The sedate island of Palm Beach thumbs its Worth Avenue nose at Miami’s flamboyant South Beach. Winter elite never carry cash and party on yachts the size of RMS Queen Mary 2. Best selling author James Patterson lives here thanks to the boatload of fans that buy his books. Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago Club is sanctuary to pampered billionaires. We can pass all this material wealth on US Highway 95 and never know it’s there. So why should we care? In the arts and the environment the rich are not different from you and me.
At a writers’ conference in the Brazilian Court Hotel on Australian Avenue, I stepped out of a time machine into the world of Scott and Zelda. Though now remodeled, Gatsby’s ghost lingers. South Florida’s Moorish-Mediterranean revival design owes its genesis to the creative artistry of early 20th century architect Addison Mizner. Yet the spirit of Palm Beach lies not in its wealth, personalities or structural design, but its consciousness. In her “State-Of-The Town” address, Palm Beach Mayor Gail Coniglio emphasized “protection of Palm Beach for future generations.”
Henry Flagler brought the Over-Sea Railroad to Key West and the world to Florida. Though Palm Beach buzzes with vitality, nobody’s in a hurry. No blaring horns. Relax and breathe. In the tradition of Versailles and other European palaces, Flagler’s Beaux-Arts mansion with antiques and art collection is open to the public at the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, Whitehall Way.
The Society of The Four Arts is at 2 Four Arts Plaza. Palm Beach enjoys titles like society and royal, but the only thing royal are the towering Roystonea regia (trees). Four Arts, a nonprofit cultural organization, hosts concerts, films, educational programs and art exhibitions where you can catch Toulouse-Lautrec this December. Summer visitors come not to be seen, but to see. Brimming with bougainvillea, the pace is leisurely, light is vibrant, ecosystem vigorous.
On a drowsy summer day in the library of The Four Arts, I take the elevator to the second floor. Exhibits vary. On this day the Children’s Library is featuring a rare photographic glimpse of the Buddhist Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. Photographers Tom Sterling, Kathleen Sweeney and Dr. L. Samuel Wann transport viewers to one of the remotest places on earth, The Cloud Kingdom of the Drukpa people. Roaming among the lost horizons of lamas and fluttering prayer flags, suddenly it feels like winter. Leathered women weave multicolored wool blankets, children’s faces are red as apples. Languid brown-eyed yaks peer through fences of medieval hill towns where maroon robed monks till the primordial soil.
From the frosty peaks of Shangri-La, a short stroll leads to the sunlit world of the Four Arts Botanical Gardens. Amongst trickling fountains, exotic birds, spiny bromeliads, and tropical plants, a mosaic tile bench invites a shady pause. Brick walkways meander through gardens of Chinese, British and Spanish influence. A Baroque wrought iron gate opens to a garden where a live blond supermodel poses for photojournalists. Cool and serene, a sculpture of Kuan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy silently contemplates the photo shoot while the living goddess wilts under the Florida sun.
Kids like Pan’s Garden on nearby Hibiscus Avenue. A large bronze of Pan playing his pipe guards entrance to the preservation of over 300 native species. Pan’s “Plants and Native Americans” program for students focuses on ethnobotany, the relationship between Florida’s Native American tribes and the indigenous plants that supported their culture.
Palm Beach owes its quality of life to the passion and enormous capital of residents devoted to preserving its environment and cultural integrity. Absent the hoopla of the rich and famous, a walk about town unearths fragrant backyard herb gardens, art galleries tucked within courtyards-and the dazzling world of flowers. Orchid buffs have tons of resources including Mary’s Orchids on Sunrise Avenue, and the Orchid Society of the Palm Beaches.
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