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While much of Florida’s coastline tends to be fairly low-key, with most of the development largely spread out and low-rise, once you head south of the Treasure Coast into the more built-up areas of the Gold Coast and Miami, things definitely take on a different and more high-profile character.
For our purposes, the Gold Coast Florida begins in North Palm Beach and continues 80 miles south to Hollywood Beach, just south of Fort Lauderdale. Here, things become more dynamic, more contemporary and more, well, more. This is the most modern face of the Sunshine State, even though West Palm Beach dates back to 1893 as part of railroad baron Henry Flagler’s bid to open up south Florida.
The original intention was to make this the winter playground of the rich and famous, with the most glamorous resorts of the time and the most lavish style. Today, that glamour and lavishness continue at places like The Breakers – the state’s most iconic resort – and the Flagler Museum, the former 75-room mansion that was the culmination of Flagler’s Gilded Age ambition. It has also cultivated a real appreciation for the arts, hence it adds yet another layer of attraction.
Continuing down the coast, the cities of Boynton Beach, Delray Beach, Boca Raton, Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach and Fort Lauderdale all sprang up in the wake of Flagler’s railroad, a string of glittering jewels strewn along the coast en route to the ultimate destination of Miami (where Flagler, incidentally, refused to let the city take his name, preferring instead that of a local Indian tribe).
The difference therefore along this part of the coast is largely that it’s often hard to see where one place ends and the next one begins with the amount of beachfront development. This is the most concentrated Floridian seaside environment you will find, and that means it’s hard to go wrong whichever resort area you choose. If you’re ready for an upscale beach experience, the Gold Coast Florida will happily provide it.
West Palm Beach is little more than a 90-minute drive from Miami’s International Airport and two-and-a-half hours from Orlando. However, both British Airways and Norwegian now fly direct from London to Fort Lauderdale, which means you can be right in the heart of this coast straight away, with West Palm Beach barely an hour away.
With West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale effectively book-ending this stretch of coast, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the two largest cities are home to the principal attractions, too. As well as the aforementioned Flagler Museum and The Breakers (which should be visited even if you’re not staying there), Palm Beach boasts the Norton Museum of Art, the garden oasis of the Society of the Four Arts and the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens. For church goers, the Anglican community of Bethesda by the Sea should also be noted, with its 1926 church and immaculate grounds. The performing arts are especially well represented here while, for something completely different, Diva Duck Amphibious Tours provide a hugely entertaining way to get the scenic overview of the area.
In Fort Lauderdale, art lovers should head for the Bonnet House Museum and Gardens, as well as the vibrant NSU Art Museum, while the full-on family-friendly fun of the Museum of Discovery and Science, with its IMAX cinema, is well worth a visit. For something more active. Xtreme Action Park has a mind-boggling array of indoor pursuits in a huge indoor setting, including go-karts, bowling, arcade games, roller-skating, escape games, trampolining, the Dezer Auto Museum and more. Then, for touring in style, don’t miss the sedate fun of the Fort Lauderdale Segway Tour, with several different locations and options.
If there’s one other thing you should do in Fort Lauderdale – or, the Venice of America as it is otherwise known – it is to take a water taxi ride at some stage. With more than a hundred miles of canals and other waterways, the city relies heavily on water transport to get around, and the efficient water taxis provide the ideal way to sight-see along the way.
Boca Raton is also high up on the Gold Coast’s catalogue of chic, and Mizner Park is at the heart of most of it, an extensive shopping/dining/entertainment area with its own Cultural Arts Center, cinema and the Museum of Art.
Once you have indulged your inner culture vulture, don’t forget the beaches, as this is still the main reason for being here. Singer Island (part of the city of Riviera Beach, just north of West Palm Beach) is a gorgeous oceanfront neighbourhood, while each of Delray Beach, Lake Worth Beach, Deerfield Beach and Fort Lauderdale (including its southern outpost of Hollywood Beach) are prime territory for staking out your own plot of golden sand and just enjoying the view. John D Macarthur Beach State Park in North Palm Beach is also worth seeking out for its unspoiled natural aspect.
The usual remarks about Florida and great sealife hold true here, as they do throughout the state, so look out for marine tours of all kinds, from sunset sailings to dolphin-watching cruises, especially in Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale. Just outside West Palm Beach, Lion Country Safari offers a very different take on the animal world, while Palm Beach Zoo is extremely family-friendly.
Airboat rides are on offer in a number of places along the coast’s hinterland, with plenty of opportunity to spot alligators, turtles and a profusion of birdlife among the lakes and marshes, while Fort Lauderdale is also on the eastern gateway of the great Florida Everglades, which offers its own vast array of wildlife and other nature tours, such as Everglades Holiday Park and Fort Lauderdale Airboat Rides.
