No town in America adores great food, juicy gossip, palace intrigue, obscene wealth, and the Astros quite like our own, but there’s a slice of Florida’s Gold Coast that comes pretty damn close. That would be Palm Beach, arguably Houston’s spirit animal, and definitely the winter home of our beloved champions of baseball—tanned, rested and presumably ready to defend their World Series title, the road to which begins this month in an intimate, 7,700-seat stadium that’s just two-hours-and-change by plane. From now till March 27 there’ll be tons of great baseball to watch in Palm Beach, along with beautiful beaches to enjoy, celebs to spot, Mar-a-Lago traffic to avoid, and Frisbee-sized Wagyus to devour. Face it, Houston. You’re going.
For more than 30 years, it was Disney-centric Kissimmee that played host to the Astros’ spring training season, but in 2017 the team relocated 150 miles south to West Palm Beach and a new, 160-acre complex it shares with the Washington Nationals, who themselves moved from Viera. Perhaps there’s something in the PB water, as both teams went on to stellar seasons, or maybe it’s the new digs. In addition to the ballpark’s main stadium, which is handsome, comfortable, and intimate, there are, count ’em, 12 practice fields, six for each team, along with clubhouse areas boasting state-of-the-art facilities for workouts, hydrotherapy, and other amenities custom-designed to the two teams’ specifications. (The Nats even have an outdoor pool.)
Even better, though, is the layout of the park and environs, which offer opportunities for fan-player interaction that are nearly impossible in most Major League parks. If Minute Maid is the only place you’ve seen José Altuve et al., Palm Beach may leave you thinking you’ve died and gone to Astros heaven. Fans are only a chest-high, chain-link fence away from many of the practice areas, and inside the stadium itself, the atmosphere is friendly and loose, with players happily signing autographs for spectators in the outfield reserve section, where tickets start at just $24. (BYO-blanket for even cheaper seats—$13—on the lawn behind center field.) Among the park’s many food opportunities is something called the H-Town Bar & Grille, and there’s even an all-you-can-eat venue on the party deck, along with six suites available for rent and—new this season—a walk-up bar with 32 beers on tap.
Thanks to a wealth of talent, top-drawer baseball, a slew of fascinating personalities, and a few notorious ones, the Astros began wandering toward the spotlight almost from the moment they arrived in West Palm last February. And as for the storybook season that followed, well, it’s now hard to imagine it having begun anywhere else.
From the moment the town of Palm Beach was founded in the 1890s—on a 16-mile barrier island just across the Intracoastal Waterway from West Palm and the rest of mainland Florida—its wealthy, top-drawer residents have seldom been far from the spotlight themselves, and for reasons both fascinating and notorious. As such, the town has become a compelling tourist destination for princes and gawkers alike, with myriad entertainments well worth a Houstonian’s time—even during the 11 months a year the Astros aren’t playing there.
The actual beaches of Palm Beach are mostly narrow, courtesy of constant erosion, but the dark aqua waters of the Atlantic are calm and bewitching, especially at sunrise, and especially when viewed from the historic Breakers Hotel or while lazing in a bamboo swing chair on a lanai at the Eau Palm Beach. Each resort has an easy magnificence typical of luxury Gold Coast accommodations. The Breakers dates to 1926, a stunning edifice modeled after Roman villas and Florentine palaces, though one constantly refreshed with eye-popping new bells and whistles—including the recently renovated Seafood Bar, whose highlights include a 36-foot-long aquarium bar top where Nemos stare longingly at martinis on the surface—interspersed among its four oceanfront heated pools. The Eau, meanwhile, has the quiet elegance of a fancy retreat, replete with private cabanas just steps from the sea, plus a 42,000-square-foot spa with jaw-dropping interiors and an outdoor area lovelier than many botanical gardens.
