Art lovers flock to Miami for Art Basel every December, but any time of year is a good one to visit Palm Beach County, an equally temperate destination just a quick jaunt up I-95 that hosts enough arts happenings to make it a contender for cultural capital of the Sunshine State.
Start your stay with a visit to the Flagler Museum, home of Henry Flagler, Standard Oil’s lesser-known but no less successful partner and the man responsible for what Palm Beach is today. At the turn of the century, Florida’s first hotel magnate and railway pioneer commissioned a six-foot strand of pearls from Tiffany to give to his third wife-to-be—to this day, the necklace is the most expensive piece of jewelry they’ve made, thanks to the 12-carat diamond clasp—but then Flagler truly outdid himself when he presented her with yet another lavish wedding gift: the 100,000-square-foot Beaux Arts estate Whitehall. A tour is a whirlwind globe-trotting affair through some 75 rooms fashioned after locales like Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors and Saint Mark’s Basilica. While the architecture is impressive enough, those who ascend the grand double staircase will find rotating exhibits on the Gilded Age, which show off Flagler’s personal collection alongside borrowed pieces.
Get a taste of the good life yourself at Boca Raton Resort and Club, built two decades later by another Palm Beach heavyweight, architect Addison Mizner. Now a Waldorf Astoria property, it boasts a couple of golf courses and several restaurants, including the oceanfront SeaGrille and the Blue, which towers 27 stories over the Intracoastal Waterway. Outside, guests can head to the bocce court, surf shark-free on wave simulator FlowRider, sunbathe on the half-mile of private beach and take a dip in one of seven pools. But you can ditch the bathing suit for Spa Palazzo’s signature bath ritual, during which bathrobed guests are escorted from a mineral soak that involves eating sorbet to a Swiss shower with nearly 50 jets and a blissful waterfall massage. The much-lauded spa lives up to the hype, so be sure to follow up your ritual with a rose quartz Ayurvedic facial or a hybrid Swedish and Thai massage in one of the 44 treatment rooms.
A mile and a half away, there’s another retreat at Boca Raton Museum of Art, lined with works from the likes of Charles Demuth and Purvis Young. Current exhibition Glasstress Boca Raton had visual artists traveling to Murano to work with Venice’s master glass artisans. The resulting 40-plus works, on view into July, range from hammocks to surveillance camera chandeliers.
Another world-class museum lies north in West Palm Beach. The Norton Museum of Art is known for programming such as the annual Recognition of Art by Women exhibit and biennial showcase of emerging photographers, as well as its impressive collection of Chinese, European and American art. And its gallery space will be increased by a third when the results of a $100 million expansion are unveiled in 2018. In the meantime, guests can peep a selection of its permanent collection admission-free and take part in its ongoing Art After Dark series and other special events.
Ten minutes down the road, explore the one-square-mile arts and entertainment district, where black box theater Palm Beach Dramaworks stages works from Israel Horovitz and other acclaimed playwrights. Pop into galleries like the Palm Beach Photographic Centre, which frequently hosts National Geographic and Sports Illustrated photogs, as well as Cleveland import Contessa Gallery, home to street artist and rumored Banksy mastermind Mr. Brainwash.
Of course, there’s plenty of street art outdoors too. Local and international artists have painted the town with 30-and-counting murals displaying everything from metallic Buddhas to a psychedelic Einstein and an Alexander Graham Bell homage, and muralists flood the streets for 10-day outdoor museum show CANVAS every November. After soaking in the art and sunshine, refuel at Subculture Coffee, which also pours beer and wine until 2 am when it’s not hosting Tacos & Hip Hop get-togethers, or stop by Leila, a Middle Eastern spot that brings in flame-toting belly dancers on weekends and serves a killer cheesy knafeh peppered with pistachio and orange blossom.
The cultural experience continues a bit farther south in Delray Beach, where the city’s first elementary school has been transformed into art complex Old School Square. Silent discos, zombie proms and craft beer fests abound, and its Crest Theatre hosts productions like Xanadu and Avenue Q as well as the monthly variety show Cast Party, an “extreme open mic” that kicks off with performances by hosts and Broadway vets Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch. The complex also encompasses the Cornell Art Museum, currently featuring Fabricated, a showcase of fiber art like knit cacti and mattresses woven into oversized inspiring messages. And down the block, you’ll find Arts Garage, a BYOB cabaret-style concert venue that has imaginative guests packing everything from candelabras to sushi boats in their picnic baskets.
Those looking to unwind can wander the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, featuring rotating exhibits of Japanese art and tea ceremony demonstrations. But the real treat awaits in the 200 acres of creaking bamboo stalks, raked stone beds, tranquil waterfalls and other oases inspired by famed gardens in Japan that date back to the ninth century. May through September, you can also catch taiko drum performances and fill up on sake and sushi during monthly evening strolls. As you watch the sun set with mochi ice cream in hand, you might think: Who needs Art Basel?
-Tap the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County’s complimentary concierge for specialized itineraries.
-During peak turtle-nesting season, observe nighttime egg-laying on Loggerhead Marinelife Center’s stretch of Juno Beach.
Boca Raton Resort & Club bocaresort.com; Cultural Council of Palm Beach County palmbeachculture.com