I sized up the 14th fairway overlooking the sea in Palm Beach, Fla., long a winter escape for millionaires, and pondered two questions:
A 7-iron or an 8-iron?
And, what the heck was I doing here?
My golf swing is a sad story. But my time in Palm Beach makes for a happier tale. I was there to prove that no destination is out of reach of the budget traveler, and I am pleased to report that in Palm Beach I rented wheels, had breakfast delivered to my door, shopped for fine clothes, sunned on private sands, and landed much sought-after seats at some of the most popular restaurants in town -- all for well less than $200 a day.
Perhaps the most surprising thing was that I was able to golf at all. Playing the back nine at the Palm Beach Par 3 Golf Course cost me $29 plus tax, including rental clubs and five balls. Even if I had played the whole course, for $8 more, it would have been a bargain. At the famous Breakers resort six miles up the island, a round with rental clubs and balls easily tops $100.
When I was done, I hopped on the Trek hybrid bike I had rented from the Palm Beach Bicycle Trail Shop for $49 for two days. (I stretched that to nearly three by asking if I could return it after business hours by locking it outside the shop.) Price isn't the only thing that makes a bike preferable to a car in Palm Beach. For starters, an errant parallel parking effort on Worth Avenue (a shopping street that makes Fifth Avenue look like a strip mall) could mean paying for repairs on the Rolls you backed into.
But the real reason to rent a bike is that Palm Beach is a paradise for cyclists. Nothing on this 4-square-mile island (population 10,000) is very far, it's flat, and during my early-November visit, arriving on a Saturday, the weather was so perfect that getting in a car would have been criminal. Bikers have little traffic to contend with on most roads, and the few semi-busy thoroughfares can be avoided by riding on the sidewalks in residential neighborhoods, where pedestrians are rare.
A bike can also get you just about anywhere else worth visiting, like Worth Avenue or the Flagler Museum in the Beaux-Arts former mansion of Henry Flagler, a founder of Standard Oil and essentially the creator of much of modern South Florida. Or you can take a spin around town to peek at the non-hedged-in mansions, with their imposing gates, stately columns, grand arches, and regal balconies, trying to guess which boldface names of the island's past -- Estee Lauder, E.F. Hutton, Michael Jackson, the Kennedys -- lived where.
With most rooms at resorts starting at around $400 a night, Palm Beach's hotel options presented a small challenge. To the rescue came La Petite, the smallest (though hardly tiny) room at the Palm Beach Historic Inn, only $89 on weeknights ($109 weekends) until high season begins Dec. 19. (Before high season the inn's rates top out at $199.) The 1923 building is right across the street from Town Hall, two short blocks from Worth Avenue, and one long block from the public beach, making its location unbeatable. The owners are not particularly hands-on, but they delivered coffee, juice, fresh fruit, and toast to my door in the morning and kept a steady supply of chocolate chip cookies and bite-size chocolate bars in the hallway, perfect for saving a few bucks on dessert at restaurants.
I should mention there is another affordable hotel just within the town of Palm Beach -- Marriott's Fairfield Inn & Suites, where I stayed the first night for $99. It has some advantages: It's right across the street from a huge public beach and a picturesque pier popular with fishermen in search of bluefish and grouper. But those nearby attractions are both technically and spiritually in Lake Worth, a nice enough town, though it lacks the elitist Palm Beach feel you came for. Admittedly, the decadent raspberry stuffed granola French toast for less than $10 at Benny's on the Beach makes the temporary exposure to the riff-raff tolerable.
Your retreat to normal America won't last long anyway. Soon you'll be back to shopping on Mink Mile (as Worth Avenue is also known), where the sign in the window of Christopher Kaufmann jewelers asks that you "TRADE IN YOUR DIAMOND EAR STUDS FOR A LARGER PAIR"and immaculate but welcoming art galleries make you think irrational thoughts like "If I put this $48,000 Hunt Slonem painting on my credit card, would it go through?"
In my case, the answer is no. But they also take cards at the island's two thrift shops: Goodwill Embassy Boutique on Sunset Avenue, where I picked up two stylish dress shirts, one for $9.50 and one for $10.50, taking advantage of a half-off clothing sale. I also shopped for sports jackets at the Church Mouse, run by the Bethesda by the Sea church. (I did buy one, for just more than $100, but am not convinced it was a great deal.)
Keeping dining costs down turned out to be a piece of cake, at least at lunch, especially if you skipped the $5.95 piece of cake at Hamburger Heaven, a diner where getting a spot at the counter during packed lunch hour is tough and remaining untempted by the coconut lemon mega-cake even tougher. (I did not resist.) The other frugal go-to is Green's Pharmacy, where Bernard Madoff reportedly was known to lunch. I had the chicken breast with mango salsa and couscous, pretty dry but at $7.95 for a huge portion, hard to complain about.
Dinner spots were more challenging: The diners close at night, and the one restaurant I found in my price range was Testa's, a 90-year-old institution that migrates between Palm Beach and Bar Harbor, Maine, for their respective high seasons. Because it allows you to order from the lunch menu at dinner, you can get a sesame tuna sandwich on focaccia with wasabi mayo and fries for $10.75. That paired beautifully with the local tap water.
For other dinners, I biked across the bridge to West Palm Beach, assiduously avoiding the gleaming outdoor mall posing as a downtown and heading south, discovering places like the Souvlaki Grill (Greek takeout where I dined on luscious pork souvlaki and a salad for $9.99) and the Fire Within food truck (pulled pork, homemade tortilla chips, and a soda for $10).
My stay ended with a morning walk from the inn to the Tri-Rail commuter train across the bridge in West Palm Beach to get back to the Miami airport to return to New York. It was morning rush hour, and the island was more lively than I had seen it: housekeepers in frilly yellow outfits walking to work, street cleaning machines sweeping along already immaculate curbs, landscapers unloading the hedge trimmers so vital to local society, and financial advisers entering work at the amazing row of private banks and wealth-management firms of Royal Palm Way.
What I didn't see, however, was anyone out for a morning constitutional, or anyone who appeared to actually live on the island. That's OK, they were there in spirit, represented by the yachts lined up just south of the Royal Park Bridge, bidding me farewell as I wheeled my duct-taped suitcase across the water to the world where it (and I) truly belonged.
Thrift shopping in Palm Beach
Prada shoes for $129 a pair, anyone? Louis Vuitton bags (real) for less than $200?
On an island where Brooks Brothers counts as a low-end brand, the Goodwill Embassy Boutique on Sunset Avenue stands out as a place where common people can not only shop, but also buy. Like other Goodwill stores, the one on Sunset Avenue in Palm Beach takes donations and sells them, but because of its donors -- Worth Avenue boutiques shedding last season's stock and wealthy, fashion-conscious Palm Beach residents thinning out their wardrobes -- this thrift shop is required rummaging for those with designer-label yearnings and a store-brand budget.
And it's not just clothing. A painting by Johann Jungblut, a semi-important 19th-century German artist, worth about $5,000, was sold for $1,000, said Sean Connolly, the store's manager, adding that over the years he has sold everything from antique fencing masks to mummy wrapping.
Not all items come from Palm Beach. Back at the regional Goodwill warehouse in West Palm Beach, employees know where to send the "creme de la creme of donations," Connolly said, though not everybody loves to boast about getting a great deal at the Goodwill.
He said, "You'll hear our customers on their cellphones saying, 'I'm just down on Palm Beach doing a little shopping.'"