Traveling successfully with small children takes a good 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 from our home in New York City, Ryan and I got completely strawberried. I had dressed in a pair of Armani jeans, 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 friends 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; only when we arrived at 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 in, 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 children were busily composing the first meal of the day from an elaborate buffet station. Ryan was sending tropical showers of Cheerios onto the floor and some neighboring diners. Chris, our waiter, would appear 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 does something that few other hotels in the United States have been able to do with setting, food and service: It provides an experience equal to 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 keeps the energy and noise levels tuned to adult needs.
Another interesting thing about the hotel was how the staff took American familiarity -- which can easily be overdone -- and turned 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. The staff members at the hotel, many of whom have been there for years, are free not only to improvise but to cast a distinctively Floridian style of affability on everything that they do.
All of that would be meaningless if Palm Beach itself was not 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 multicultural mix of glitz and tawdriness. It progresses through a succession of middlebrow towns to Fort Lauderdale, which has found its niche 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 affluent New Yorkers and others from the mid-Atlantic states keep their winter residences.
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.
That is not to say that active adults do not have things to do in Palm Beach. Worth Avenue remains a world-class shopping street. There is also plenty of nightlife in town, albeit nothing quite like Miami's.
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. The hotel has two master sommeliers, Virginia Santarsiero Philip and Juan Gomez, who are backed by a strong team and two well-stocked cellars.
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. As for Ryan, that activities center turned into a hangout, and the in-laws just enjoyed the scene.