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The Breakers of Palm Beach, Florida - FrommerluxeTravel

 

 

  The Breakers of Palm Beach:
A Unique Universe of a Resort

FrommerLuxuryTravel - archives
Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

 

 


Mr. Ponce holds forth beneath the
portrait of Henry Flagler

James Ponce, a youthful octogenarian in a rose-red blazer, begins his historical tour of the Breakers beneath a portrait of Henry Morrison Flagler. The likeness is so striking that for a moment you imagine the man who created the south Florida railroad, south Florida tourism, and the legendary Palm Beach resort is about to show you around. Suspension of disbelief persists throughout Mr. Ponce’s tour (which he’s been conducting for more than 20 years now). You know you’re strolling down the halls of a beachfront hotel, yet it seems you’re in a palace out of the Italian Renaissance.

 

Which is precisely the idea. The statuesque cream-colored building that stands before the sea looking out onto the manicured boulevards of Palm Beach is punctuated by twin Belvedere towers patterned after Rome’s Villa Medici. The main lobby which spans the width of the hotel is a take-off on the 16th century Great Hall of the Palazza Carego in Genoa. It is lined with rows of pillars culminating in Roman arches that rise to a barrel-vaulted ceiling covered with hand-painted frescoes of classical themes. Look up, and the heart stops.

 


The ceiling that makes the heart stop

Glass doors opposite the entrance open onto a courtyard, a romantic retreat of Italianate design with tropical plants, Renaissance-style statues, and artfully placed benches, while loggias at either end of the lobby lead to a succession of dining, conference, and ballrooms, every one of breathtaking dimensions and design. In the palatial Gold Room, frescoes around the rim of the ceiling depict explorers of the New World with Queen Isabella and Columbus holding center stage above a massive stone fireplace. The more contemporary pillar-lined Mediterranean Ballroom is a swirl of turquoise, peach and beige, its soaring ceiling a convincing replica of the blue Floridian sky.

Through the 1940’s, Mr. Ponce told our group, the Breakers stayed open only from December through April. Guests were on the European Plan and queued up for their seatings in the space we were now approaching, a mezzanine-level off the north loggia the size of half a football field. Today, he continued, with the resort open year round and with eight different dining experiences available, the grand dining salon is divided in two: the Tapestry Bar, named for the 14th  to 18th century Flemish tapestries that decorate its walls, and L’Escalier, the premier gourmet restaurant that seats 200 beneath a splendor of glittering chandeliers. But the space retains its unity in a ceiling covered with the little squares of wood-framed decorative paintings that are typical of 15th century Florence palaces.

L’Escalier leads into the Circle, the aptly named round dining room whose floor-to- ceiling Palladian windows look out onto the sea. Added to the building in 1927 to accommodate a growing number of guests, this astonishingly beautiful space with a thirty-foot domed ceiling decorated with cameo paintings of Italian cities and neo-classical frescoes now serves sumptuous breakfasts (sadly we’d leave before Sunday and miss the much heralded brunch).

 


A splendor of glittering chandeliers

Mr. Ponce pointed out a small balcony overlooking the Circle where, in a more elegant age, an orchestra used to play. Then he directed our attention to an inconspicuous stairway. During Prohibition it led to private dining areas, he told us, “where a magnum of champagne or that special bottle of Scotch that had been smuggled in from the Bahamas could be consumed. But today,” he concluded, “it’s the storage space for air conditioning equipment.”  And with that, the illusion snapped. We were back in the 21st century.

But no matter. To be in the Breakers of the 21st century is cause enough for celebration, and celebrations are the order of the day, most any day, where one or another of the resort’s magnificent ballrooms is the setting for a Palm Beach “high society” event. “More money is raised for charity in the ballrooms here than any other hotel in the world,” said Mr. Ponce. “We are talking about millions. Over this past year, the Breakers held so many charity balls, they nearly ran out of diseases.”

