Grand strands: Choose your South Florida beach by its character
In Palm Beach, Florida, expensive cars cruise along Royal Palm Way. (COLLEEN MASTONY/CHICAGO TRIBUNE / November 16, 2009)
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SHOWTIME AT SOUTH BEACH
Five minutes after we parked our car in South Beach, a sandy, sun-kissed tourist mecca on a barrier island just off Miami, a passing tour guide summed up the scene when he intoned into a microphone: "Folks, the real attraction in South Beach isn't the architecture, and it's not the beaches. The real attraction is the people and the freak show on the sidewalk!"
Freak show is a bit harsh. But all in all, the people are the draw. Because up and down the streets of South Beach, you see a hedonistic parade. Impossibly leggy models strut and shimmy at every corner. A pair of waitresses, clad in little more than body paint, call out that it's time for happy hour, even though it's barely noon. Strapping men dressed in drag saunter along Ocean Drive.
The beach itself, a wide swath of fine white sand that sits along the aquamarine Atlantic Ocean, is more catwalk than nature preserve. Rainbow flags clearly mark the gay beach at 12th Street, where sculpted men happily frolic in the water or smash volleyballs back and forth. Professional photographers snap pictures of models who pose and preen in the surf. All take advantage of the gorgeous light that makes the area so beautiful.
Metered parking is plentiful on the street. But one note for families: If you don't want to explain the birds and the bees to Junior, you might want to skip this part of Florida. You will see more cleavage here than anywhere in America. But for grown-ups, South Beach is certainly worth a visit. The place is an entertaining standoff between exhibitionists and voyeurs.
FAMILY TIME AT DELRAY BEACH
For those seeking a more laid-back, family-friendly, it's-all-good beach experience, Delray Beach offers a wide and welcoming shoreline, complete with ample parking and natural, sun-kissed beauty. Kite surfers flip and float in the frothy sea. Two dozen catamarans sit in the sand, waiting for another seafarer to push them into the water. All the while, the sandpipers skitter and peck in the backtrack of the waves.
Delray Beach, an affluent community about 50 miles north of Miami, is just far enough off the beaten path that it lets you feel that you've gotten away from it all. But for those who don't like to leave civilization too far behind, there's also a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop down the street, along with a host of upscale boutiques and moderate-to-expensive restaurants on the main drag, Atlantic Avenue.
But the beach itself is the main attraction here. It is wide and stunningly beautiful, framed on one side by a thicket of sea grape trees that gives the beach a rustic, isolated feel and forms a series of shady paths that lead out to Ocean Boulevard, a quiet, two-lane road lined with metered parking. (There also is a municipal parking lot at Sandoway Park on Ocean Boulevard, just south of Atlantic Avenue.)
Sailboats and kayaks are available for rent, ensuring that you will never be bored for long. And when you have soaked up enough sun, the best view in town can be found on the second floor of Boston's, a waterside restaurant that offers a perfect spot to enjoy a fruity cocktail and watch as dusk falls over the blue sea.
TEA TIME AT PALM BEACH
If South Beach is a bacchanal and Delray Beach is a barefoot surfer, Palm Beach is their buttoned-down, upper-crust (and slightly judgmental) older brother. On the streets along this 16-mile-long barrier island, separated from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway and about 70 miles north of Miami, the cars uniformly bear the names Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz. When people on the beach towel off, they head home toward the gigantic mansions that dominate this island and give the town one of the most exclusive ZIP codes in America.
There is limited public access to the beach here; the main public access is near the intersection of South Ocean Boulevard and Royal Palm Way. (Look for metered parking along South Ocean.) If you come willing to take a long walk along the shore, you will be rewarded with mile after mile of the sort of homes featured in Architectural Digest, except the views here are 10 times better.
Within a couple of hours, you can see Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club (1100 S. Ocean Blvd.) and even the former vacation home of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff (410 North Lake Way).
Most of these estates, or at least their outer gates and walls, can be glimpsed while driving by, but walking along the beach offers a better view and a peek at the posh ocean-side cabanas associated with each mansion. Most of these so-called cabanas look like large homes in themselves; many come complete with their own pools, outdoor fireplaces and, of course, security cameras.
If the cameras don't remind you where you can go and where you can't, the stairs that lead to each cabana conveniently pull up, like a drawbridge on a castle. It's one thing to be on Palm Beach, they seem to suggest. It's quite another to be of it.