Bossa nova beats are on perpetual autoplay in the proudly beige lobby of the Eau, a frilly space of overstuffed chairs, chandeliers, Phalaenopsis orchids, and coffee table books like photographer Slim Aarons’s Once Upon a Time, a self-proclaimed “virtual genealogy of wealth, privilege and talent” (mid-20th century edition). Accordingly, there are chapters devoted to places like Beverly Hills, Gstaad, and, yes, Palm Beach, whose section includes several portraits of names now lost to the plusher dustbins of history. (“She was too much for ordinary people,” reads the caption below an oversaturated 1959 photo of “Mrs. George (Daphne) Cameron” lounging on a tiger skin rug in the “trophy room of Laddie Sanford’s house.”) Included too, however, is a period aerial shot of Palm Beach, a thin sliver of green punctuated by Spanish tile-roofed mansions, none more sprawling, says Aarons, than the 1927 “house of Marjorie Merriweather Post Close Hutton Davies May.” Let's call it Mar-a-Lago, for short.
Interestingly, it was the cereal heiress herself who first had the idea of the home becoming a winter White House, willing it to the U.S. government. In the years immediately following her death in 1973, however, presidents seemed uninterested, so the government gave it back to the family, who promptly put the property on the market. Thus was Mar-a-Lago turned into a private club by its 1985 buyer, and thus was Post’s original intention fulfilled in 2016 when that buyer, Donald Trump, became president. Since then, Trump’s frequent visits have been a source of major inconvenience among Palm Beach’s residents, many of whom, it must be said, are unaccustomed to even minor inconveniences. (The town currently counts 30-plus billionaires among its population, including two Koch brothers, three NFL team owners, and the eminences behind Netscape, Reebok, and Slim-Fast.)
Islanders have long been an insular, impenetrable bunch, no small impediment to anyone seeking knowledge of the honest, indisputable, unlaundered truth about Palm Beach and its history. Still, Leslie Diver has found a way. For 14 of her 30 years on the island, she's been a one-woman Palm Beach Confidential, offering definitive tours of the town by car, bike, and motor coach, even as Diver herself lives in “the slums of Palm Beach,” by which she means an apartment not far from Publix, the town’s sole supermarket. Whereas Aarons offers a virtual genealogy of wealth and privilege, Diver delivers the real deal, and in a no-bullshit tone you won’t find in any coffee table book.
“He’s never used it,” she says of the helipad on Mar-a-Lago’s back lawn, which was built by the federal government last year at Pres. Trump’s request, the town having given the project its blessing in hopes it might end his visits’ traffic nightmares. “We did everything really quick, and then he didn’t use it.”
Topic A on Diver’s tour is not the president, however, but the life and loves of Henry Morrison Flagler, the Gilded Age magnate who essentially created Palm Beach, building a railroad system to ferry northerners to Florida and hotels they could stay in once they got there. In the shadows of official Flagler-dom, a stately Beaux Arts mansion Henry built as a wedding gift to Mary Lily Kenan, his third wife, Diver spins an irresistible tale of sex and ambition, philanthropy, and meanness. On one level the well-worn story of an old man with young wives (“the start of a Palm Beach tradition”), it’s also the saga of one American family’s audacity, vision, and persistence, beginning with Henry building the world’s largest hotel on the island, and ending with his heirs constructing a third version of the Breakers (the present one—two previous wooden incarnations burned down, once because of a carpenter’s error, once after the mayor of Chicago’s wife’s curling iron caught fire.)
Along the way, one hears whispers of syphilis and a woman wrongly institutionalized (wife no. 2, who believed her Ouija board when it told her she was having an affair with a Russian czar), gossip about an openly gay son shunned by his father’s will (Henry left him a paltry million bucks in stock), and rumors that Kenan, who outlived Flagler, was murdered for her money.
From there, though, it’s just a short hop to the zaniness of ’80s Palm Beach and Jim Sullivan’s so-called “ham sandwich” house (something about the brick work), an estate so infamously beloved he refused to divide it with his wife upon their separation, opting instead to have her murdered the day before their divorce was finalized. (The hit man arrived at Mrs. Sullivan’s door dressed as a clown delivering pink roses.) And here and there, Diver drops opinions about current residents like Rush Limbaugh, who lives in a “not very beautiful house on the north end, but ... does have a beautiful stretch of beach,” and Rod Stewart, who’s seen “twice a day” at the town’s only Starbucks, and the people whose pools are lined with Murano glass, and the mansion that played a Czechoslovakian palace in an old Frank Sinatra film, and on and on. Meanwhile, Palm Beach is still talking, Diver reports, about last year’s lavish 70th-birthday party thrown for private equity honcho Stephen Schwarzman, then the chair of Trump’s since-disbanded economic advisory board. Festivities included trapeze artists, camels, fireworks, Gwen Stefani singing happy birthday, and a giant cake in the shape of a Chinese temple.
