The Pleasures of Palm Beach

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The original main street of Palm Beach, now known as Royal Poinciana Way, was intended to take travelers from the Flagler Bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway to The Breakers hotel. Standard Oil tycoon Henry Flagler had brought the Florida East Coast Railway to the area by 1894, and his imposing resort opened two years later. Today, The Breakers remains the town’s grande dame, and Royal Poinciana Way is still one of the most imposing Palm Beach thoroughfares (even though Worth Avenue with its phalanx of designer boutiques is probably better known).

White Elephant Palm Beach


Just a block to the north, on Sunset Avenue, the latest addition to Palm Beach’s lineup of luxury hotels opened in November last year. The White Elephant Palm Beach occupies a restored Mediterranean Revival building dating from 1924. Somewhat implausibly, it is the sister hotel to the White Elephant Nantucket, a property that I have long recommended. I say “implausibly” because there can be few places in the country that, at first glance, seem more dissimilar than Nantucket and Palm Beach. Both are islands, it is true, but the resemblance appears to end there. “Oh, but the clientele is much the same,” the obliging receptionist explained as we checked in. “We gets lots of people from New England here, Connecticut especially. And they’re both yacht places. We work with the same yacht charter firm here that we do in Nantucket.”

From the cool marble lobby, with its coral sculptures and contemporary art — definitely no scrimshaw — we were escorted up to our King Room Private Balcony. Of the White Elephant’s 32 accommodations, no fewer than 19 are suites. (The two on the fourth-floor penthouse level, the three-bedroom Park Suite and the two-bedroom Palm Suite come with full kitchens, huge private terraces, dining pergolas, gas grills and panoramic views over the surrounding neighborhood.) At first sight, our room struck me as rather cramped, with much of its area being taken up by a king bed and an entirely superfluous sofa. However, opening the door onto the balcony, my impression became more positive. The generous outdoor space dispelled any sense of claustrophobia. A round table with four chairs beneath a black-and-white-striped umbrella provided sufficient room for a leisurely breakfast, while an adjacent sitting area seemed an ideal place in which to read or enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail. The view was unremarkable ­— the awning of the hotel restaurant, the small swimming pool and an anonymous strip of subtropical green — but the atmosphere was secluded and peaceful. Back inside, I investigated my surroundings with a more appreciative eye: The color scheme of pale grays and creams was restful; the closet space was more than adequate; and the adjacent marble bath, with its two sinks and glass-enclosed walk-in shower, was well appointed and sufficiently spacious, though it lacked a tub.

Our King Room Private Balcony, White Elephant Palm Beach - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bath of our King Room Private Balcony - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Dining area on our private balcony - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Lola 41 outdoor dining terrace, White Elephant Palm Beach - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Tuna and avocado poke salad at Lola 41 - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

In Nantucket, the White Elephant is a sizable complex comprising a 66-room hotel, residences, cottages, lofts and a 20-room inn. Heading downstairs to lunch, I realized that it is the inn to which the White Elephant Palm Beach most closely corresponds. Essentially, the Florida property is a lavish guesthouse: The pool is tiny; the gardens are not extensive; there is no spa; the fitness room is small; and the public beach is a five-minute walk away. (The hotel provides chairs, sun umbrellas and beach towels for guests who want to enjoy the sand, and for those disinclined to walk, a complimentary transfer service is available.) The hotel’s restaurant, Lola 41, an outpost of the Nantucket original, is independently owned and run.

The most expansive and stylish area of the White Elephant Palm Beach is its dining courtyard, which is separated from the pool area by a hedge. There, tables and wicker chairs are set beneath the hotel’s trademark black-and-white umbrellas. (The interior of Lola 41, with its dark wood, subdued lighting and dramatic horseshoe-shaped bar, comes alive chiefly in the evening.) Comfortably settled in the shade, we ordered a tuna-and-avocado poke salad, a crab-stuffed avocado and a selection of sushi. Lola 41 is a self-described “sushi and bistro restaurant,” and for dinner, the menu expands to include straightforward but well-prepared dishes such as diver scallops with egg noodles, miso-yuzu cod, pan-seared grouper and Milanese veal chop with cacio e pepe pappardelle. Overall, the emphasis is pan-Asian (and for those who like Peking duck, I can recommend the restaurant’s idiosyncratic version of the classic dish, which comes with pickled vegetables and steamed buns).

In general, the White Elephant is a charming boutique property with friendly and obliging staff. Emphatically, it is not a hotel for those primarily in search of sun and sand. Instead, I suspect that it attracts those who come to Palm Beach to participate in the town’s winter social whirl and perhaps to cruise or sail along the Intracoastal Waterway, which extends north to Jupiter Island.

