"So, this is where the crime novelist James Patterson lives,” said my guide, Leslie, as she pointed at a colossal pale stucco mansion built in the Mediterranean revival style.
To my right was the ocean, blue and majestic. To my left, Greco-Roman palaces on Ocean Boulevard owned by some of the world’s wealthiest individuals. Palm Beach is home, after all, to more than 30 billionaires. Donald Trump, Rod Stewart and Iris Apfel all have property here.
The playground of the rich and famous lives up to expectations. There’s glamorous shopping district Worth Avenue dotted with Mediterranean alleys, manicured courtyards and wrought-iron balconies. Lining the shore are palatial homes the size of small countries.
Yet Palm Beach is but one small part of Palm Beach County, also known as the Palm Beaches. The wider area comprises 39 cities and towns, including Jupiter, West Palm Beach, Lake Worth, Wellington, Boca Raton, Delray Beach and, of course, Palm Beach. Each area has a distinctive personality. For example, affluent Boca Raton is where bands of retirees and their preppy progeny reside, while West Palm is younger, hipper and more down-to-earth.
West Palm, the county seat of the Palm Beaches, is home to the Norton Museum of Art (norton.org), which reopens today after a $100 million (£77 million) expansion with a new wing, galleries and a sculpture garden designed by British architect Lord Norman Foster, the British architect behind London's Gherkin, the Hearst Tower in New York and the new Reichstag in Berlin.
On my visit, pictures were still being hung and the huge sculpture Typewriter Eraser, Scale X by Claes Oldenburg was being set in a reflecting pool by the front entrance on South Dixie Highway. Next to the installation, a hulking 80-year-old banyan tree, which Lord Foster calls the building’s “protagonist”, seems to have stood the test of time.
The Pritzker Prize-winning architect believes that the Norton will put the Palm Beaches firmly on the art map. “Florida is America’s third most populous state after California and Texas,” said Lord Foster. “It doesn’t really have, given its importance in the grand scheme of things, quite the same number of cultural institutions that the two other states have. The reopening of the Norton fills a long-awaited need for such a museum.”
Neighbouring Miami Beach, which is only an hour’s train ride away, often takes the limelight when it comes to the art world but things are set to change. “Certainly when it comes to art, Miami, which hosts important fairs including Art Basel and Art Week, takes centre stage. But hopefully the reopening of the museum cements Palm Beaches’ place as a serious art destination.”
Inside, stark white halls feature an impressive collection spanning the old masters, Americana and contemporary art, including new work from Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer and Ed Ruscha alongside early modern paintings from Claude Monet and Paul Gauguin.
The galleries look out on to the expansive sculpture garden lined with mahogany and tamarind trees and tropical flowers in reds and oranges. Birds of paradise and heliconia compete for attention with 16 modern and contemporary sculptures by artists such as Keith Haring, George Rickey and Mark di Suvero.
The garden – the first to be designed by Lord Foster – took inspiration from the area’s lush vegetation. “When I first visited Palm Beach County, I visited art collectors at their private homes,” he said. “I noticed how their gardens were part of the architecture and the DNA of their home and of the area as a whole. I was impressed by how lush everything was, how monumental the hedges were. It was a different scale of garden and had a subtropical quality. I wanted to take something cultivated in a private domain and recreate it for public enjoyment and pleasure.”
In the nearby neighbourhood of El Cid lies another fine example of a museum garden. Hidden among 250 rare palm species, cycads and tropical plants are nine monolithic sculptures rendered in granite, brick, marble and bronze by artist Ann Norton (ansg.org).
I wandered through the grounds and took pleasure in stumbling upon sculptures in a seeming tangle of trees, shrubbery and underbrush. Rather delightful is the Cluster, seven figures cast in pink Norwegian granite. Towards the back of the estate Norton’s studio remains intact, complete with the tools she used, works in progress and various studies. Beyond the gardens and studio were views of glittering Lake Worth.
Barcelona Road, the street where the sculpture garden is nestled, is as much of a highlight. The road, together with other streets spanning Flagler Drive, form part of El Cid, a waterfront neighbourhood lined with 281 historic buildings and homes built in various architectural styles from Mediterranean revival and Spanish mission to art deco and Monterey (a style characterised by two storeys, exterior balconies, adobe walls and a low-pitched gable roof).
