West Palm Beach: Like No Place Else

Get to know the people and places that make Florida's seaside city of West Palm Beach unique.
By: Matt Prichard
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Island Home on Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach

Island Home on Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach

Palm Beach is home to stunning waterfront estates and some of the most expensive listings in Florida.

Photo by: Kara Franker

Kara Franker

West Palm Beach's subtropical climate and gorgeous shores define a place that began attracting the rich and famous a century ago and continues to attract generations of wealthy — and not-so-wealthy — residents. Palm Beach County's increasing diversity means almost anyone can be at home here, whether you prefer caviar, pastrami or grits.

Love of the Outdoors

“People travel from all over world to go to that one little place where the water hits the sand, and we get it for free," says Eliot Kleinberg of Boca Raton, a native Floridian who has written 10 books about the history and culture of Palm Beach County and the state.

The area welcomes surfers, divers, boaters, kayakers, fishers, bird-watchers, skaters, runners, bikers and anyone who enjoys a pina colada with the waves crashing in the background. Although the summers are hot and humid, enough to make the snowbirds flee, the area’s permanent population has ballooned as people find that the glorious time from the fall to the spring makes it all worthwhile. Learn more about the best places to experience the outdoors in "West Palm Beach Essentials."

Rugged History

Before the building of railroad that brought tycoons to Palm Beach, rugged individuals carved out a living under the hot sun. One such persona was the legendary Barefoot Mailman, actually a series of individuals who delivered mail by walking on the beach between Lake Worth and Biscayne Bay starting in 1885. There was no road, so the mailmen walked barefoot to take advantage of firmer sand near the water’s edge. The 136-mile round-trip took six days. The "barefoot route" was used until 1892, when a road was constructed between Palm Beach and Miami.

A more recent example was Trapper Nelson, who came to the area in the 1930s and lived off the land by trapping and selling furs. Trapper Nelson’s real name was Vincent Nostokovich and he was born in Trenton, N.J. Six-foot-four and 240 pounds, he was a loner for the most part and quickly became famous as the "Wildman of the Loxahatchee." He owned land on the northwest fork of the wild Loxahatchee River and built his camp and zoo there. Tourist boats from West Palm Beach brought visitors to see the wild man wrestle alligators. Celebrities such as Gary Cooper and Gene Tunney, as well as society heiresses, visited the jungle hideaway. His strange shotgun death in July 1968 remains a mystery.

After his death, the state acquired and has preserved Trapper Nelson’s land. You can still visit Trapper Nelson’s camp, accessible only by boat, and be given a tour by a park ranger. Take the Loxahatchee Queen II from Jonathan Dickinson State Park, 16450 SE Federal Highway in Hobe Sound. Or rent a canoe upstream and feel os if you’re going back in time through a large stand of cypress on a daylong trip that takes you past Trapper Nelson’s. See Canoe Outfitters of Florida, on the south side of Indiantown Road in Riverbend County Park, one mile west of Interstate 95 exit 87B and the Jupiter exit on Florida’s Turnpike exit 116.

Playground of the Wealthy

Palm Beach became famous as a winter playground for the rich and famous thanks to Henry Morrison Flagler, cofounder, along with John D. Rockefeller, of Standard Oil. Soon after Flagler extended his railroad to the Palm Beach area in the 1890s, he erected the famed Royal Poinciana Hotel (at the time the largest wooden structure in the world) on the shores of Lake Worth and the Palm Beach Inn (renamed The Breakers in 1901) overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Rail access sent real estate prices soaring, and ever since, things never have been the same. Flagler developed West Palm Beach, on the mainland, to provide Palm Beach with servants and other workers.

Flagler originally intended for West Palm Beach to be the terminus of his railroad system, but he eventually extended it all the way to Key West. On August 24, 1901, Flagler married Mary Lily Kenan and the couple soon moved into their Palm Beach estate, Whitehall. Built as a wedding present to Mary Lily in 1902 by architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, Whitehall was a 60,000-square-foot, 55-room winter retreat that established the Palm Beach season for the wealthy of America's Gilded Age.

The fabulous wealth attracted to Palm Beach produced spectacular mansions, such as Mar-a-Lago ("Sea to Lake" in Latin), built by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post (then Mrs. E.F. Hutton) and completed in 1927. The main house is an adaptation of the Hispano-Moresque style, long popular among the villas of the Mediterranean. A 75-foot tower tops the structure. Three boatloads of Dorian stone were brought from Genoa, Italy, for the construction. In 1985, Donald Trump bought the property from the Post Foundation, rattling some blueblood sensibilities on the island. He used the estate as a private residence until 1995, when Mar-a-Lago became a private club.

Soak up some of that opulence by window shopping along Worth Avenue or visiting such Palm Beach institutions as Ta-boo, at 221 Worth Ave., a bar and bistro for the well-to-do since 1941. Sinatra, JFK and countless socialites have dined there. Or have a luxurious breakfast at The Circle, at One South County Road in Palm Beach, home of The Breakers' celebrated Sunday brunch. An architectural and design gem, The Circle boasts fabulous ocean views and soaring 30-foot frescoed ceilings.

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