We had our own cause for celebrating as our stay in late February 2004 coincided with the completion of a decade-long refurbishment of every part of this 560-room resort spread out over 140 oceanfront acres. First impressions do not deceive here, but a very high bar is set by the hotel’s approach-way. Where once there was a blacktopped driveway with parking spaces along either side, a pair of brick-paved, palm-lined avenues go the 1,040 foot distance from South County Road to the hotel entrance. They are divided by a flower filled-meridian whose splashing fountain, according to Danny Miller, director of landscaping and grounds, is “an exact replica of the one in the Biboli Gardens in Florence.”

Having said this, the soft-spoken landscape artist who oversees some 50 gardeners and groundskeepers paused for a moment, then qualified: “Well, it’s not an exact replica. Instead of cherubs around the base, this one has alligators and pelicans. They wanted to give it the South Florida look.”


 

“The hotel stayed open throughout all the renovations,” Margee Adelsperger, the Breakers’ Brooklyn-born but Palm Beach-raised ebullient public relations manager, told us. “It was a tremendous project to combat the damaging effects of our being so close to the sea,” she said. We were walking the boardwalk before the pristine private beach that begins behind the hotel proper and continues several hundred yards to the south stopping where the compound of the late Estée Lauder begins. Our walk began after a spicy Bloody Mary and bowl of chunky clam chowder at the Seafood Bar that overlooks the Breakers’ northern-most portion from which we could either watch the surf crashing into the shore or look down and witness a school of phosphorescent tropical fish swimming beneath our elbows in the glass enclosed aquarium that serves as the restaurant’s bar.

Along the way, we passed the 20,000-square-foot indoor-outdoor spa with space for high energy work-outs-with-a-view and seventeen private treatment rooms, steam bath, sauna, beauty salon and lounge. A range of massages and body treatments, manicures and pedicures, makeup applications and hair stylings are offered here along with a choice of twelve Guerlain facial and skincare treatments at the only Guerlain free-standing spa outside of Paris. Later on, one of us would indulge in a deep tissue massage followed by the ultimate bliss of a Guerlain facial. To submit to such pampering and then step outdoors before the clear blue rectangle of a lap pool where water fitness classes are regularly held and glimpse the balmy southern Atlantic beyond is to believe, if only for a while, that all is right with the world.

Which seemed the prevalent Breakers’ mood that sun-filled afternoon among people stretched out on chaise lounges around the swimming pool, or beneath umbrellas on the pure white sand, or lunching al fresco on the broad white terrace outside the Beach Club Restaurant. Many were families with children.


Danny Miller by the brick-paved approachway

“People come to the Breakers and realize how fantastic it is for families so they return with their children or grandchildren,” said Margee. “There are childproof rooms, day camp and special events for children. Baby sitters, as a rule, are employees of the hotel. So there is that extra security.

“That is one the way the Breakers has changed,” she added. “Nowadays it attracts many more people with young children, and so as part of our renovations we included the creation of a Family Entertainment Center.”

We were headed there, down a winding and shaded gardened pathway that stopped at a gnarled sea-grape tree garlanded with lights. Danny Miller’s touch was everywhere – in vivid plantings of hibiscus and lantana, in stunning orchids twining around trees, in a gazebo laced with bougainvillea. Before us, high hedges formed the maze known as the Children’s Secret Garden.

“But it attracts adults as much as kids,” said Margee reassuringly as we wandered into the labyrinth wondering whether we’d ever see her again. Happily we found our way out and into a stucco bungalow that houses both an Italian restaurant and play complex. While waiting for their mozzarella sticks, pizza, or spaghetti, kids can amble over to the arts and crafts center, toddlers’ playroom, or arcade stocked with video games, Skee ball, pool, and a range of pinball machines one of us could not resist having a go at.