I walked along the street, captivated by the houses painted in various shades of yellow, pink and cream and the manicured lawns, which were like miniature tropical jungles with mature fruit and palm trees at every turn and orchids, bromeliads and bougainvillea-covered pergolas. This had to be one of my favourite streets in the world.
I ambled further along South Flagler Drive towards Lake Trail into Flagler Museum (flaglermuseum.us), a 75-room mansion built in 1902, during America’s Gilded Age, by Henry Flagler, a Rockefeller crony and industrialist often referred to as the father of Miami and Palm Beach. It was Flagler who saw the potential in the Palm Beaches and transformed these swampy backwaters into the fashionable destination it is today.
The magnate seems to have splurged much of his fortune fashioning his beaux arts-style mansion, which is held up by white marble columns and topped with a red barrel-tile roof. Inside, the winter home resembles the Palace of Versailles more than it does a tropical Palm Beach house, with period rooms in styles including Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI and renaissance.
Flagler’s largesse remains evident, whether in the opulent marble hall with its floors, walls and stairs crafted from seven varieties of marble, or the golden Steinway designed to match the interiors in the drawing room. I took a peek at the guest bedrooms, all named after their designated colour schemes: blue, pink, gold, heliotrope (or lilac) and green and restored to their original design, replete with patterned wallpaper and coordinating textiles.
Paintings by American artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, the first design director at jewellers Tiffany & Co, are featured in the library, a room resplendent in red with crimson carpets and curtains and mahogany furniture from the Italian renaissance.
Old-world glamour pervades in the Palm Beaches but it’s not all old money and old masters; there’s also a hint of the new and thoroughly modern.
In Delray Beach, Arts Warehouse (artswarehouse.org), an arts incubator in the Pineapple Grove district, opened in late 2017 as a place for artists to work. Visitors can pop in to view roving exhibitions and see the artists at work in their studios, with a chance to purchase pieces directly from them.
The striking building, painted in canary, mint green, blue and red, is home to 30 artists who have been carefully selected and offered leases between three to four years at a subsidised rent of $2 (£1.50) per square foot. In addition to an affordable studio of one’s own, the artists are also given a place on an incubator programme designed to teach them how to think like entrepreneurs when it comes to the marketing and sale of their work.
There’s a sense of Shoreditch at arty Pineapple Grove, where trendy restaurants and boutiques sit alongside art galleries and bright murals, including the Instagrammable Dancing Pineapples by artist Anita Lovitt. The artists in residence are loyal to the area. Resident painter Tommaso Fattovich grew up in Milan but feels that his art has flourished in Palm Beach County. “I’ve lived in New York, LA and Chicago and I grew up in Italy and have been to the rest of Europe, from London to Paris. But after seeing everything and everywhere, Florida, where I first got my big break, feels like home.”
Jenny Kiker, another Arts Warehouse resident, agreed. “I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina, and went to art school in Savannah, Georgia. I’ve been living in the Palm Beaches for six years. I love Florida: the plants, trees, the greenery, the beautiful weather, which all inform my work. I’m happy to be living in a creative beach town.”
Palm Beaches’ 47-mile (75km) shoreline, also known as Florida’s Gold Coast, is home to some of America’s best beaches, so it seemed only fitting to end my trip by the sea. I headed to Breakers (thebreakers.com) in Palm Beach, a hotel close to the water and right at “the breakers”, where waves splashed and sprayed. Opened in 1896 by the ubiquitous Flagler, the hotel was built to accommodate travellers on the magnate’s Florida East Coast Railway, a railroad that first allowed people to travel through the Palm Beaches and along the Atlantic coast.
I sat down at the hotel’s Seafood Bar with a front-row seat to views of the sea and waves crashing against the jetties, with coconut palms along the promenade framing the picture. The sun streamed through the window. “This is wonderful,” my friend sitting next to me said. I had to agree.
America As You Like It (020 8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com) can offer a four-night break to the Palm Beaches from £1,119 per person based on two people sharing, including return flights on British Airways from Gatwick to Fort Lauderdale, four days’ fully inclusive car hire, two nights room only at the Four Seasons Palm Beach and two nights room only at the Boca Raton Resort and Club.
More information: thepalmbeaches.com.