- Hotel at a Glance -

White Elephant Palm Beach    91Andrew Harper Bird

Like

The stylish interior design; the extremely friendly and helpful staff; the glamorous penthouse suites.

Dislike

The modest dimensions of our king-bedded room; the tiny pool.

Good to Know

The hotel has a BMW courtesy car for trips to restaurants and to Worth Avenue shops.


Rates: King Room Private Balcony, $1,800; Deluxe One-Bedroom Suite, $2,150
Address: 280 Sunset Avenue, Palm Beach
Telephone: (561) 832-7050

View White Elephant Palm Beach Listing

The Chesterfield Palm Beach

Street signs two blocks from The Chesterfield Palm Beach
Street signs two blocks from The Chesterfield Palm Beach - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

By car, it is a five-minute drive from the White Elephant to The Chesterfield Palm Beach, a 53-room hotel located two blocks north of Worth Avenue. The Mediterranean Revival-style building was constructed in 1925, and today it is an impressive peach-colored structure with dark green awnings overlooking a quiet palm-lined street. Since 1989, the hotel has been part of the Red Carnation group of hotels, whose portfolio includes properties as diverse as Summer Lodge Country House Hotel in England, Ashford Castle in Ireland (both Andrew Harper recommended) and The Chesterfield Mayfair in London.

On arrival, guests pass through a leafy interior courtyard, where tables overflow from the hotel’s Leopard Lounge restaurant. Doors at the far end of the courtyard open into a reception area that more closely resembles a living room in a private house than a hotel lobby. We were invited to sit at a table for check-in, and the manner of the receptionist was relaxed and solicitous. This civilized welcome provided an early example of one of the hotel’s principal strengths: its friendly and attentive personal service.

The character of The Chesterfield is determined, more than is the case in most hotels, by its interior design. Colorful, flamboyant and eccentric, it combines acres of floral chintz with heavy brocade, swagged curtains, antique ornaments, chandeliers and gilt-framed artwork. Perhaps the style can be defined as English country house collides with Palm Beach tropical paint box. (Nowhere is the self-consciously English aspect of the hotel’s personality more evident than in the paneled library, where afternoon tea with finger sandwiches, cakes and scones is served each afternoon.) There is no possible pathway to indifference. The décor cannot be ignored; you are either going to love it or hate it.

Bedroom of our Junior Suite, The Chesterfield Palm Beach - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Sitting area of our Junior Suite - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bath of our Junior Suite - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Swimming pool - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

Our Junior Suite proved predictably extroverted. Its walls were covered by a blue-and-white-striped fabric, and the bedposts had been hand-painted with flowers, as had the marble-topped dresser. Other items of furniture included several mirrored tables and a small blue velvet sofa. Operatic drapes with tassels and rosettes partially concealed a door out to a small balcony. There were a few faint stains on the wall-to-wall carpet, and one of the bedside reading lights was not working, while the recessed lights in the ceiling had energy-saving bulbs, which gave off their customarily chilly and spectral glow. Air-conditioning was provided by an old-fashioned unit mounted into the wall beneath a window that overlooked the garden and swimming pool. The bath came with two sinks and a generous amount of counter space, but the shower was over a small and impractical tub, and the water pressure was anemic. Alarming bright crimson bathrobes had been provided. In general, our accommodations seemed reasonably comfortable but old-fashioned and in need of investment.

No one could accuse The Chesterfield’s designers of lacking the courage of their convictions. The Leopard Lounge, has black lacquered walls and a black marble bar, both of which might seem more appropriate to a nightclub and certainly come as a shock immediately after passing through the genteel Anglophile lobby. But what seems oppressive at lunchtime can become glamorous after nightfall. Friends thoroughly familiar with Palm Beach during the winter high season assure me that the restaurant is a social nexus for many of the town’s long-established residents. And one of the staff members, also keen to bolster the place’s social credentials, told me, unprompted, that “the Bentley is our customers’ automobile of choice.” The menu offers well-prepared unambitious dishes such as meatballs, steaks, veal chops, seared salmon and lobster risotto. Not feeling especially hungry or carnivorous, I opted for a Greek salad, followed by Maryland crab cakes. Both were excellent, if not exactly memorable.

The Chesterfield provides few additional on-site facilities, though the concierge is happy to book treatments at a local spa, as well as provide access to a fitness club nearby. Fishing, diving and golf can also be arranged. The property’s relatively small swimming pool (and hot tub), with its fuchsia-pink umbrellas and dark green loungers, is surrounded by an attractive walled garden and is a pleasant place to relax or immerse yourself in a book.

In essence, The Chesterfield is a deeply traditional and old-fashioned hotel, which serves as a reminder of a world that existed before the invention of Aman Resorts. Those who like such places and find their continuity reassuring will likely be very happy here.

