Find Your Upscale Retreat at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach
By Janet K. Keeler
There’s the lap of luxury and then there’s the Lap of Luxury at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach. Royal palms line the red paver road leading to the palatial property, and once past the gates arriving visitors just might feel like royalty on the red carpet.
You may feel disoriented when your car reaches the end of the long driveway. You know you’re in Palm Beach on Florida’s East Coast, but you think for a minute you could be in Rome. Doesn’t the fabled Villa Medici also have those two towers flanking the main building? It does and that’s because The Breakers in Palm Beach pays homage to the villa, in both its architecture and some of the interior appointments.
Luckily you only need step out of your car and parade into the grand lobby rather than conquer the Spanish Steps that lead to the Roman villa.
The Breakers is steeped in Florida history and inspired by classic Italian architecture, but it’s not resting on its laurels from days gone by. Reviews on many travel sites give The Breakers resort multiple thumbs-up for the impeccable grounds, the attentive service of staff and the top-notch offerings, including the luxurious rooms and suites. Regular updates of the 538 rooms and to restaurant menus and other amenities keep The Breakers 21st century fresh.
“Florida has its share of luxury hotels, as well as a few historic gems, but The Breakers may be the best of both,” says Jeff Johnson of St. Petersburg who has stayed at that the Palm Beach hotel twice. “There is a European elegance to the design and décor of the hotel, especially the public spaces, but the guestrooms are modern and up to date.”
Johnson says that the art at The Breakers hotel reminds him of the art of a 14th-century-monastery-turned-hotel in Rome where his family once stayed.
“The artwork of The Breakers — though clearly of more recent vintage and more luxurious setting — gave me that same feel,” he says.
Such is the power of the Breakers hotel at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach. It will transport you. The iconic Breakers resort hotel has been the impressive anchor of the tony Florida barrier island for 125 years, even if what was first built in 1896.
The Breakers and Its Many Awards
The Breakers hotel is one of Florida’s most well-known resorts and the accolades for the historic property come from many places.
The Breakers resort and several of its restaurants have won AAA Diamond Awards and Forbes Travel Guide is high on the hotel and its spa. Travel & Leisure names it one of the best 500 hotels in the world; The Knot loves it for weddings and the Surfrider Foundation honors the Breakers for its “ocean friendly restaurants.”
The Past That Made The Breakers Famous
The Breakers is the legacy of oil baron Henry Morrison Flagler, whose name and handiwork are all around the state. Flagler was one of the founders of Standard Oil after starting his business career salt mining in Michigan. When that went bad, he got into the grain game in Ohio. That led to his meeting of industrialist John D. Rockefeller who was starting an oil refinery in Cleveland in the mid-1860s. Rockefeller needed capital and Flagler had it. They joined forces and Standard Oil was born. Many books have been written on the early days of oil in the U.S. and the northern barons who profited mightily, but Flagler’s story takes a Southern turn not unlike that of so many other Americans.
The warmth of Florida in winter brought him south. That has never changed and still snowbirds fly (and drive) to Florida to bask in the sun when the snow falls at home. And they need hotels, or maybe condos, to stay in. Flagler arrived in Jacksonville on the orders of a doctor who believed the warm weather would be a tonic for Flagler’s ailing wife. The light bulb must have gone off within days of arrival. Florida was the place to be in the winter, but the hotels and transportation? Not good enough then to draw a crowd.
A honeymoon in St. Augustine with his second wife mixed business with pleasure when he bought a hotel that kicked off his hospitality empire. The Ponce de Leon Hotel is now part of Flagler College. He also knew that train service could be a moneymaker along Florida’s east coast and he was instrumental in the development of the Florida East Coast Railway. How else were tourists going to get to South Florida?
What You Might Not Know About The Breakers
For us 21st century travelers it’s difficult to imagine the Florida of the late 1800s. Roadside attractions and theme parks were decades away; interstate travel, too. And air conditioning? Still down the road. No doubt, though, the beaches and tropical landscape were pristine and beautiful.
The Breakers hotel started its life in 1896 as the Palm Beach Inn, just a quarter-mile stroll from Flagler’s Hotel Royal Poinciana. The Palm Beach Inn burned to the ground in 1903, was rebuilt and renamed The Breakers. The new hotel and the railroad brought some of the most famous names in America to the resort: Rockefeller, Astor, Vanderbilt and Carnegie. That all-wood structure burned down in 1925, 12 years after Flagler died in Palm Beach at 83 years old.
His third wife — there just may be enough here for a Netflix mini-series about love, money and deceit in America’s Gilded Age — was a smart cookie. She hired a New York architecture firm to rebuild The Breakers to honor Flagler but also made sure it was constructed out of material that wouldn’t be so susceptible to fire. Thus, the Roman villa on Florida’s East Coast was born.
