Cookies policy

In order to provide you with the best online experience this website uses cookies.
By using our website, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn more.

Monday,  February 26, 2024 3:38 AM 

On Location: “If these palms could talk”: Agents unpack history, culture (and glam) in The Palm Beaches

On Location: “If these palms could talk”: Agents unpack history, culture (and glam) in The Palm Beaches
From left: Naomi Rogers, Leanne Toushan, Paul Larcher, Carolyn Kremer & Cathy Davis visit the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Florida. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

It was as if we’d moseyed into Florida’s very own Palace of Versailles.

At first glance, the former residence known as Whitehall, a 100,000 square-foot mansion with marble columns and a red-barrel tiled roof, looks like any other home in Palm Beach – a town where billionaires, nestled in glitzy estates facing South Florida’s yacht-peppered intracoastal waterway, go to get away from the millionaires.

But step inside this 75-room Gilded Age home of neoclassical Beaux-Arts architecture, and there’s a tale awaiting that runs far deeper than high-end real-estate.

Completed in 1902, Whitehall was built as a winter residence for American industrialist Henry Flagler, who gifted it to his wife, Mary Lily, as a wedding present.

Whitehall, today, serves as the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum. (Pax Global Media)

Never heard of Henry Flagler? He’s essentially the founding father of tourism along Florida’s east coast, kickstarting development in the region at a time when it was nothing but desolate brush, and when Key West was the most populated city.

Henry Flagler made his first fortune in oil (he, alongside John D. Rockefeller, was a founder of Standard Oil).

But later life, in the last quarter of the 19th century, he pursued a second career, constructing the Florida East Coast Railway after a stay in St. Augustine, Florida, where he saw great potential in the sun-kissed region.  

READ MORE: Golf, Gucci, deals & diversity: more Canadians are flocking to The Palm Beaches

Railway construction would have been enough for most, but Flagler took things further, building hotels along his growing rail route – notably the Royal Poinciana Hotel, which opened in 1894, and the Palm Beach Inn, in 1896, which was later renamed “The Breakers” (which still exists today).

He even built Florida’s first-ever nine-hole golf course.

All of this activity accelerated the development of Palm Beach, West Palm Beach and even Miami into major tourism destinations that, over the past century, have attracted millions upon millions of visitors.

Where Whitehall fits into the picture is that it tells that epic story.

The Henry Morrison Flagler Museum is full of eye-popping opulence. (Pax Global Media)

The grand home, today, is officially the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, a distinction it has held since 1959 when the mansion was saved from demolition by one of Henry Flagler's granddaughters, who turned into a non-profit corporation.

The museum, a National Historic Landmark, hosts guided tours and exhibits that detail the history of the estate, tying in moments from the life of Henry Flagler (who passed away in 1913, at 83, after falling down a flight of stairs at Whitehall, and never recovering from his injuries) and how his vision led to the tourism-rich Florida we see today.  

You can feel the energy in the walls.

"America’s first resort destination"

As PAX learned last week (June 19-23) during a tour of Whitehall with Canadian travel advisors and Discover The Palm Beaches – which represents the 39 cities in Palm Beach County, from Jupiter in the north to Boca Raton in the south (and everywhere else in between) – it’s a history lesson that grabs your attention.   

“We’re in America’s first resort destination," Paul Larcher, account director for Discover The Palm Beaches, which is represented by VoX International in Canada, told PAX.

From left: Leanne Toushan, Naomi Rogers, Carolyn Kremer, Michael Pihach, Paul Larcher & Cathy Davis enjoy a Palm Beach yacht cruise courtesy of Lots of Yachts/Lots of Spots. (Supplied)

That’s just one of many monikers assigned to The Palm Beaches, which got its name after a Spain-bound cargo ship, The Providencia, carrying some 20,000 coconuts, shipwrecked off the coast in 1878.

(The coconuts ran aground and were planted, creating the first coconut grove and palm tree-lined coast).

The spread-out county, with some 3,200 restaurants and more than 200 art galleries, museums and theatres, is also known as “Florida’s Cultural Capital” and “Florida’s Golf Capital” (The Palm Beaches, collectively, has more than 160 golf courses).

The Eau Palm Beach. (Pax Global Media)

Put it altogether and you have one sophisticated slice of The Sunshine State, devoid of mouse ears (not that there’s anything wrong with Mickey and the Gang, who are often synonymous with Florida tourism).

“It’s where hospitality began,” Larcher continued. “You can’t compare it to any other city or area in Florida.”

The Palm Beaches also has 160 dive sites, a lively equestrian (and polo) scene, rows of designer shopping and foodie-focused events, from Restaurant Month in August to “Savour the Avenue” in March, where visitors can dine at one America’s longest tables.

The “gentler side of Florida”

Think of The Palm Beaches as a patchwork of unique cities, each with their own distinct personalities. It’s a diverse menu. 