The family entertainment center is on the site of the former golf and tennis clubhouse which today more fittingly sits beside the 18-hole golf course and ten-court tennis complex on the other side of South County Road. Built in 1896 when the first Breakers hotel came up (it was destroyed by fire a few years later), the oldest golf course in continuous use in the state of Florida was redesigned in 2000 by architect Brian Silva.

“Guests have the choice of playing here at the vintage Ocean Course or the Breakers’ West Course ten miles away,” Margee told us as we approached the stunning green where a Dan Marino Celebrity Tournament to benefit research for autistic children was underway. “The Breakers is a golfing destination,” she said. “Many guests arrive with their clubs or ship them down while others rent them from the pro shop in the clubhouse.”      

The 32,000 square foot golf and tennis clubhouse, a plantation-style building of white clapboard and shingle, is a total departure from the Renaissance-palazzo look across the way. More of a piece with its South Florida locale, the clubhouse is casual and open with surfaces of high gloss woods and a grand Tara-like winding staircase that connects the pro shop and fitness center downstairs with the Flagler Steakhouse on the upper level.

Which is where we dined on the broad verandah surrounding the Steakhouse on a February night when the temperature back home hovered around zero degrees. Here, we sat outdoors under a star-filled Florida sky and in a “Begin the Beguine” state of mind, contemplated the all-American menu that focuses on prime-cut aged steaks and fresh seafood. While one of us, true to form, began with Oysters Rockefeller, the other thought to enjoy Florida produce where it is grown instead of a thousand miles away and ordered a tomato salad with sweet onions and blue cheese in a tangy balsamic vinaigrette. Choosing an entrée proved to be more difficult. Which one of seven steaks? Which of the seafood options: sea bass or salmon, lobster or the fresh fish of the day? Our waiter, who comes from Istanbul (there’s a large international staff at the Breakers which contributes to the cosmopolitan quality of the resort) resolved our dilemma suggesting we have the best of both worlds: the excellent “surf and turf,” which combined the tenderest of filet mignons with the most succulent of lobster tails.


Margee Adelsperger, public relations director

It is possible to spend a week at the Breakers and dine at a different restaurant every day of the week, each with its own concept and ambience. While you can easily walk over to the Steakhouse, a shuttle bus that regularly leaves from the front of the hotel can drop you off at the golf course area or take you three blocks to the Breakers’ off-the-premises restaurant: Echo.

In its dark and pulsating atmosphere and imaginative combinings of pan-Asian foods, this trendy hot-spot on a busy Palm Beach block  evokes something of Alain Ducasse’s Spoon at the Byblos resort in St. Tropez. The menu is voluminous, but help comes swiftly. In our case, it arrived in the form of Crystal Adamo, an effervescent young woman who is putting herself through Palm Beach University waiting tables at Echo.

Seated at a polished granite table before a bowl of addictive salted soybeans, we listened attentively as Crystal began: “The first page of the menu is Water. That’s the Japanese portion: sushi and sashimi. The champagne of the sushi bar is blue fin toro; so is the hamachi– yellowtail amberjack both flown in from Japan. The rolls are exceptional.”

She continued, “The second page is Wind. Appetizers and small bowls of soup. Spare ribs in spicy barbeque sauce. A sampler for two of jumbo shrimp, beef and chicken skewered, spare ribs, and spring roll – all on the same plate.”

Crystal paused and took a deep breath. “The third page is Earth. Everything here, with the exception of the grouper, walks the face of the earth. There’s Mongolian beef, two four ounce filet mignon medallions cooked as you like, served over Chinese broccoli drizzled with black bean oyster sauce. Moo shu with mushrooms, cabbage, eggs and the specialty of the day -- tonight it’s duck. Served with mandarin pancakes and oyster sauce.

“One more page,” she continued after giving us a moment to catch up.  “Fire. Prepared in the wok. Vegetable dishes like the Korean eggplant with mango and curry. It’s terrific. The whole red snapper from head to tail, flash-fried with cilantro in a sweet and sour sauce, filleted tableside.”

