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PALM BEACH, FOR RICHER OR POORER

Think Palm Beach and you think money. That narrow strip of sand and coral that is Palm Beach long has been the playground of the idle rich. They drive more Rolls-Royces per capita than Londoners. Through countless balls and benefits they raise more charity dollars per capita than any other city in the world.

But there is another Palm Beach, a much bigger and more varieone. This is Palm Beach County, home of Palm Beach and also North, West and South Palm Beach; Lantana; Hypoluxo Island; Boca Raton; Lake Worth; Delray; and more. These towns are rich and poor, stately and tacky, home to fabulous hotels and modest trailer parks, and as culturally diverse as any part of Florida north of Miami.

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In winter, Palm Beach, the city, is for the wealthy. Palm Beachthe county, is for big spenders and penny pinchers, too. Both Palm Beaches deserve a visit, on and off a budget.

The biggest attraction in coastal South Florida is the beach. IPalm Beach County, every seaside hotel and condo has its own strip of sand, and a pool besides. The pool isn't just for wave-o-phobics; when the easterly winds blow, they blow in the Portuguese man-of-war, that poison-prince of jellyfish. The man-of-war looks like a miniature Spanish galleon and trails long tentacles with a sting that would make a minister curse. When the wind is from the east, a pool is very handy indeed.

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While access to the sand is jealously guarded by hotels, many towns have free public beaches. Some, like those at Lake Worth and Lantana, are among the most attractive on the Atlantic coast. For man-of-war days, Lake Worth maintains a large and handsome outdoor public pool.

(Despite their numbers, palm trees are not indigenous to PalBeach. They arrived, all at once, on a stormy night in the early 1880s. When the Spanish brig Providencia foundered on the reef, its crew salvaged the cargo of 20,000 Trinidad coconuts and sold them to local residents. Planted along the waterfront, the coconuts grew into palms that eventually gave the town its name. The crew also sold numerous cases of Trinidad rum, the brig's other cargo, but as the whims of history would have it, the area was not named Rum Beach.)

Second only to beaches is Palm Beach shopping. The exquisitboutiques along Worth Avenue are fabulously expensive: Jewels, antiques and evening gowns compete for buyers' attention from shop windows that define understated opulence. Watches in the same windows bear brand names like Rolex, Patek Philippe and Baume & Mercier.

Less than an hour south of Worth Avenue is the outdoor DelraFlea Market. Here, every Thursday through Sunday, you can buy Peruvian wall hangings, Mexican table ornaments, Florida house plants and New York pickles. As for watches -- hey, you wanna watch? The Flea Market sells Worth Avenue look-alikes, but carrying names like Xanadu, for $11. Low-key bargaining is expected, and the crowd is every bit as colorful as the one on Worth Avenue.

Fishing is another pastime that can be pursued by big spenderand small change alike. For $480 you and five friends can charter the Southern Comfort III for a day of saltwater angling. For 50 cents you can toss your line into the same ocean off the end of the Lake Worth pier.

For no cents, you can spend unlimited hours (early morning andusk are best) at Loxahatchee Recreation Area, a northern outpost of the Everglades. Along the walkways, birders carrying binoculars ogle snowy egrets, prehistoric-looking pelicans, great blue herons -- and 12-foot alligators. If alligators don't set your adrenalin flowing, maybe lions will. For $11.95 per adult and $9.95 per child under 16, you can drive through the prides at Lion Country Safari.

If you prefer horses and are part of the polo set, you can shiyour steed down to the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club any time between January and April, and ride your heart out. Or, if you just like to watch rich folks riding their hearts out, for $5 you can observe all that horse- and heart-power from the sidelines.

If you're willing to settle for dog power, you pay even less twatch greyhound racing. An evening of people power -- the savagely swift game of jai alai -- costs but 50 cents.

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Food is a high priority on vacations and here, too, Palm BeacCounty provides for the well-to-do and the just-scraping-by.

