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Simon Doonan's Palm Beach

Martha Camarillo

Photo: Martha Camarillo

Six years ago, on my 50th birthday, I was kidnapped. “Don’t ask any questions. I’m taking you to Palm Beach,” said Jonathan Adler, the pottery designer and my bloke of long standing. I was uneasy. Jonathan, who is 14 years younger than I, has always delighted in making ageist jokes at my expense:

“How was the Renaissance?Was it as fabulous as everyone says?” Were his intentions honorable or was he planning to commemorate my half-century by dropping me off at some Florida retirement community?Was I destined to spend the rest of my life wearing a toupee and playing mah-jongg?

My suspicions were, as it turned out, totally off the mark. Lush, flamboyantly attired, and hospitable, Palm Beach exceeded its arch and quirky reputation. So amused were we by the anachronistic fabulousness of the place that we plonked down the deposit on a dreamy 1970’s beachfront condo. We succumbed to what I can only describe as the Palm Beach Slim Aarons fantasy.

From the 50’s to the 80’s, society portrait photographer Mr. Aarons focused his lens on what he described as “attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.” The resulting stagy, campy portraits—many featuring privileged Palm Beach poseurs of varying degrees of physical beauty—were flashing through my mind as we salivated over our new pad. I envisioned myself draped like some potentate on a floor cushion in one of the overdecorated cabanas that encircle the condo pool, while Jonny peeled me a grape. Matching caftans, etc.

Our more bohemian (and faux-hemian) friends—they take surfing holidays at eco-resorts—were mystified by our new purchase. “Why Palm Beach?” they would ask with a pained, oh-my-God-you-have-become-so-totally-bourgeois intonation. Now, after six years of escaping New York each winter, I feel qualified to answer that question.

Palm Beach is, first and foremost, completely and utterly boring, and that’s a good thing. Let me explain: every November I spend approximately one week standing on the freezing Madison Avenue sidewalk outside Barneys overseeing the installation of the holiday windows that my elves and I have been designing and prepping for the previous six months. Once the installation is complete and the tableaux unveiled, I collapse into a cab with Jonny and Liberace, our Norwich terrier. Overstimulated, exhausted, and barely sentient, we barrel toward the airport and the promise of the ultimate in sensory deprivation: our Palm Beach condo. Once ensconced, we stare into the middle distance, or at the hummingbirds as they hover among the lush vegetation below. Languid and fabulously inert, deliciously serene and unchallenging, the tropical hallucination that is P.B. (that’s what we snowbirds call it) provides the visitor with a rare refuge from the jackhammering whirligig of life on Earth circa 2008. This absence of chaos is Palm Beach’s most valuable asset. It’s a Valium, it’s a quaalude, it’s an opiate, it’s a legal bong hit. The complete lack of anything much to do, combined with the natural beauty of the place, will force even the most wound-up soul to surrender to the restorative power of reading, walking on the beach, staring up at the pelicans and buzzards, lounging, napping, and eating, which brings us to reason number two.

Food is king in Palm Beach. This change-resistant resort has avoided any culinary innovation of the past several decades. It is not the place to come for foams, test tubes, or chocolate martinis. In P.B. you will find a relentless emphasis on simple 1950’s digestible fare. Yes, it’s true that the majority of your fellow diners will all be d’un certain âge. Look upon this as a bonus. I do—to enter any restaurant at 56 and bring the median age crashing down is a sweet thing.

There are the more grandiose, chandelier-festooned eateries, where the women wear tiaras. My personal favorite, however, is on South Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach— La Sirena. Jonny and I always share the yellowtail snapper for two, followed by a torta mattina for him and a torta caprese for me. Our game plan is fairly transparent: we minimize our entrée carbs so that we can pig out on the house-made desserts. As you leave, please remember to generously tip the blond valet who boldly indicates available parking spaces to new arrivals with the aid of a large flashlight. We like her.


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