Actually Crystal had only itemized her favorites, and they were but a few of Echo’s  manifold options, all of which she could recite by heart. A biology major, Crystal is in her element when it comes to memorizing elements of the natural world.

Relying on her guidance, we ordered a remarkable feast that featured bluefin toro sashimi; lobster roll made of steamed and chilled Maine lobster tossed in Japanese mayonnaise (that being mayonnaise with rice vinegar and wasabi), wrapped in soy sesame paper topped with a scoop of sturgeon caviar(!); delicate seared miso-crusted grouper; batter-fried, soft-shelled crab in a spider roll where the crab with lettuce is enclosed with a wrapper of soy, sesame and wasabi – and wonton soup and egg roll (that is open so you can see what’s inside) which the traditionalist among us insisted on.

Echo’s delicacies are prepared by experts from Thailand and China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. And overseeing them all is Lee Grossman, a young man of Italian/Jewish origin who grew up in Boston, clearly knows his products, combines them imaginatively and creates the most attractive rolls and sushi and sashimi platters we have yet to see.

We had done pan-Asian, seafront-seafood, all-American steakhouse, home-style Italian, and Mediterranean alfresco all under the Breakers canopy. There yet remained L’Escalier, the name itself a double entendre referring to the raised level of the dining room and, at the same time, the aspirant level of its modern French cuisine. We had reserved this dining experience for the last night of our stay.

Back in the palatial dining room beneath the Florentine ceiling of hand-painted wooden panels, we took in the atmosphere of an elegantly dressed evening crowd and candle-lit tables set with regal Versace china and bouquets of budding roses. A classic setting save for the open kitchen at the far end of the room that struck a contemporary, edgy note in the otherwise formal environment. There L’Escalier’s bevy of  chefs in “les toques blanc” were busy at their preparations under the direction of award-winning master chef Matthew Sobon.


 


A bevy of chefs in les toques blanc

 

 

 

The youthful Sobon depends on the freshest quality ingredients, obtained from an international array of the best purveyors, to work his alchemy in the creation of  such dishes as confit of halibut with puy lentils and sunchoke puree, or Cervena venison with ruby chard and white bean purée.

We were to have neither of these, however, since it turned out this was to be the night of the final wine tasting event of the 2003-2004 season. Chef Sobon and Master Sommelier Virginia Philip organize four of these a year pairing wines from a specific winery with complementing dishes. There is a serious interest in wines at the Breakers, a staggering 22,000-bottle collection. About 7,000 of these are visible behind leaden-glass-paned doors in an above-ground wine closet in the Tapestry Room adjacent to L’Escalier which is where the event began with passed hors d’oeuvres and glasses of Bianco, 2000 – a light, slightly fruity white of pinot grigio, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc from the vineyard of the evening: Niebaum-Coppola of Napa Valley.

In addressing the group, winemaker Scott MeLeod could not resist mentioning the upcoming Academy Awards and the excitement back at the winery over the possibility that Sophia Coppola might win an Oscar. But the order of the evening was wine-tasting, and he swiftly turned to the business at hand as the vineyard’s flagship white: Blancaneaux, a blend of Chardonnay and three Rhone varietals (2001) was poured to accompany a refreshing salad of tangy greens, little pieces of green olives, pine nuts, and jicama surrounding peekytoe crab and blood orange gelée. The sweetness of the crab and the full bodied dry white made for a perfect match.

The vineyard’s big, hardy Zinfandel named for the friend of Francis Ford Coppola’s grandfather, Edizione Pennino, was next. This 1996 vintage partnered a sublime breast of squab served with sautéed grapes and chicory.

Sobon specializes in a range of foie gras preparations. Tonight it was irresistible, served with barely seared tuna, black truffles and lentil purée, and accompanied by Niebaum-Coppolla’s flagship red, Rubicon (1999), a rich, firm Bordeaux blend. 1994 was the vineyard’s banner year, and this was the Rubicon that enhanced the next course: tender, flavorful roast rack of lamb with kidney ravioli.  