Some of the best restaurants are among the lowest-priced. Foinstance, the area's No. 1, award-winning breakfast is at John G's on the Lake Worth boardwalk. The line is long, but the food is worth every minute of the wait. A Greek omelet, with feta cheese, onions, tomato and green pepper, and served with fruit cup, home fries, terrific toast and all the trimmings, costs under $6. Fabulous French toast and bacon costs under $4. This is a breakfast that lasts all day.

The other end of the scale is heavily weighted. The CrownCruise Lines evening cruise dinner costs $59 per person. The five-star La Vielle Maison in Boca Raton is one of the region's outstanding French restaurants.

Other upscale eateries are Cafe L'Europe, Dominiques and thFlorentine Room at the Breakers Hotel. The Florentine has one of the most elegant dining rooms anywhere, but recently the food has not been up to the decor and service. Charley's Crab is a fairly expensive seafood house, but it can be disappointing in preparation, presentation and service.

On the cheap end, you can eat Southern ribs, corn bread ancollard greens at Tom's or Tom Junior's in Delray. In the same town is an outstanding bargain, Ken and Hazel's -- "Home of the Three Egg Breakfast."

Then there's that great Florida tradition, the Early Bird SpecialRestaurants, from moderate to high-priced, put out a reduced-price dinner menu for those willing to begin their meal before 6 or 6:30 p.m. The savings can be significant, and the variety of Early Birds includes Austrian, Chinese, French, Mexican and Thai.

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One great food bargain in Palm Beach is citrus fruit. The area'groves were unaffected by last December's frost; the quality is high and the prices are low.

The finest drink in the world is freshly squeezed orange juicbought right from the grove -- the same brand sold from a store shelf just doesn't taste the same. One local favorite is Ridgewood Groves in Lantana, a family enterprise that has been blending preservative-free OJ for more than two decades. As every grove should, Ridgewood lets you sample the juice before buying.

Palm Beach covers all budgets in accommodations, too. Thcounty is awash with campgrounds and recreational vehicle parks. There are inexpensive hotels like the Seagate and the Heart of Palm Beach. At the top of the scale are the PGA Sheraton (with four golf courses on the grounds) and the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club (with a polo field on the grounds). Then there's the Breakers.

The lobby is a history of Florida affluence. An ornate, vaulteceiling; walls hung with 15th century Flemish tapestries; Italian crystal chandeliers; genteelly frayed upholstered chairs -- the Breakers is the dowager queen of Palm Beach hotels. Built in 1926 by Henry Flagler, railroad tycoon and tourism pioneer, it is in the midst of a $50 million rejuvenation.

The Breakers is a good example of how high- and low-budgeaccommodation can exist in the same place. In winter, a standard room costs more than $260 per person. But from May 25 to Sept. 30, the same room costs under $160 for three days and two nights and includes two breakfasts, one dinner, greens fees, bicycle rentals and tennis.

By April, prices all over Palm Beach -- city and county -- havdropped. Rooms, clothing, ballet, museums, food, scuba diving, zoos -- they're all significantly cheaper than in the high season. The Visitors Bureau gives out coupon books worth more than $500 to lure tourists at any time but wintertime.

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Residents say the weather usually is pleasant through July, hoand humid in August and September, and nice again by mid-October.

There is one other budget item visitors might do well to considerBecause so many who vacation in Palm Beach end up living there, the cost of housing may be of more than passing interest.

At the low end, you can buy a two-bedroom home that needrenovating for about $50,000. At the high end -- well, Donald Trump still owns his personal palace in Palm Beach, and a newly constructed oceanfront mansion comes equipped with library, exercise room, six bedrooms, 8 1/2 baths, a nine-car garage, and room for 10 families. All that for only $15 million -- what more could you ask?

For an off-season discount book or for further information, writthe Palm Beach County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 220 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10001; or 1555 Palm Beach Blvd., Suite 204, West Palm Beach, Fla. 33401. Telephone (800) 242-1774 or (305) 471-3995.


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