Experience the luxury and beauty of the drift-diving capital of Florida
By B.C. Rausch
There are a dozen palm trees native to Florida, but the iconic coconut tree is not one of them. The Providencia, a Spanish ship bound from Havana to Spain with a cargo of 20,000 coconuts, ran aground in 1878 just off-shore of a sparsely populated barrier island in the Lake Worth region. Local residents planted the coconuts, and within a decade the area was filled with coconut palm trees. And the island soon had a new name — Palm Beach.
Today the name conjures up visions of luxury, wealth and, of course, palm trees. But Palm Beach is much more than elegant mansions, luxury shopping and the gilded life created by Henry Morrison Flagler, the 19th-century businessman who called the region that he helped develop “a veritable paradise.”
As part of his plan to give the area a touch of class and beauty, Flagler named the local streets for native plants. Running east and west were Althea, Banyan, Clematis, Datura, Evernia and Fern streets. North-South avenues were Lantana, Myrtle, Narcissus, Olive, Poinsettia (now Dixie Highway), Rosemary, Sapodilla and Tamarind.
There’s also beauty and class just offshore, with world-class reefs and wrecks offering some of the best scuba diving on the East Coast. This area is considered the drift-diving capital of Florida. The waters of the Gulf Stream dip closest to Florida at Singer Island in West Palm Beach, which creates a mild current (1-knot average) that runs parallel to many wrecks and reef lines. This gentle current allows divers to drift nearly effortlessly along all the dive sites, exploring and observing while using very little energy.
There are many more activities on water and land. The Palm Beaches feature direct beach access, world-class saltwater fishing, snorkeling, parasailing, jet skiing, biking. kayaking tours (check out historic Munyon Island) and sightseeing by water-taxi throughout the local waterways.
A popular spot for touring is John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, the only state park in Palm Beach County. Situated on a barrier island along the Atlantic Ocean, the park is a true environmental treasure with 1.6 miles of soft-sand beach perfect for walking, jogging, hunting for seashells, swimming, snorkeling or just doing nothing on the beach. There are also nature trails and stand-up paddle board and kayaks for rent that will let you explore the Intracoastal Waterway at your own pace.
Manatee Lagoon is a wonderful way to catch a glimpse of these lovable sea creatures, also known as Florida’s “sea cows,” weighing in between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds. The lagoon is dedicated to stabilizing the state’s manatee population, which has been on the endangered list for years and is slowly making a comeback. This attraction features two floors of interactive exhibits and observation areas as well as a webcam that allows visitors to track the manatees.
In addition to all these outdoor pursuits are world-class museums and cultural activities, including the Norton Museum of Art and the Flagler Museum, which is a sprawling Gilded Age mansion. Visitors can admire the decadent architecture, a fascinating art collection, enchanting gardens and the original rail car that Flagler traveled in along the Florida coast.
When it’s time to re-energize, there are many restaurants from which to choose.
“Cooked in sight, must be right” is the slogan of Howley’s restaurant in West Palm Beach, a favorite of residents and visitors for breakfast, lunch and dinner for more than 70 years.
Seeming to stand still while everything around it has changed, Howley’s is still at its original location on South Dixie Highway and remains a “hip diner slinging comfort chow amid 1950s décor with a pressed-tin ceiling, full bar and a jukebox.” Everything is made from scratch, with the crab cakes touted as the best in the county. There’s also crabcake benedict and crab hash, topped with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce.
Another local favorite throughout the day is Benny’s on the Beach, with two locations including one on Lake Worth Pier. Along with the full meals and homemade baked goods and desserts are amazing views of the beach and ocean.
Another way to sample the top tastes are area food tours, which provide a variety of experiences from exploring historic neighborhoods with exclusive access to several restaurants, to a showcase of local brunches. One of the most popular tours—not surprisingly—is the happy hour tour, actually two hours of light bites, cocktail making and sipping.
Not all the food experiences are in restaurants. Don’t miss Palm Beach’s GreenMarket, voted the number-one farmers market in the United States in back-to-back years by USA Today. It’s a tasty opportunity to meet the vendors while savoring the flavors of South Florida, including Cuban coffee, arepas (Venezuelan cornmeal cake sandwiches), all kinds of tropical fruit, even a passionfruit croissant.
Outdoors, indoors, on the water or in the bar, West Palm Beach is a great vacation destination sure to stimulate all the senses.
Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (SAV) to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL)
Duration: 2 hours
Airline: Silver (Sunday, Monday, Thursday, Friday)
Drive from FLL to Palm Beach: 1 hour, 23 minutes (52 miles) via I-95 N
Recommended rental: Maserati Levante (Enterprise)
Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (SAV) to Palm Beach International Airport (PBI)
Duration: Varies by airline
Airlines: American, Delta, United, JetBlue
Hilton Head Island to Palm Beach
Duration: 6 hours, 27 minutes (456 miles) via I-95 S