The Breakers, Past and Present

The Breakers Palm Beach

What’s new—and still wonderfully the same—at Palm Beach’s famous resort.

In a world obsessed with the new, the next, the hot and the hip, the 116-year-old Breakers in Palm Beach is none of the above. It is, in fact, a world of its own. I've been a guest so often it feels like home, only better, bigger and more magnificent. Were the Earl of Grantham and the rest of the Crawleys of Downton Abbey looking for their own riff on American grandeur, The Breakers might be the aristocrats' perfect cup of tea. Yet, I'd also tell the Gen X, Y and Zs that there's no better place to take their broods for a getaway. Let me count the ways.

There's history here. You sense it at every turn. The hotel opened in 1896, at the height of the Gilded Age. It was a retreat for wealthy Northeasterners and friends of developer Henry Flagler, the father of Florida's Gold Coast. After burning down twice (both buildings were made of wood), a brand-new Breakers debuted at its present location in 1926, at One South County Road, palatially dominating 140 acres of prime beachfront property.

Yes, Palm Beach, but it could just as easily grace the hills of Tuscany. It's a magnificent hodgepodge of Italian references: The façade mimics the 16th-century Villa Medici on the outskirts of Rome; the fountain outside the entryway is modeled after one in Florence's Boboli Gardens. The cavernous lobby is based on the Great Hall of the Palazzo Carrega Cataldi in Genoa, its barrel-vaulted ceiling a fantasy of hand-painted frescoes. If all this sounds like too much, rest assured: It's perfectly appropriate. After all, Palm Beach never saw a replica it didn't like.

The Breakers is family owned, but not by just any family: by the Kenans, descendants of its founder, Henry Flagler. These days, there's only a handful of truly grand hotels left on the planet, most of them owned by chains, corporations or consortiums. The Kenans are low-key, old-line North Carolinians, tracing this fine, old lineage to Flagler's third wife, Mary Lily Kenan. Under James Kenan, the present chairman of the board, masses of money ($250 million in the last decade and still spending) have been invested to keep The Breakers fresh and up-to-date, with refurbishings, refreshments and redoes. Fashion duo Badgley Mischka love the hotel so much that they approached The Breakers to design a 1,700-square-foot suite, the crown jewel of a recent room update, costing $80 million. Trust me, you'll want to take the grosgrain ribbon–trimmed linen sofa home. And reopening this fall is designer Adam Tihany's reimagining of the Florentine Room, which he is refitting with, among other delights, a sushi bar and an open kitchen. The original bones of the place weren't broken—only, shall we say, massaged.

You couldn't possibly experience everything in one week. There are nine restaurants (my favorite is Ocean Grill); five bars (at lunchtime, I drink iced hibiscus tea; in the evening, a perfect mojito); five pools (the one in front of the Beach Club Restaurant has the best ocean view); two 18-hole golf courses, including Florida's oldest; ten tennis courts (I prefer to play at night under the lights); a beautiful spa (the Orchidée Imperial facial does everything but give you a facelift); and 11 shops (yes, of course, there's a Lilly Pulitzer—its dressing rooms are the prettiest in town—but you also can't go wrong in the small but lovely Ralph Lauren shop).

Guests rise to the occasion, not the way they did when women wore floor-length gowns and men donned white ties, but still, most people are on their best behavior. Okay, you'll see the occasional toddler running through the lobby or an errant visitor in cutoffs and flip-flops, but not often. This isn't to say The Breakers is snobby. Quite the opposite. I've been bringing family for years. Children are not only permitted in the dining room (this wasn't always the case), they're encouraged.

After dinner with my nine-year-old nephew recently, he and I walked hand-in-hand into the chandeliered lobby. As glittery and glorious as it was in 1926, it was like entering the Emerald City. He gasped and exclaimed, "My jaw drops!" What else could I say but "Mine does too."

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Pamela Fiori is the former editor of Town & Country and is currently at work on a book about Palm Beach to be published by Assouline in November (

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Henry James on The Breakers Palm Beach

In the final chapter of his conflicted and controversial travelogue The American Scene, Henry James describes his 1905 trip to Palm Beach. At the time, The Breakers had been open for less than a year. Rebuilt after a 1903 fire, the four-story, 425-room colonial building was a vision of luxury. From the Astors to the Vanderbilts, J. P. Morgan to J. C. Penney, everyone stayed here. Not even the disapproving James was immune to the hotel’s charms, calling it “vast and cool and fair, friendly, breezy, shiny, swabbed and burnished like a royal yacht, really immaculate and delightful.” He even praised the shops for offering “commodities almost beyond price—not the cheap gimcracks of the usual watering place barrack.” And he never even saw the Lilly Pulitzer boutique…. —Rebecca Sacks

The Way It Was…and Is Today

1896: Oil tycoon turned Florida real estate developer Henry Flagler opens the waterfront Palm Beach Inn, which everyone calls “down by the breakers.” The name sticks.

1971: Previously open only during the winter season (mid-December through mid-April), the hotel begins to offer year-round service.

1942: In a wartime effort, The Breakers is converted to a U.S. Army general hospital for recuperating servicemen and women. So Downton Abbey!

2001: The Ocean Course—the oldest 18 holes in Florida—receives a redesign and a new golf and tennis clubhouse. (Three years later, the updated Rees Jones Course debuted.)

Today: As befits a centenarian, the hotel has had some work done: $250 million in renovations in the last decade, including the construction of 20 new, private beachside bungalows.