The Breakers remains part of Flagler’s Florida legacy even though it doesn’t bear his name unlike a college, museum, beach and county. Oh, and there are statues of him in front of the Miami-Dade County Courthouse and at the spot in Key West where the now-defunct Overseas Railroad terminated.
That Was Then, This is Now
Flagler never slept at The Breakers as we know it today, nor did he swim in one of the four pools, swing a club on the two golf courses or wield a racquet on the tennis courts. Today, his flagship hotel on the 16-mile-long barrier island is as modern as it gets.
The hotel’s ownership remains independent with Flagler’s descendants, something largely unheard of in modern hospitality. The family spends $25 million annually on innovation and preservation of the historic Breakers resort.
Just a quick stroll from the hotel is Via Flagler by The Breakers, their offsite shopping and dining destination that also includes residences. It’s a place to get your hair done and to look at art, too. It has an Italian Renaissance look but the smell of freshly baked donuts suggests you aren’t in Rome.
Back on hotel grounds, donuts in hand, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy. There’s a full-service spa and plenty of activities for kids, including a family entertainment center with an arcade, basketball court and playgrounds plus golf lessons and bike rentals for pedaling around the grounds or into town. (Who are we kidding, adults like those things too.)
But since you’re seaside, the water is the main attraction, be it the pools or the ocean. The Breakers has 25 poolside bungalows with ocean views. Rent them for the day and have a place to get out of the sun, grab a cold drink from the stocked fridge or maybe even nap on the couch. There’s a full bathroom with shower plus toiletries and towels.
Vacations are a lot about food and The Breakers has several restaurants that cater to the night you want to dress up up fancy (HMF, Henry’s Palm Beach or Flagler Steakhouse) or the late afternoon when you want to come as you are (The Beach Club Restaurant, Ocean House or The Surf Break).
Sunday Brunch at The Breakers is a special occasion treat enjoyed by visitors and locals. (Book early, early, early for Easter or Mother’s Day.) The Breakers brunch is held in The Circle, an elegant and frescoed dining room with oversized arched windows looking out on palm trees and ocean. It’s a lovely view if you can look up from your blueberry-topped Belgian waffle long enough to enjoy it.
Breakfast is served in The Circle daily, too.
Need more luxury and exclusivity than the regular Breakers guests get? Check out the Flagler Club, a 25-room boutique hotel on two restricted top floors. Think of a hotel within a hotel, and the best views of the ocean and the island north and south. Need more convincing? Flagler Club guests get chauffeured Tesla car service and airport transportation.
Palm Beach Area Highlights
Visitor Jeff Johnson says once you get onto The Breakers property, “You feel like you’re retreating from the chaos of South Florida.” He’s referring to the busy touristy spots that make the Sunshine State famous. And you might be happy as a manatee to stay on The Breakers grounds but if you’d like to explore, there are plenty of things to check out.
And by plenty of things, we mean shopping! Palm Beach is the winter home of the rich and famous and that means high fashion designers have followed them there. Worth Avenue has one of the biggest collections of designer stores outside of New York and Paris. Browse the racks at Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Lily Pulitzer, Max Mara, Ferragamo and more.
Be aware that some shops in Palm Beach go dark in the summer when the winter crowd flees north. But that’s okay, head across the bridges to the city of West Palm Beach where vintage second-hand and consignment shops line the Dixie Highway or Antique Row as it’s sometimes called.
On Antique Row you can find the pink-and-green hallmark clothes of Lily Pulitzer for half the price, maybe less. At Dina C’s Fab and Funky Consignment Boutique you’ll find a curated array of castoffs that date to the 1970s. It’s not always cheap, but it’s cheaper. There are plenty more shops and it’s easy to spend a day browsing and buying.
While you are on that side of the Intracoastal Waterway, check out the Norton Museum of Art and its impressive collection of European, American and Chinese, contemporary art and photographic works. Like The Breakers, the Norton also has Northern industrialist roots. Ralph Hubbard Norton and his wife Elizabeth Calhoun Norton founded the museum in 1941. He was the head of Chicago’s Acme Steal Company and found his winter playground in Florida too.
Among the noteworthy pieces in the Norton are Stuart Davis’ New York Mural and Jackson Pollock’s Night Mist.
Your interest in Henry Flagler may be so piqued that you’d like a glimpse into his life on the barrier island. Whitehall, his private Palm Beach residence and an architectural gem in its own right, is now called the Flagler Museum. The railroad magnate’s personal railcar has been preserved and is on display at the museum for you to see how the 1% traveled in 1900.
Rounding out your culture experiences outside the gates of The Breakers would be a polo match. Yes, polo. People on horses with mallets. The polo season is January through April and you can watch a match in Wellington, about 15 miles from Palm Beach. Check the International Polo Club for schedules of equestrian events to attend, including a renowned Sunday brunch during the season.
While “the season” affects some events and certainly curtails the crowds, The Breakers is open year-round. And when the snowbirds go back up, the prices go south, even at the luxurious Breakers.