The county itself is located about a half hour north of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Port Everglades, and some two-and-half hours south of Orlando and Kissimmee, where the theme parks are.

Thanks to a relatively-new high-speed passenger train in Florida, called the Brightline, which launched in 2018, it has never been easier to access The Palm Beaches. There are stops in both Boca Raton and popular West Palm Beach. 

Palm trees and yachts in The Palm Beaches. (Pax Global Media)

From Canada, flying into hubs like Fort Lauderdale and Miami airports is one way to get there, but there’s also seasonal direct lift from Montreal (YUL) and Toronto (YYZ) with Air Canada to Palm Beach International Airport (PBI), where private jets often outnumber commercial carriers.

Canada, by the way, is The Palm Beaches’ number one international market – and the numbers are increasing.  

Canadian travel advisors take a water taxi at The Boca Raton hotel and beach club. (Pax Global Media)

The destination, in the first quarter of this year, reported close to 154,000 Canadian arrivals, which is 28 per cent more than 2022 and 16 per cent higher than 2019.

What’s driving the growth? “I think people are looking for something different – vacations with excellent food and great service,” Larcher said. “There’s a level of service in this area that I don’t think you’ll find anywhere else in Florida.”

While the Palm Beaches may share the same coastline as Miami, it’s nothing like the buzzing coastal metropolis, Larcher added.

“It’s the gentler side of Florida,” he said.

Soaking up the view from the Tower at The Boca Raton. (Pax Global Media)

If these palms could talk

As part of last week’s FAM, PAX visited a selection of glam hotels – notably, the Eau Palm Beach, The Colony, the Hilton West Palm Beach, the Boca Raton, the aforementioned Breakers hotel and The Ben, Autograph Collection (stay tuned for our detailed round-up).

Here, every hotel has a story.

The Eau Palm Beach was a private members club for society's rich and famous in the early 1950s. (Pax Global Media)

Take The Eau, a Forbes 5-Star property, snuggled in Manalapan, for example. In the 1950s, it was a private club for the rich and famous, from the Fords to the Vanderbilts to the Rat Pack to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Eau, if these palms could talk!

The travel advisors who were handpicked to participate in the trip were also all Virtuoso certified – experts in the art of selling luxury travel.

In a place like The Palm Beaches, where luxury independent hotels offer Virtuoso-approved perks for discerning clients, the group was right at home.

Canadian travel advisors get an exclusive tour of The Breakers Palm Beach. (Pax Global Media)

Where history, art & culture collide

But if there was place to set the mood, it was Whitehall – the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum – where history, art and culture (and entrepreneurship) collide.

The mansion is full of eye-popping opulence – each room is packed with restored antiques, chandeliers, décor and period pieces from the glory days.

Touring Whitehall – the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum. (Pax Global Media)

And while Whitehall is certainly not a replica of the former royal residence built by King Louis XIVFrance’s iconic Palace of Versailles is much, much, much bigger – it incorporates influences from the famous 17th century chateau.

The mansion’s ballroom emulates Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, and gold-leaf accents are found throughout – in the silk-covered Drawing Room, for one, where gold cresting waves on the walls match the detailing on a creamy-white Steinway grand piano.

(Henry Flagler didn’t use gold to enhance his home, however. He used aluminum, coated with shellac, as it was just as expensive at the time).

A look inside the Drawing Room at Whitehall. (Pax Global Media)

The home, with marble floors and ceiling murals, embodies many styles, from a Swiss chalet-inspired games room to an open-air central courtyard modelled after palaces in Spain and Italy.

Mediterranean and Spanish colonial revival left behind by the late American architect Addison Mizner is front and centre. 

There’s a reason why the New York Herald, in 1902, called Whitehall "more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world."

The 8,100 square-foot pavilion at Whitehall, added in 2005, was designed to resemble a 19th Century railway station. (Pax Global Media)

Touring Henry Flagler's original private railcar, Railcar No. 91. (Pax Global Media)

There’s been additions over the years, such as a glass-windowed pavilion, facing the breezy intracoastal, which opened in 2005.  

The bright space, designed in the style of a 19th century railway station, houses Mr. Flagler's original private railcar, “Railcar No. 91,” which visitors can walk through.

This pavilion, wedged into a forest of lush palm trees, is also easy on the eyes (like the rest of the mansion).

It’s no wonder it’s used as a venue for hosting tea and cocktail parties, and other special events, throughout the year.

But most of Whitehall’s original character – much like the old-world soul of The Palm Beaches – remains intact. 

As David Carson, the Flagler Museum’s knowledgeable public affairs director, told us during our tour: “If Henry could walk through the doors today, he’d say: ‘Nothing has changed.’”

Stay tuned for more of PAX’s exclusive coverage from The Palm Beaches.  

Don't miss a single travel story: subscribe to PAX today!  Click here to follow PAX on Facebook.