PALM BEACH, Fla. —Traveling successfully with small children is about nothing if not the ideal mix of organization and forgiveness. Although our son, Ryan, was not yet 18 months old, my wife and I already knew, after a somewhat dicey recent experience in South Beach, in Miami (at a hotel that lacked kids' activities and a kiddie pool), that you need to choose a hotel that is organized to handle children and staffed with people who can handle what children do.
This time out, we would try Palm Beach. We got off to the kind of start only parents will understand: On the flight down from our home in New York City, Ryan and I got completely strawberried. I had dressed in a pair of Armani jeans bought for that trip to South Beach, which is where Florida trendies still go to relax (and be seen doing it), but Ryan, using superior judgment, had dressed as one should for Palm Beach: as if waiting to be photographed for a Ralph Lauren ad. By the time we disembarked at the airport in West Palm Beach, the covered plastic cup of strawberries we had brought was empty, and Ryan and I looked like we'd just come from losing a round of paintball.
It was Mommy who had had the good sense to book us into The Breakers, having heard from New York friends who keep houses in Palm Beach that the hotel was set up for families. She invited along her parents, so we were going to put the hotel to a three-generation test. It was a very good sign that, on check in, the desk staff seemed to take no notice of my berry-challenged appearance.
Julie's parents had already arrived. I picked the place to dine, and when I asked directions to the Italian restaurant, everyone at the concierge desk seemed impressed that I knew exactly what to ask for; only when we arrived the restaurant did I realize that its official name is The Italian Restaurant. It has the menu and feel of an Olive Garden, but with a difference: a large and well-attended children's activity center is built into it, so you can literally dine and watch, through a glazed wall, what your toddler is doing in the play area. (Older children were hard at work on arcade machines in a room just beyond.)
Breakfast was served each day in a large, sunny room called The Circle, where many children were busily composing the first meal of the day from an elaborate buffet station. None of them followed Ryan's lead, which was to send tropical showers of Cheerios onto the floor and some neighboring diners. Chris, our waiter, would appear, Jeeves-like, at just the right moment, day after day, always with a smile and encouraging word, to pick up the pieces and help us start again.
Despite the small chaos of our own making, The Breakers managed to do something that few other hotels in the United States have been able to do with setting, food and service: provide an experience equal what you get at the best Swiss resorts, which have become our gold standard for hotel breakfasts. From the breakfast to the pool areas to croquet on the lawn, children were always around during our visit, at organized activities and on their own, but as in Switzerland, the hotel somehow managed to keep the energy and noise levels tuned to adult needs.
The other particularly interesting thing about the hotel was how the staff had universally turned American familiarity — which can easily be overdone at U.S. resorts — and turn it into authentic friendliness and eagerness to serve. We meditated together on how they managed to pull that off, and the best we could tell was that the resort was still owned (through a corporation) by the family that built the first hotel on the site, in 1896, and is not affiliated with any chain. Americans are always at their best when unencumbered by rules and regulations; with no head office located out of state or, as is sometimes the case, a continent away, the staff at the hotel, many of whom have been there for years, are free not only to improvise as needed but to cast a truly local stamp — with a distinctively Floridian style of affability — on everything that they do.
All of that would be meaningless if what is unique about Palm Beach did not make the place itself worth a visit. To an outsider, all of South Florida may look alike, but there is a clear progression as you head north along the Atlantic coast. It starts in Miami, with its sun-washed mix that is one part Southern, one part Latin, one part Jewish, one part gay, and one part cross-ethnic mix of glitz and tawdriness. It progresses through a succession of middlebrow towns to Fort Lauderdale, which has found its niche, at last, as the coastal temperate zone of the state in terms of mood and behavior. It soon arrives at Palm Beach, which remains what made it famous: a place where New Yorkers and others from the mid-Atlantic states keep their winter condominiums if they are sort of rich (either newly made or because Granddad had many heirs or hasn't yet passed on) or their winter seafront mansions (if Granddad was not overly fecund or if the current owner had the good sense, back in college, to cast aside aspirations for a career in journalism in favor of a major in finance).
A crowd for whom dying without heirs is a faux pas necessarily has to consider the needs of children, which is probably why we found Palm Beach the winner on the Florida Atlantic coast for traveling with a small child. As for the in-laws: All of South Florida knows how to handle the oldest generation, but they were obviously enjoying themselves at a place where everything they needed was always at hand.
