In Palm Beach, Florida, there is a relatively new adage that’s defined the destination for more than a decade: “Palm Beach is like the gay 90s: all the women are 90 and all the men are gay.” It’s not entirely untrue considering more than half the residents are over 65 years old, many businesses are gay owned, gossip among locals is better than a season of Real Housewives, and a typical night out is a fabulous dinner party in a million-dollar home.
Sprawling a short 17 miles, Palm Beach (about an hour north of Miami) has always served as a rather exclusive stomping ground for old-money tycoons and wealthy entrepreneurs who only dabble with the finer things in life. The skyscraper-free town is chockablock with fancy restaurants where dinner jackets are still often required, luxury name-brand retailers like Gucci and Neiman Marcus are ubiquitous, and members-only country clubs are decades strong. It’s not unusual to see locals dressed to the nines for a trip to the bank or parking lots packed with only Bentleys and Porsches. There’s an air of sophistication, and a touch of harmless elitism, you’re hard-pressed to find in other parts of Florida—the local Publix even has valet parking.
The names of residents and former residents read like a guest list at a Forbes event. The Kennedys once owned a home here, as did John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Howard Stern and Tony Robbins recently bought homes near Rod Stewart’s on Billionaire Row—a long road with real estate for the one percent—while CEOs (like Mary Barra of General Motors) have been living here for years. According to local gay real estate agent Burt Minkoff, the average price ($5.46 million) of a residential home sold in Palm Beach is 20 percent higher than it was at the end of 2013.
A quick stroll through town will certainly remind visitors they are nowhere near Kansas. There’s a Valentino store rumored to stay in business from purchases by the same ten women most locals know, you can literally buy a yacht on Worth Avenue (the main shopping avenue), and a descendent of President Adams is often out in public with her pet pig on a leash.
Those who live in Palm Beach are quick to agree it’s slowly changing, generating a more youthful energy with the opening of edgy hotels, hip boutiques, modern art galleries, and savvy, fashionable residents. It’s also very, very gay. Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan were so enamored with Palm Beach when they first vacationed here that they bought a two-bedroom condo, and Tomas Maier, creative director of fashion brand Bottega Veneta, now lives in Palm Beach with his partner.
“When we arrived last year, we were genuinely surprised by how gay it actually is!” says Greg Melvin, co-owner of Babalu, a high-end boutique store. “There are lots of committed couples, successful and professional gay individuals who are well-integrated into the overall community. I would suggest that the ease of living, high quality of life in Palm Beach, and the gentile environment offers something special that is beyond the gay community stereotype.”
Considering the well-off community that live and play here, Palm Beach International Airport (1000 James L. Turnage Blvd. Tel: 561-471-7400. www.pbia.org) is one of the busiest airports for private-jet travel, especially during winter when the Hamptons is out of season for New Yorkers. In fact, according to NetJets, a global private aviation company, Palm Beach and Teterboro, New Jersey is their number one route and quite standard within the industry. In 2013, FAA ranked the airport ninth nationwide for flights filed under instrument flight rules, a measure that includes most corporate and leisure trips on private and chartered planes. But for those of us in the 99 percent (including the over six million annual passengers to Palm Beach via public air travel), getting to Palm Beach International Airport has become easier for non-NYC residents (the number one market). Jetblue will begin new daily non-stop routes from Washington D.C. starting December 18, Allegiant began nonstop service from Asheville this past May, and American Airlines debuted the first-ever direct service from Los Angeles last winter.
While there are only about 2,500 rooms in the town of Palm Beach, you can bet they’re mostly at luxury hotels. Gay travelers are quick to book at the beachfront Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa (100 South Ocean Blvad. Tel: 561-533-6000. www.eaupalmbeach.com), a AAA-Five Diamond property that’s a member of IGLTA and Preferred Hotel Groups’ Preferred Pride portfolio. Not only is it über-gay friendly, Eau is also visually engaging and quite whimsical, tugging at the heartstrings of design lovers who like to be pampered. The former Ritz-Carlton, which rebranded as Eau with new ownership in July 2013, has a fresh new look and vision that stomped out the previously old-world stuffiness. The massive, stylish lobby complete with lavish furnishings and antiques, feels more like the interior of one of Palm Beach’s grand homes rather than a public hotel space. All 309 guestrooms are spacious and airy, though travelers will be in for a design treat come December when the resort unveils re-envisioned rooms by designer Jonathan Adler. The new rooms will be themed in blue and green seaside colors with pops of yellow to mimic the bright South Florida sun.
There are two outdoor pools (one adult), easy beach access, four dining outlets including the fine dining Angle that serves modern American, farm-to-table cuisine in a sexy (and swanky) atmosphere. It’s only open for dinner as most guests prefer lunching outdoors under the Palm Beach sun. Temple Orange, open all day, is also notable, considering the generous breakfast buffet spread that feels more European (the hotel’s owners are British) with several cooking stations and fresh, Mediterranean-inspired dishes.
Most guests spend hours in the over-the-top, extravagant Eau Spa, a 42,000-square-foot, 19 treatment-room sanctuary that’s stylish and fanciful. It has all the bells and whistles of an award-winning spa but goes beyond expectations: the spacious spa lobby is anchored by a large wishing well; guests can choose from a selection of freshly made body scrubs mixed with essential oils at a Scrub & Polish bar; and there is an outdoor garden complete with dipping pools, hanging chairs, and cabanas.
