By Curtis Krueger
Standing at the windy top of the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, you can look over Palm Beach County and see the Atlantic Ocean, yachts, kayakers and occasional dolphins and manatees.
But if you look closely, you’ll glimpse something equally impressive -- an outline of Florida’s history.
This distinctive lighthouse, a 108-foot red tower capped with black iron, is known for providing visitors with excellent views of the present as well as the past. It still guides ships on Florida’s Atlantic coast about 100 miles north of Miami.
Visitors to the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum can choose to climb 105 steps up a spiraling iron staircase to reach the lantern room. From the balcony around the top, you can see the Loxahatchee River and the Indian River joining in the Jupiter Inlet and flowing into the Atlantic. An incoming tide often colors the water a beautiful teal.
“It was like being in an airplane,” said Tina Cox of Melbourne, who loved watching the yachts sailing below when she recently visited. “This is one of the best experiences I’ve had in Florida and I’ve lived here for 25 years.”
The museum and historical exhibits on these grounds make this lighthouse more than just a pretty view.
“I think the biggest thing for people to come away from here is that experience of just how much history is here in Florida,” said Josh Liller, historian and collections manager for the Loxahatchee River Historical Society.
Even before air conditioning and Walt Disney World came to the state, it had been home to Seminole Indians, farmers, railroads, steamboats and “pioneers and people of all races,” Liller said.
Today’s visitors go on guided tours of the lighthouse and its museum, and often spend the rest of the day lounging on Palm Beach County beaches, getting a good shopping fix or choosing from a dizzying number of fine restaurants.
This lighthouse, a brick tower painted a deep red, was built at a strategic spot near Florida’s easternmost point. The beacon saved sailors from crashing into shore as they navigated around this spot and along the currents of the Gulf Stream.
Construction on the lighthouse began in the 1850s, but was halted during the Seminole Wars. The work was finished before the Civil War, but Confederates extinguished the light during the war.
On the lighthouse grounds, the U.S. Navy played an important role in World War II. They set up the secret “Radio Station J,” and monitored communications from German submarines offshore. It’s hard to imagine now, but Nazi U-boats sank hundreds of American ships, sometimes within sight of U.S. shores.
The Jupiter light is popular among lighthouse lovers because of its thick, prismatic lens, called a Fresnel lens. This specially designed glass could cast the light of an oil or kerosene lamp for miles into the murky night. “We are very fortunate that our lens, which is a first order, which is the biggest kind, is still in our lighthouse and still active,” Liller said. “And because of how our lighthouse is designed, our visitors get to see that lens up close.”
Self-described history buff Lauri Schirger of Colorado recently visited the lighthouse for the first time and considers it “an amazing architectural structure.” And it was humbling, Schirger said, to reflect on how many lives depended on the people who planned, built and maintained it.
“It was just beautiful, how far you can see,” Schirger said, after reaching the top. “It was very breathtaking.”
When you finish visiting the lighthouse, Palm Beach County offers plenty of other diversions. Palm Beach is well-known for opulent mansions and hotels, some built with new money, some with old. One well-known example is President Trump’s mansion and golf resort, Mar-a-Lago.
One of the most famous oceanfront hotels is The Breakers, which is both a first-class resort and an ornate window back to the time when the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan needed a place to winter with their families in suitable elegance. The original hotel was built in the 1890s, but was destroyed by fire. The current hotel, inspired by the Italian Renaissance architecture of Villa Medici, opened in 1926.
The Breakers still operates as a luxury seaside hotel, but if you’re looking for an budget-conscious way to visit, consider the tours offered through the nearby Flagler Museum, an intriguing destination in itself. Henry Flagler was the railroad magnate who launched the trend of high-end resorts in Palm Beach County, including the precursor hotel to The Breakers. After the tour, you may have grown accustomed to a bit of luxury yourself, so you might want to try the “Gilded Age-style afternoon tea” offered at the Flagler Museum’s Cafe de Beaux Arts.
If all this has put you in the mood for a shopping expedition, you’re in the right place. Worth Avenue is the Rodeo Drive of Palm Beach, where you will find many choices for high-end fashions, accessories, refreshment -- or window-shopping.
But the biggest attraction in Palm Beach is also the oldest and most natural one. It’s the 47 miles of beaches lining the county.
With so many exclusive homes and high-end resorts, you might wonder if it’s easy for regular folks to get to the beach too. The answer is yes. There are many public parks with ample parking. Of course, like popular beaches everywhere, it helps to show up early in the day with water, sunscreen and money or credit cards for parking.
Consider John D. MacArthur State Park, Palm Beach Municipal Beach or many others. Or, if the idea of a waterfront wilderness intrigues you more than a beach chair and a paperback, consider a visit to the Blowing Rocks Preserve in nearby Hobe Sound.
When you go…