- Hotel at a Glance -

The Chesterfield Palm Beach    89

Like

The friendly and helpful staff; the convenient location close to Worth Avenue.

Dislike

The cluttered interior design; the old-fashioned bath and slightly faded feel of our Junior Suite.

Good to Know

The Leopard Lounge has live music in the high season, and most evenings are, apparently, a sellout.


Rates: Junior Suite, $1,430; One Bedroom Suite, $1,800
Address: 363 Cocoanut Row, Palm Beach
Telephone: (561) 659-5800

The Chesterfield Palm Beach

The Brazilian Court

Swimming pool at The Brazilian Court
Swimming pool at The Brazilian Court - The Brazilian Court

A three-minute walk away, The Brazilian Court is a very different property. Although it opened in 1926 and is the second-oldest hotel on the island after The Breakers — The Chesterfield was built in 1925 but debuted under a different name — it has recently embraced modernity in an extensive refurbishment. A principal reason for our visit was a scathing and detailed review by a longtime member in May 2019, which contributed to the hotel being omitted from the 2020 Andrew Harper Collection. As a majority of the 80 accommodations have subsequently undergone a complete redesign, it seemed an appropriate moment to pay the property a return visit.

The Brazilian Court is located on a quiet street that extends east to bustling South County Road. From a white porte-cochère, steps lead up to double doors, beyond which arriving guests glimpse the lovely courtyard garden that is at the heart of the hotel. A serene enclave of palms, pools, fountains and white umbrellas, this oasis is surrounded by Spanish colonial buildings capped by red tile roofs.

The Brazilian Court’s public spaces now combine the paneled wooden ceilings and terra-cotta floors that you might find in an old estancia, with contemporary furniture in jewel tones, colorful modern paintings and framed black-and-white photography. For much of its history, the hotel enjoyed a reputation as a bolt-hole for movie stars and prominent politicians, and a glamorous, slightly glitzy atmosphere still persists. The terrace of the hotel’s restaurant, Café Boulud, is renowned for Palm Beach people-watching par excellence, and the expensively dressed ladies who lunch there daily often pay post-prandial visits to the property’s hair salon, which enjoys a reputation as the best and most luxurious in Palm Beach.

Bedroom of our Luxury One Bedroom Suite With Patio, The Brazilian Court - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Interior of our Luxury One Bedroom Suite With Patio - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bath of our Luxury One Bedroom Suite With Patio - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Outdoor seating at Café Boulud - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Mille-feuille of mango and passion fruit at Café Boulud - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

Fortunately, the staff at check-in were polite, well organized and remarkably down to earth. I found that we had been upgraded to a Luxury One Bedroom Suite With Patio, which was located up a flight of stairs on the far side of the garden. With 700 square feet of space, the suite featured a sizable living area with a polished mahogany floor, contemporary furniture, a sofa covered in dark green velvet, leather bucket chairs, a writing desk, a small bar and dramatic black-and-white celebrity photographs by the late Terry O’Neill. Doors led out to a private patio with a small table and sun loungers. Aside from the king-size bed, the principal feature of the room was a wall panel with a striking wisteria pattern. My favorable initial impression was augmented by the large, modern, well-appointed marble bath, which came with both a huge walk-in shower and a whirlpool tub.

Alas, settling down to do some work, I discovered that the suite’s Wi-Fi wasn’t working. Having struggled with my laptop, phone and iPad, I realized that my efforts were futile. I was about to telephone reception for assistance when the peace was interrupted by the sound of a nearby power drill. Apparently not all the renovations were complete. I headed down to the lobby in person. To their credit, the staff responded politely, apologized for the inconvenience, conceded that the Wi-Fi in that particular room had been causing problems and promptly arranged for a bellman to escort us to a virtually identical suite in a different part of the hotel.

Having unpacked, we decided to join the ladies at lunch on the terrace of the Café Boulud. Seated at a table with a glass of the house Daou Provençal-style rosé from Paso Robles, I settled back to enjoy the views of the gardens and an unblemished Florida sky. I have no idea how much time Daniel Boulud spends in Palm Beach — probably not very much — but the kitchen certainly does credit to his reputation. Both meals we enjoyed there were outstanding. For our first lunch we opted for chilled melon soup with basil, makrut lime and lemongrass, and grilled octopus with yuzu kosho (Japanese chile paste), avocado and red beet. These were followed by an utterly delicious king crab cavatelli with butternut squash, and a fine salade Lyonnaise with duck confit. The only discordant note was sounded by an otherwise charming waiter. I couldn’t remember what kind of pasta cavatelli was and asked him to remind me. He looked puzzled and then, stretching his powers of description, replied, “Like, you know, like little insect things.”