The Breakers (1 South County Rd. Tel: 561-655-6611. www.thebreakers.com), a historic, five-star property opened in 1896, made headlines with the hip set last year when it unveiled HMF, a new cocktail lounge designed by Adam D. Tihany, who’s responsible for fancy interiors at Per Se, Le Cirque, and Restaurant Daniel in NYC. The lobby bar now flaunts an artful, highbrow scene with globally inspired sharing plates and experimental cocktails, though classics are still on the menu for $12 a pop.
Harbourside Place (200 North US Highway One. Tel: 561-743-8724. www.harboursideplace.com), a new waterfront development complex with retail, dining, and Wyndham Grand Jupiter Hotel (122 Soundings Ave. Tel: 561-768-9756. www.wyndham.com), opened this past September in Jupiter, a neighboring town in North Palm Beach County where Tiger Woods owns a home. The 179-room hotel offers a rooftop pool with sweeping views of the waterway, signature Deep Blu Seafood Grille, and a 31-slip marina.
Dining is a joy in Palm Beach considering the many family-run restaurants versus chains. One of the most popular with locals is Pizza Al Fresco (14 Via Mizner, Worth Ave. Tel: 561-832-0032. www.pizzaalfresco.com), a restaurant tucked away in a courtyard with a beautiful patio scene. Here patrons enjoy their brick-oven pizza with a nice selection of wines.
For those with a fancier flair, the award-winning, Bistro Chez Jean Pierre (132 North County Rd. Tel: 561-833-1171. www.chezjean-pierre.com) serves silver spooners with hearty entrées in heavy sauces.
One of the most buzzing restaurant openings in the past year was The Cooper (4610 PGA Boulevard, Suite 100. Tel: 561-622-0032. www.thecooperrestaurant.com), that’s helmed by Executive Chef Adam Brown, who had famous stints at Blue Water Grill in NYC and Henry’s in nearby, quirky Delray Beach. Gourmands can expect international classics with Adam’s contemporary twists, like sautéed shrimp and heirloom tomato spaghettini and bacon-wrapped meatloaf. The restaurant also offers completely gluten-free lunch and dinner menus.
While most locals will be quick to admit (seldom jokingly) they’d never cross the bridge into West Palm Beach in their fancy cars, they’ll make an exception for Table 26 (1700 South Dixie Hwy. Tel: 561-855-2660. www.table26.com), owned by Eddie Schmidt and his partner Ozzie Medeiros, trendsetters in the local Palm Beach community. A busy social scene, Table 26 recently celebrated its second anniversary serving globally inspired comfort food (expect Wagyu meatloaf and buttermilk fried chicken).
A wealthy community wouldn’t exist without great stores where residents can spend their money, and several high-end boutique shops pander to the platinum-card-carrying elite. Worth Avenue (www.worth-avenue.com), akin to iconic streets like NYC’s Fifth Avenue and Boston’s Newbury Street, is lined with high-end retailers (in addition to landscaped gardens and plenty of gorgeous courtyards) like Cartier, Chanel, and Giorgio Armani. One of the newer shops is Babalu Palm Beach (21 Via Mizner. Tel: 561-659-6662. www.ilovebabalu.com), a high-end boutique just off Worth. Shoppers pop in for eclectic home goods, colognes, scented candles, sunglasses, and jewelry. Babalu is owned by gay couple Greg Melvin and Paolo Ambu, two socialites whose flagship Babalu in South Beach gave the store massive attention with the affluent gay community.
There are almost a dozen art galleries dealing fine art, and visitors can find the motherload on or around Worth Avenue, including Gavlak Gallery (249B Worth Ave. Tel: 561-833-0583. www.gavlakgallery.com) from former NYC art curator Sarah Gavlak (she recently opened her second gallery in Hollywood, California, this past June). Gavlak Gallery features exciting exhibitions by popular modern artists (many of whom show at Art Basel Miami Beach) in a gorgeous gallery space that feels like an extension of NYC’s MoMA with whitewashed walls and thought-provoking international contemporary art, including murals and paintings. Gavlak has sold work to Tate Modern and Hammer in LA and is a recognized name in the art world.
A handful of gay-specific events in Palm Beach are worth mentioning. PrideFest of the Palm Beaches draws about 12,000 attendees over a two-day period, and includes mixers, a Black & White party, and, of course, a wonderful parade. Last year was headlined by gay icon Crystal Waters, and the event is organized by Compass (www.compassglcc.com), the LGBT community center of Palm Beach County that has more than 140 businesses actively supporting the festival.
A more highbrow affair, Palm Beach is home to the International Gay Polo Tournament that brings gay polo players and gay polo enthusiasts to the beaches during equestrian season in April. Several events and festivities, from the kick-off party to the closing ceremony, are the hottest tickets in town for the LGBT community that month.
While Palm Beach is both gay- and straight-friendly, gay real estate agent Burt Minkoff, who moved to Palm Beach in 2002 and has never left, likes to point out that the city is definitely a destination for couples. “Palm Beach is more similar to the Hamptons versus Miami or Fort Lauderdale in that it’s socially active with heavy community involvement,” he says. “It’s more of a coupled destination than for singles.” But whether catering to a socialite couple or swinging single, Palm Beach is still a terrific destination for gays who seeks a more refined vacation in South Florida.