To provide a splendid finish to this magnificent repast, the sparkling Blanc de Blancs 2002 accompanied a Grand Marnier parfait and pomegranate sorbet.

Afterwards we asked the young and lovely Virginia Philip who was recently voted Best Sommelier in America what turns of fate had led her to so male-dominated a profession. “I’m from upstate New York,” she told us. “During one summer, I worked at a vineyard driving a tractor. After that, I took a wine class...” Virginia demurred. Apparently, one thing led to another. “There’s a lot of traveling in this job, especially to France and Germany” she noted. But for the moment, her bags were packed in preparation for a skiing trip on the snowy slopes of Colorado.


L'Escalier chef Matthew Sobon

Virginia exuded an élan and warmth that seemed to characterize the entire Breakers staff. Whomever we encountered as we wandered the vast reaches of this universe of a resort, in the restaurants and spa, at the shops and on the golf course, around the pool and on the beach, we were greeted, welcomed, made to feel at home. As a result, among our fondest memories are the people we met. And among them, none is more memorable than Bernard Nicole.

 A native of the Cap d’Antibes so tellingly evoked by F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Tender Is the Night,” Bernard adds a note of continental cosmopolitanism to the Breakers’ experience. Everyone knows him; few can escape being smitten by his charms, especially the ladies whom he greets with a kiss on the back of the hand. As concierge of the Flagler Suite, the 28-room hotel-within-a-hotel that occupies the top two floors of the Breakers, Bernard attends to his guests like a gallant host of a French Riviera property. He organizes their lavish continental breakfasts and pre-dinner cocktail hour, sees the flowers of his domain are at their optimum bloom, and performs hundreds of acts of small kindnesses like getting a broken pair of sunglasses fixed.


Master Sommelier Virginia Philip

“The Flagler Suite is a kind of home for the guests up here,” Bernard told us. “They are the ones who want to be away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the hotel. Some come for as long as three months; many are repeats. Our public rooms are their living rooms; food and drink are available all the time. The décor is different from the rest of the hotel. It is elegant but at the same time, it is comfortable.

“Years ago, this space had been used to house staff or guests’ staff – in those days, people traveled with their staff,” he continued. “Later, it was used for storage. Then when the hotel was redone from bottom to top, everything was opened up here. It looked like a ballroom.

“I had come to Palm Beach with the family I had been working for as a private concierge. We had traveled all over the world. When we came to Palm Beach, however, the lady of the house decided she did not want to travel any more,” Bernard told us. “She bought a house and we stayed.

“It became very, very boring. So I applied for a job at the Breakers, and worked in Room Service. Twelve years ago, when they decided to create the Flagler Suite, they asked me to take over. They gave me carte blanche, and I have been here ever since.”

Bernard and the Breakers seem meant for each other. A man of his tastes can recognize its many charms. “Coming from Europe, the hotel is so interesting to me,” he said. “Every day I look at the ceiling in the lobby; it is so beautiful. And the Circle dining room with its spectacular ceiling, and the Gold Room with the explorers. . .  The daughter of the family I worked for got married there -- I am still very close to them.  Of course by then I had an “in.” The wedding was spectacular.

“I’ve met five presidents: Reagan, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Bush Sr. They all stayed at the Breakers; I took care of them. They all said something to me in French. I’ve met Princess Diana, Prince Charles, many movie stars from Elizabeth Taylor to Madonna, and, of course, the French legends like Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau.

“But one does not have to be a celebrity for me to work for them. I work for the client; the client is my best friend.”

And that, we thought, is a succinct summation of the Breakers’ credo.


Adding a touch of continental cosmopolitanism: Bernard Nicole

 

The Breakers
One South County Road

Palm Beach, FL 33480

Phone: 561-659-8480

 

 

 

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
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This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2017 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

 

 

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