured chops at Ironwood Steak & Seafood, one of nine on-site restaurants and bars, before turning in.

We needed the sleep. The next morning, our group hit the green for a lesson with PGA’s on-site David Leadbetter Golf Academy. During an excellent 90-minute tutorial with instructor Jae Suh — during which Suh videotaped and analyzed our drives — I went from an intimidated beginner to someone who might actually golf without embarrassing myself.

After we put our clubs away, we headed to lunch at the International Polo Club Palm Beach in neighboring Wellington. Because the polo season runs from November to April, the club’s fields and grandstands were quiet — but the brunch buffet inside the Mallet Grille was as abundant as it would be in season, when the club hosts poolside Sunday-afternoon parties crowded with exuberantly clad guests. “It’s not a snooty place,” said Enid Atwater, the club’s public-relations director. “There’s something for everyone” — including plenty of spaces for groups, from grandstand boxes to boardrooms.

After massages and a thermal-pool soak back at the PGA resort’s mazelike spa, we headed out for an amble around CityPlace — an outdoor shopping, dining, and entertainment district in the heart of West Palm Beach — followed by a hearty dinner at the funky Alchemist Gastro Pub & Bar. The next morning, we had a taste of Palm Beach’s more eclectic, retro side via a visit to Ragtops Motorcars, a garage/event venue filled with gleaming classic cars, from Mustangs to DeSotos. As we poked our heads into open car windows and checked out the vintage bar, a sliding screen dramatically lifted to reveal a second room of the 8,000-square-foot space, jammed with even more cars and memorabilia, plus a drive-in movie screen showing an Elvis film.

About the only thing that Ragtops has in common with the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, our next stop, is that both serve as unique event venues. Henry Flagler, a co-founder of Standard Oil, was one of the 19th century’s great industrialists and hoteliers, and the ornate, 55-room house he built as a wedding present for his third wife glitters with art and antiques. A later addition — the soaring glass Flagler Kenan Pavilion — offers arresting water views and a modern counterpoint to the museum’s turn-of-the-century vibe.

Fifty years after Flagler broke ground, a socialite named Lilly Pulitzer set up a juice stand in Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue district that eventually became the flagship of her clothing brand. Plenty of locals still dress in bright, zany Pulitzer prints — and Worth Avenue is still lined with luxury stores and upscale eateries, as well as hidden piazzas, some with terraces and fountains, that double as venues.

For bigger groups — much bigger groups — the Palm Beach County Convention Center has plenty of room. The airy, Art Deco–influenced, 350,000-square-foot center has a design reminiscent of a sailboat, as well as a 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 22,000-square-foot ballroom, and 19 meeting rooms. Soon, the center will gain a long-awaited neighbor, when the adjacent 400-room Hilton West Palm Beach opens in early 2016. The center and the hotel may have been built a decade apart, but the Hilton’s design — with its pool and cabanas nestled between the two buildings — makes the properties seem like siblings. The Hilton will have its own 24,000 square feet of meeting space, as well as a signature restaurant helmed by a still-under-wraps prominent chef.

While the PGA resort treated us like royalty, our group was in for another treat: two nights at The Breakers Palm Beach, whose Italian Renaissance–style façade gives way to a lost-in-time lobby with ornately painted ceilings, plus meeting and event spaces that convey old-world elegance. The beachside property drips with luxury, from the pools to the views to the spa, as well as tucked-away secrets such as an arcade and a garden that supplies the kitchens with herbs and edible flowers. I noticed one, a nasturtium, in a dish at HMF Restaurant, The Breakers’ expansive main dining area — a dim, alluring space with low banquettes, a sushi bar, and two master sommeliers on staff.

On our last day, we broke away from The Breakers for a tour of an equally iconic seaside property, the Boca Raton Resort & Club, a Waldorf Astoria hotel that straddles the Intercoastal Waterway. The resort is a labyrinth of Spanish Colonial–style staircases, meeting spaces, and guest rooms. After lunch at 501 East Kitchen Bar, it was on to the National Croquet Center for a quick match at the world’s largest dedicated croquet facility — one that also doubles as a venue for up to 600 guests.

By the time we plopped down for pitch-perfect sushi at Imoto, a sexy spot from James Beard Award–winning chef Clay Conley, followed by small plates at adjacent Buccan, we were glowing from great food, engaging experiences, and abundant south Florida sunshine.

— Corin Hirsch

For more information: palmbeachfl.com

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is a writer who specializes in food and drink.