In the end, everything in PB seems to lead back to the president and his cronies, like investment banker Wilbur Ross, known to most as the Secretary of Commerce, but to Diver as the little old man who volunteered at polling sites during local elections. (“He’d sit on a little tin chair, and when you walked in to vote you’d have to show him your license, and he’d go, ‘to the right, to the left.’”) And then there’s the frequent contretemps between locals and Mar-a-Lago. Last year, the Secret Service ordered all landscapers, service personnel, and their vehicles off the island by 3 p.m. on Fridays when Trump was coming to town. Worse, the island’s wealthiest residents, who happen to live south of Mar-a-Lago, often find themselves forced to cancel dinner reservations at fancy restaurants north of it, all because of the infernal logjam. And some local charities have canceled benefits and galas at Mar-a-Lago as well, relocating them to places like the Breakers and Eau in hopes of distancing themselves from a polarizing president. “He’s always been a pain,” says Diver with a weary sigh.
Overall, though, there’s far more pleasure than pain to be found in Palm Beach, from the quaint and pricey boutiques along Worth Avenue to the more modest ones at CityPlace, just across the bridge in downtown West Palm. After the madness of PB, seeking solace in a more typical shopping-dining-entertainment complex is understandable, although CityPlace possesses quite a few nice surprises, including a Methodist church-turned-performance-space and something called Culture Lab. Taking up temporary residence in a Macy’s that closed just last year (a few counters and racks are still in place), the fledgling arts center now houses some interesting sound installations and multimedia work. And while the ultimate fate of the space is uncertain, Culture Lab’s intersection of art and consumerism is unique, fascinating, and well worth a side trip.
And then there’s City Cellar, one of many nearby restaurants, where the wine list is legendary, the steaks are thick and house-aged to perfection, bar manager Shawn Powell’s work—particularly his old fashioned, a signature cocktail he ages in wooden barrels—is bright and inventive, and the creamy onion and mushroom soup may well change your life. In its nearly 20 years of existence, City Cellar has risen to become one of Palm Beach’s finest eateries, and as such can’t credibly be considered one of CityPlace’s surprises at this point.
Except on certain nights in March, that is, when word is that an Astro or two often strolls in for dinner.
Nonstop flights to West Palm Beach can cost $500 roundtrip or more, although Fort Lauderdale is often much cheaper ($150 or less). And thanks to Brightline, a high-speed rail service that opened in January, trips between the two cities ($10) now take just 30 minutes.
With five golf courses, a large heated pool and several onsite eateries, the PGA National Resort & Spa in West Palm is probably the closest luxury option to the ballpark. On the island, your best bets are The Breakers and Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa. For more hotel options and other info, visit thepalmbeaches.com.
City Cellar Wine Bar & Grill is much-beloved in PB, and for good reason. Another popular hangout is Avocado Grill, where the eponymous fruit may be found in everything from spring rolls to margaritas. But the most Astros-centric establishment in town may be Grease Burger Beer & Whiskey Bar, where ticket stubs from games get you discounts on brews. Menu highlights include the Astro Dog, which, fittingly for H-town’s palate, is served with bacon.
Single and multiple-game ticket packages can be purchased through the ballpark’s website, which also includes a complete spring training schedule, directions to the park, and other useful info. Sports Marketing USA offers all-inclusive packages with tickets, accommodations, rental cars and more, but all its Palm Beach packages are sold out. Check the website for updated information, and register to be notified about future packages this season and next.
Tours and More
For information on Leslie Diver’s tours of Palm Beach, which are prearranged and by appointment only, visit islandlivingpb.com. And for general information on everything to do, see, and eat in the area, visit the official Palm Beach website, at thepalmbeaches.com.