That is not to say that active adults do not have things to do in Palm Beach, as we had discovered when, before the birth of Ryan, we traveled there as a couple. Worth Avenue remains a world-class shopping street, which we found easily enough: Take a left from The Breakers and keep going until you see the Salvatore Ferragamo store, and there you are. I did a little entertainment shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue (which is the New York flagship in miniature, down to the formal wear for men), had a coffee at Starbucks and satisfied myself from personal inspection that I did well to pack a blue blazer and a pair of white pants.
I headed to the end of the street, which ends at a clock tower in front of a lovely public beach. There is also plenty of nightlife in town, albeit nothing quite like Miami's, but even before Ryan was born, I was very much an "uptown" kind of New Yorker — the kind who leaves the charity benefit or business testimonial dinner before 11, the insipid dessert melting in the bowl, the tepid coffee turning cold.
One evening, however, we got a babysitter for Ryan and drove north to visit friends from Locust Valley, N.Y., who, although they've always owned a house in Palm Beach, purchased a waterfront complex a bit out of town, which they now make their permanent home. We dined with them at their club, which had the look and feel of a Caribbean country club and served the comfort food of city clubs and golf communities coast to coast. Studying our fellow diners, many of whom were with their own children, I never felt more confident in that blue blazer and white pants combination I was in, and it was just as well that Ryan had tagged the Armani jeans, because they'd not have been appropriate.
Interestingly, our hotel also specialized in comfort food, served with moderate success at nine restaurants and bars, our favorite being Echo, an Asian-accented place located in town (and reached by free shuttle) that could have been as right for Miami as Palm Beach. Where the hotel stood out, however, was in something that is very adult indeed: its wines. Although I've lived well by a cardinal rule — never buy wine by the glass in the United States — I was able to break my rule with pleasure at The Breakers.
The hotel has two master sommeliers, Virginia Santarsiero Philip and Juan Gomez, who are backed by a strong team and two robustly stocked cellars. It was Virginia who suggested a glass of Charles de Cazanove rose Champagne as an aperitif, which had strong fruity notes that would start any meal off right. For a multi-generational family dinner at the gourmet restaurant, L'Escalier, Juan recommended pairing a turkey main course with a 2006 L'Estimee, a red Burgundy from Domaine Jean Noel Gagnard. At just over $80, it wasn't a cheap bottle, but the price was reasonable by restaurant standards (and that bottle can be difficult to find at retail in any event). It was such a perfect match and fine in its own right. That's proof of the skill of a sommelier.
As for the staff, they deserved merit bonuses because Ryan was having the kind of night that makes Daddy feel that he developed bad baby karma. Peace at last descended over petit fours and Darjeeling tea as Ryan fell asleep in Daddy's arms.
The Breakers has its own beach, and for one day we took a bungalow beside the "relaxation pool" — in a designated quiet zone where spa music plays and I had a little contemplative time in both hot tubs. Earlier that day, my wife had enjoyed a massage at the hotel's complete spa — again, something she found an equal match to a five-star Swiss experience. As for Ryan, that activities center turned into a hangout, and the in-laws just enjoyed the scene.
There are staffers at The Breakers who remember adult guests when they started visiting as children with their parents. I suspect that there are people at the hotel who, having just met Ryan, will be telling him when he grows up that they knew him when.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: We flew Delta Airlines from LaGuardia to West Palm Beach nonstop. Delta will let you take along, as an "infant in arms" (a lap baby, without a purchased seat) a child up to 2 years of age. You will save money, but don't say we didn't warn you: If he's big enough to hold up his head, move around and chuck things at perfect strangers, you'll want him in the middle seat, strapped into his car seat, equipped with enlightening distractions. Otherwise, one of you should wear an infant carrier to use as his base camp, and you need to pray you will be blessed with forgiving seatmates.
STAYING THERE: The Breakers Palm Beach. A standard superior room in the prime winter season: $500, but check about the use of available "Breakers Award" points that can be used as credits toward amenities. Dinner at The Italian Restaurant and Echo: about $50 to $70 per person. At L'Escalier, about $100 to $125 per person.
Worth Avenue has the name-brand luxury stores and some local novelties. Julie got some great estate jewelry at one of the many nearby stores that make visitors the beneficiary of Florida's revolving door policy on the aged. The Breakers has Ralph Lauren and Burberry boutiques, a clever place for jewelry, and a store just for the resort's own clothing line, but our favorite was Coconut Crew, the kind of kids' shop that, when we ran in saying, "We need a hat and a bear," knew just how to deliver.