When it came time to leave, my impressions of The Brazilian Court were mostly favorable. The courtyard garden is idyllic, the small swimming pool area is pretty and tranquil, the fitness center is well equipped and, in general, it appeared to be a property where money had recently been spent to good effect. Despite negative comments, which were clearly valid at the time, it now seems to be a hotel that can be safely recommended once again.

- Hotel at a Glance -

The Brazilian Court Hotel    91Andrew Harper Bird

Like

The extremely pretty and tranquil garden courtyard; the delicious food at Café Boulud.

Dislike

The dysfunctional Wi-Fi in our suite.

Good to Know

One of Palm Beach’s best restaurants, Buccan, is a three-minute walk away.


Rates: Luxury One-Bedroom Suite, $2,600; Luxury One-Bedroom Suite with Patio, $2,750
Address: 301 Australian Avenue, Palm Beach
Telephone: (561) 655-7740

View The Brazilian Court Hotel Listing

Four Seasons Palm Beach

Couples loungers at the beach, Four Seasons Palm Beach
Couples loungers at the beach, Four Seasons Palm Beach - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

Although I am generally a fan of smaller properties, those with distinctive individual personalities, I am not immune to the charms of hotels that are part of superior groups like Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons. All three companies maintain consistently high standards and have a number of exceptional hotels, and very few poor ones. In the case of Four Seasons, its properties in New York, Paris, Florence, Budapest, Hangzhou (China), Bali and Chiang Rai (Thailand ), all spring immediately to mind as being among the finest hotels in the world. Alas, readers familiar with this elite group are unlikely to be impressed by the Four Seasons Palm Beach.

Located a 15-minute drive south of town, the resort’s architecture is boxy and undistinguished. Built in 1994, it looks older. Pulling up, we were greeted by several valet parking attendants. I said that I was entirely happy to park my car myself, but they replied that valet parking was mandatory. And at $40 a day — as I learned at checkout — I began to see why.

The resort underwent a major makeover in 2018, but in the poorly lit lobby, it was very hard to see what might have been accomplished. The check-in staff were polite and efficient, and complimentary glasses of sparkling wine were offered. We were then escorted to our Ocean-View Cabana Terrace Room. Clearly, when making a reservation, I must have been looking at the price tag and failed to notice that despite costing in excess of $1,000 a night, it measured only 393 square feet. True, the décor was fresh, and the compact bath provided twin vanities and a walk-in shower, but the bedroom had space for the king-size bed and very little else. From a minuscule outdoor terrace, a flight of steps — one with a badly cracked tile — led down to the pool deck. To say that we were disappointed would be a considerable understatement.

Our Ocean-View Cabana Terrace Room, Four Seasons Palm Beach - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Double vanity of our Our Ocean-View Cabana Terrace Room - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Pool loungers and cabanas - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Florie's restuarant - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Seafood cioppino, Florie's restaurant - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

The resort’s main dining area is Florie’s, an Italian restaurant nominally supervised by Michelin three-star chef Mauro Colagreco. Presumably, COVID-19 travel restrictions have ensured that his participation has been by Zoom from the other side of the Atlantic, at best. How do I put this politely? Suffice it to say that Florie’s currently bears as close a relationship to a three-star restaurant as I do to Alain Ducasse. Our dinner there was, quite literally, a car crash. I had ordered serrano ham carved from the trolley — why, in South Florida, I’m not really sure — but this eccentric selection entailed unexpected consequences. On a perfectly level terrace floor, the waiter managed to lose control of the trolley and slam it into the side of our table. When the apologies and rearrangements had been completed, he then proceeded to slice the ham with a degree of incompetence that I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. The knife was clearly so blunt, he might have done better with a spoon. Rather than thin slivers of ham, I was presented with a plate of formless chunks, rough off-cuts, the sweepings from a sculptor’s floor at the end of a working day. Need I go on?

The life of someone who reviews five-star hotels is generally considered to be an enviable, almost uniquely fortunate one. And so it is. Most of the time.

- Hotel at a Glance -

Four Seasons Palm Beach    87

Like

The wide and attractive beach; the pleasant staff in the spa.

Dislike

Our cramped (and expensive) accommodations; the inept food and service in the signature restaurant; the overpriced daily charge for unnecessary valet parking.

Good to Know

The resort offers a convenient door-to-door shipping service for luggage and golf clubs.


Rates: Ocean-View Cabana Terrace Room, $2,380; Ocean-View Studio Suite, $2,970
Address: 2800 South Ocean Boulevard, Palm Beach
Telephone: (561) 582-2800

Four Seasons Palm Beach

Read more about our editor’s trip to Palm Beach

By Andrew Harper Editor Andrew Harper editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who the editors are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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