Sports & Activities
Water sports of all kinds remain high on the agenda here, notably in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. You can try deep-sea fishing tours or just rent a small boat and potter around the intracoastal waterway. If you want the truly grand experience, Palm Beach is a yachting Mecca, and there are more than a dozen charter operators that can provide that millionaire’s touch with a private yacht tour.
Golf is never far away, and it is hard not to find a great course right the way along this part of the coast. West Palm Beach and Boca Raton feature some of the most exclusive clubs in Florida, while the former is also the home of the International Polo Club, with a series of events and tournaments open to the public year-round. In addition, Fort Lauderdale offers the high-quality horse-racing opportunity of state-of-the-art Gulfstream Park (with options for shopping, dining and casinos).
The Spanish sport of Jai Alai used to be hugely popular right along the south-east coast of the USA but is now limited to just two main centres, one of which is the Casino at Dania Beach in Fort Lauderdale. Games are played almost daily, and make for compelling viewing.
Hopefully you have already picked up the perspective that this is a well-heeled and well-to-do part of Florida, and the cities largely reflect that more exclusive style, especially in West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Boynton Beach and Pompano Beach. The shopping and dining are suitably upscale, and each city has its own theatre and performing arts scene.
West Palm Beach remains the jewel in the crown, especially around Worth Avenue and Clematis Street, while it is worth a slow drive along South Ocean Boulevard for a glimpse of the millionaire’s mansions that hug the coastline.
If Palm Beach is the wealth-conscious capital of the Gold Coast, Fort Lauderdale is its fun centre, a vivacious and captivating city that boasts one of the busiest cruise ports in the world, with fabulous shopping, great nightlife and some pleasant parks to go with its miles of beachfront. Much of it can be found along Las Olas Boulevard, where a myriad restaurants jostle with designer boutiques and nightclubs, and it only really comes to life after 9pm. In many ways, it is the quintessential Florida city, with a thriving urban dynamic and outward-looking aspect that is both inviting and inclusive, and the fact it offers a terrific array of high quality hotel resorts helps, too!
This is definitely the region of Florida to explore for some of the best – and most distinctive – shopping. It should be obvious by now that West Palm Beach will be your first port of call for big-name fashion brands and designer style, with the shops along Worth Avenue, notably at The Esplanade, the Avenue’s flagship retail centre. Florida’s answer to Rodeo Drive, this is the place to come for Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and Co, Hublot, Gucci, Christofle and Jimmy Choo, and you can also enjoy some of the best restaurants here, not to mention some exquisite Spanish revival architecture. CityPlace is another high-quality purpose-built centre, with lots to explore over two levels.
By contrast, Fort Lauderdale has some of the best outlet shopping in Florida. The Galleria and Coral Ridge Mall are the two best indoor centres on offer, but everything else pales by comparison with the vast Sawgrass Mills, in the western suburb of Sunrise. Here, the largest single-storey outlet mall in America features more than 300 shops, as well as a cinema complex, game centre and dozens of restaurants. If there was ever a place to take an empty suitcase, Sawgrass Mills is it!
Dining, cuisine and foodie tips
With the possible exception of Miami (and Orlando’s ‘Restaurant Row’ area), the Gold Coast is at the forefront of great dining experiences in Florida, from classic steakhouses, great seafood and avant garde foodie choices, this will dazzle you with its variety and quality. Craft breweries, hand-crafted cocktails and wine bars are all part of the scene, too, and there are even several distilleries offering their own take on fine rums, vodkas and gins, notably Citrus Distillers and Black Coral Rum in West Palm Beach.
West Palm Beach alone has more than its fair share of James Beard Award-nominated chefs, and imaginative eateries abound, notably along Worth Avenue but also in resorts like The Breakers, Eau Palm Beach, Brazilian Court and Four Seasons. Buccan, Café Boulud and the Meat Market are just three choices you should seek out for a memorable meal, but there are dozens more. For celebrity people-watching Ta-boo is a great hang-out, as well as a superb cocktail venue.
Equally, Las Olas Boulevard highlights the best of Fort Lauderdale with a dazzling array of culinary temptation that runs the gamut of fast food to fine dining. This is also where Florida’s Latin culture starts to come into its own, hence you will find a huge amount of Cuban, Central and South American influences in the cuisine, and you should definitely try the likes of ceviche, tacos and empanadas. Chima Brazilian Steakhouse, Rocco’s Tacos and Empanada Top are all great examples, while, for just a great pub style and atmosphere, the Big City Tavern is a popular local institution.
Why the Gold Coast Florida?
When you want that real touch of class and sophistication with your beach-going, this is the area to visit. With its high-quality resorts, performing arts, fancy retail opportunities and fine dining, the Gold Coast delivers a rarefied version of the typical Floridian experience, and we think that can only be a good thing.