By Michael Alpiner
Iam sitting in the passenger seat of a luxury car being driven through a luxury landscape, a staccato curtain of palm trees with a crystal blue landscape, winding roads past majestic homes, and the luxury of silence. The quiet is broken by the informative narration from Bama Lutes Deal, Ph.D., a musicologist and member of Americans for the Arts. Bama is also the newly appointed Cultural Concierge of the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County. With seven miles of beaches, a 55-year-old opera company and over 42,000 cultural events produced every year, Palm Beach County is not just about Mar-a-Lago.
As a weekend with Bama showed our group, Palm Beach is Florida’s cultural capital, a vibrant county with five unique arts districts: West Palm Beach, Lake Park, Lake Worth, Boynton Beach and Delray Beach.
Our immersive journey into Palm Beach’s cultural communities began with a lazy late afternoon visit to the Morikami Museum & Gardens, a traditionally Japanese landscaped garden that has been interpreted with local, lush tropical plants. The Morikami was created by a local Japanese businessman who wanted to fuse the beauty of Florida’s indigenous plants with the rigorous attention to detail, grace and balance of Japanese landscaping. In addition to the serene atmosphere, one can calm the hunger pangs with traditional Japanese fare in the accompanying outdoor restaurant.
As the Florida day escaped us (after watching local turtles sunning themselves at the Morikami and looking at local art at the Cornell Art Museum at Explore School Square, housed in a vintage Florida schoolhouse) we ended the day at one of Palm Beach’s cultural gems, The Norton Museum of Art, Florida’s largest museum now being extended with British architect Norman Foster’s multi-million dollar expansions. The museum’s Art After Dark program was in full swing. Palm Beach locals were gathered in the museum’s Art Deco atrium creating watercolors while sipping rosé wine and listening to the sultry strains of a jazz trio.
My haven for the night was Eau, the huge and palatial hotel complex renamed and rebranded from its earlier incarnation as The Ritz-Carlton. The Eau is fronted with a shell-strewn beach, perfect for wading, swimming or sunning and a beachfront bar and restaurant which makes the ideal perching place for breakfast and Bloody Mary’s, or those immense tropical cocktails served in coconuts.
Upstairs my room also fronted the water, with interior decor by the noted designer Jonathan Adler. I spent many contemplative moments swaying gently in the hammock chair upon the veranda which looked out to the vast Atlantic seascape.
The next day, Bama took us to the Norton’s sister museum, The Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, where the steel magnate’s second wife had her sculpture studio, another lush tropical garden of rare palm trees, and local plants. Along the path through the tropical overgrowth, Norton’s monolithic sculptures met us with their abstract messages of motherhood and portals through a life well-lived.
We also drove into the grounds of the majestic Flagler Museum, once the home of Henry Flagler, one of the founders of modern Florida and the railway millionaire who built tracks that once stretched all the way to Key West. The interior of Flagler’s home is as fantastic as his business acumen—all gilded and marbleized with faux Renaissance detailing and a full-size railway car once used by the baron of the rails, installed in one of the galleries. Ornate décor with a keen attention to detail and extravagance met us at every threshold. Rare furnishings and artifacts from around the world inspire even the most modest visitor to go home and redecorate his/her living space.
The modern incarnation of Flagler’s tracks now form the new Brightline Railway (actually laid on the original tracks). The high speed train connects Miami to Palm Beach with new extensions in the works. The Brightline Station offers travelers all the comforts one would expect from Palm Beach: cushioned seats in the waiting area, equipped with USB ports for recharging, and a trendy-looking snack and drink kiosk, also for recharging of a sort.
We then went with Bama on a walking tour of West Palm Beach’s vibrant street art scene with local guide, Ashley Capps. Palm Beach is actually one of the many sites of the new Street Art Revolution, which is filling public spaces with beauty and often political statements.
Dinner was at nearby Sant Ambroeus, an Italian restaurant with the motto is “From Italy, With Love,” and they were not exaggerating. All the food was prepared with affection and attention to maintaining that Old World flavor for the modern discerning patron. From Margherita Pizza to Arrabbiata, the tastes were as melodic as the cadence of the Italian accents that emerged while ordering.
The next day we dove into some of the Palm Beaches marine culture with a visit to the Loggerhead Marine Life Center, where recovering sea turtles were being nursed back to health after sustaining injury, like veterans of an environmental war.
We walked to the top of scenic Jupiter Lighthouse and then chilled with margaritas at the U Tiki Restaurant where a brown pelican viewing had this birdwatcher thrilled with delight.
Bama rounded out our journey to the cultural delights of Palm Beach with a visit to the late Burt Reynolds’ brainchild, the renovated and restored and vastly expanded Jupiter Theatre. The Theatre has morphed into one of Florida’s largest and most prestigious regional theaters on the circuit. A performance by young hopefuls made it clear the Reynolds’ legacy here was not just Smokey and the Bandit.
Our last supper was at Cafe Boulud which is a stone’s throw from Worth Street (Palm Beach’s answer to Fifth Avenue) and the white sandy shoreline. This French-inspired menu uses the best local ingredients and the benefit from Chef Daniel Boulud’s worldwide travels to create a taste sensation. Paired with a glass from a quality wine selection, I almost redefined what I imagine true luxury dining is all about.
My return home was bittersweet. I was heading to New York, and the endless excitement and sleepless city streets, but there was a certain light still burning bright within me with shadows sliced by the memory of palm leaves, and languid thoughts flapping past like the rhythmic wings of pelicans.
For more information on the cultural side of Palm Beach, visit palmbeachculture.com.