The Florida we know today was mostly brought about by the efforts of one man and it wasn’t Walt Disney, though by the looks of the crazily clipped hedges in Palm Beach we would have never guessed it. As we discovered in St. Augustine, Henry Flagler was Mr. Florida.
One of Flagler’s first realizations – if he was to transform this subtropical backwater into a premiere winter playground – was the need to get the filthy rich to Florida in some semblance of style. He proceeded to blow some of the dough he had piled up as a founder of Standard Oil Company buying up the railroads around the state, connecting them into The Florida East Coast Railway, then expanding the tracks southward.
Following his route along the Atlantic seaboard brought us to Florida’s first exclusively resort town, Palm Beach. The town only exists because of Flagler’s vision for the perfect winter retreat. We believe that the obsessive affinity for razor sharp hedges came later.
The fulfillment of that vision took the form of the largest wooden structure in the world, The Royal Poinciana Hotel. Turn of the century VIPs could pull right up to the door in their private rail cars and and party like it was 1899. The downside was that The Poinciana faced the mainland, not out to sea. Guests wanted to stay near the ocean “by the breakers.” Seems like a huge miscalculation on visionary Flagler’s part, but hey, we all make mistakes.
Flagler was nobody’s fool, so he built another hotel, The Breakers, on the Atlantic beach. The Royal Poinciana fell quickly out of fashion and was torn down in 1935, but The Breakers rocks on to this day as one of Florida’s swankiest resort destinations. Not exactly our kind of hangout, but we wanted to at least get a glimpse of it.
Now BAMF is not exactly a luxury car, but we pulled him right up to the valet anyway, getting aghast looks from the clientele. Gotta love keeping ’em on their toes – they looked kind of bored before they noticed us – we were happy to provide a scandalous diversion. However, the parking lot personnel seemed quite amused by BAMF’s defiant presence. After assuring them that we intended to purchase our mid-day repast inside, we were directed to park BAMF in a spot by the tour buses and walked into the luxurious lobby like we owned the joint. We wore our dress flip-flops and long pants, so we fit right in.
Trying not to gawk like hillbillies, we moseyed through to the walkway along the sea wall, then followed the path around the grand old inn’s gardens to the croquet and tennis courts. There is no doubt that this is an impressive place to crash for a night or two, but we weren’t really in the mood to take out a mortgage for a $1,250.00 oceanfront suite. Too much paperwork.
We could have settled for the $350.00 regular room, but what’s the point when we have a perfectly good BAMF out in the parking lot? None. Anyway, we said we were going to have lunch and our word is our bond so… off to find some lunch.
After being turned away from the first two restaurants we came upon, we discovered that the dining options are extremely limited for non-hotel-guest riffraff that might wander in off the streets in an ancient motorhome. Our only choice was the Seafood Bar, a beautiful setting overlooking the breaking waves of the Atlantic and a seat at a bar that is actually a giant color-changing aquarium.
It’s pretty cool to have little tropical fish swimming under one’s seven dollar domestic beer. Hey, atmosphere comes at a price baby. One look at the menu proved atmosphere came pretty damn high indeed. Good thing we weren’t too hungry, ’cause for a couple $48 steaks, $21 shrimp cocktails and $14 salads we could have had a room for a night… or bought groceries for about a month.
We opted to split the Crab Nachos, a bargain at $26.50. Now, all sarcasm aside, these really could be considered a good deal because – slap my ass and call me Pappy – these were amazing! These were not your everyday run-of-the-mill nachos with some scrawny canned crab tossed on top, they were inspired. Tortillas on a bed of cheddar grits with marinated sweet onions, tomatoes, jalapeños, piled high with fresh crab meat, and garnished with toasted cumin and lime sour cream. Call me Pappy one more time – just for good measure.
Now we don’t know if Mr. Flagler had anybody call him Pappy or not, but in 1902 he built a winter retreat for the wife as a wedding present, and called it Whitehall. It might seem a tad ostentatious to name one’s little romantic getaway, but really this was just a modest fifty-five room mansion. It only cost a small fortune, really, it’s nothing. It stands today as The Flagler Museum, and yes, it is still jammin’.
As grand as The Breakers, Whitehall and Palm Beach were, Flagler wasn’t finished with his Florida fantasies just yet. When a big freeze hit Palm Beach in the winter of 1894-’95, Henry decided to push even further down the peninsula. Stories were circulating that the citrus crop down by Biscayne Bay – the site of present day Miami – had survived just fine. It was time too lay tracks.
Once again we ventured BAMF deep into a circumstance that no funky, twenty-nine year old motorhome should be exposed to… Ocean Drive, South Beach, on a Friday evening. We got some looks and several valets tried to lure us into their clubs, not so much for our business – they just wanted to drive BAMF. Wasn’t gonna happen – we were cruising. We took several passes up and down the beachside boulevard, checking out the Streamline Moderne (intended to give the sensation of speed) and Nautical Moderne (designed to look like ocean liners) styled hotels.
These famous Art Deco hotels began appearing in the 1930s and has since become the largest collection of Art Deco architecture in the world. Absolutely amazing. Our timing was perfect, as the sun was setting the neon was coming to life.
Something else was coming to life too. An all out, no holds barred battle for attention. Folks were using whatever they had available, women sporting their surgically enhanced attributes in tiny, yet very expensive outfits, and men revving their finely tuned Italian engines. This is no exaggeration, we saw more Lamborghinis, Maseratis and Ferraris in this one evening than in our entire lives – they’re every third car. BAMF fit right in. We thought about revving his Chevy 350 at a guy at a stop light, but decided not embarrass the dude in his puny little Maserati. We knew he was compensating.
Then it happened. We spotted the one guy in South Beach who wasn’t even remotely trying to compensate. He was putting it all out there for the world to see.
Words fail us here, this is something that has to be seen to be fully grasped. Basically we were looking at a dapper, Swiss-themed middle-aged fellow wearing a shoestring cleverly contorted around his neck, down through his butt crack and then holding a custom fitted sock for his, um, pee-pee, schwang, junk, hoo ha, yahoo, no, johnson… no wait, let’s go with package, that’s pretty safe. We’ll say that. Package.
Got to give him this, he was not shy. He actually turned out to be a really nice guy that told us that he just enjoys “doing his own little thing.” As he walked jauntily from the beach through the sidewalk cafes (the package in close proximity to patron’s plates), he sweetly and patiently posed for pictures and left all who saw him with a smile on their face. His “little thing” brought joy to others, and he, in return, received joy.
Rockin’ razor-sharp hedges, fast cars and over-the-top opulence is just one way to stand out in an area known for its conspicuous “check me out” attitude. But we’ll stick to the more frivolous for our entertainment buck.
Give us a BAMF and Swiss-themed tan line any day.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com