Say queer-friendly Florida and most people’s minds will immediately veer towards Miami Beach, Key West, or Fort Lauderdale. But on a recent trip, I found the state’s sunny Palm Beaches area to be a series of hidden gems, with plenty to do, easy accessibility, incredible cuisine, and some fun surprises along the way.
Getting to West Palm Beach, the county’s central hub, is easy enough, with West Palm Beach Airport (PBI) featuring numerous direct flights, especially from colder northern cities. But there are plenty of other flight options available, with Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports located roughly an hour away, and the newish Brightline train service connecting all three areas in a convenient and inexpensive way. The region is also an easy 2.5-hour drive from Orlando and Naples — or a 3.5-hour drive from Tampa/St. Pete.
West Palm Beach was sometimes regarded as Palm Beach’s slightly less glamorous cousin, sitting on the mainland as opposed to the barrier island opposite. But that’s been changing in recent years, as a stroll down trendy and hopping-busy Clematis Street will quickly tell you. Stay at The Ben, part of the Autograph Collection by Marriott, for another example of the swanky new West Palm Beach. The hotel, which opened weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020, is trendy and comfortable, and I found myself lounging in the expansive lobby area on more than one occasion, as I plotted my next adventure.
A room at The Ben boutique hotel
The ground floor of The Ben contains Proper Grit, the property’s main restaurant, which was perfect for quick breakfasts as well as extended dinnertime visiting with friends. Proper Grit started out as more of a steakhouse originally, and management eventually took the cuisine in more of a gastropub direction. While the move was a success, some customers missed the selection of steaks, so the staff is currently bringing back more options on that portion of the menu. There’s a nice cocktail menu here, and so much to choose from, including fish, sandwiches, pasta, and some outstanding appetizers — make sure to try the Mushroom Bruschetta and Smoked Fish Dip.
In the evening, venture up to Spruzzo, the hotel’s glorious rooftop bar to get the night started the right way. This venue has a great bar menu and fantastic views, and it’s quickly become one of the go-to places for the stylish crowd in West Palm Beach. If wellness is on your menu, the same rooftop level contains a pool that hosts sunrise yoga ta 6:30 a.m. on Fridays and Sundays. There’s a full-service gym on the ground floor with 24-hour key access. And guests are welcome to use the complimentary bikes that are available at the valet — a wonderful option for getting around the area while burning off some calories at the same time.
A Palm Beaches sunset
Thom Stewart, Director of Sales & Marketing for the hotel, said the LGBTQ market is a very important one for the property.
“The Ben is focused on community support — for all communities,” he said. “Last year we hosted our first B-Proud Event in June. That’s a very successful pride event where community and guests came together to celebrate diversity. We will host another in June this year. Our industry has always attracted the LGBTQ community for jobs and careers … many members of our team fall into the LGBTQ designation, and we love the opportunity as an employer and local business to support each person.”
Locally, the hotel advertises in the “Our Community” directory, it has an “In Bed with Bruno” LGBTQ overnight accommodations package, and it recently completed an advertisement to showcase The Ben as a welcoming place for gay weddings.
Stewart told me that the busy season here used to be the year-end holidays through Easter, but that’s changed, and all year is now busy in the region. The slowest months are probably August and September, due to the heat and the peak of the hurricane season.
Twilight on Palm Beach Island
My favorite area eats were tough to whittle down to a handful, as there is so much excellent cuisine in the area. Here are some you should add to your list when in the area.
City Cellar Wine Bar & Grill. This upscale restaurant has ample inside and outdoor seating and boasts an elevated yet approachable menu. Highlights include a yummy peach sangria and the coconut mahi mahi with asparagus — there was just the right amount of crispy to go along with the decadent, flaky fish. While you’re here, wander around The Square, the region’s lovely outdoor shopping area, which features plenty of high-end brands, and myriad dining options.
Kapow! Noodle Bar is a fun option on Clematis Street, with a fun, playful vibe and excellent menu choices. The Lobster Rangoon was delightful and presented with an artistic flair that I wasn’t expecting — a trio sticking out of a Mason jar with sweet apricot sauce and tangy Chinese mustard for dipping. The Blueberry Lavender Mojito was a strong and refreshing choice from the bar.
Lobster Rangoon at the Kapow! Noodle Bar
Maxwell’s Plum. This great dinner option is located close to the International Polo Club and has an interesting lineage. Founder Warner LeRoy was famous for New York restaurants Tavern on the Green, the Russian Tea Room, and the original Maxwell’s Plum. Now, even decades later, his touch can be found at the new Maxwell’s, which is elegant and effortlessly modern. I thoroughly enjoyed the Prince’s Pear cocktail, a sweet delight that was served in what could have served as an elegant perfume bottle. A standout here is the salmon, which is served with broccolini and an Asian slaw that really enhances the flavors.
The Restaurant at the Norton, located inside the lovely Norton Museum of Art (which is worth a worth a stop in of itself) delighted with a fresh and inspired menu from Chef Jair Solis Mendoza. Make sure to try the delightful twice roasted sweet potatoes, which are covered with a Saba brown butter reduction and chopped pistachio. I’ve been trying to replicate them at home ever since! The covered outdoor patio is a relaxing place to dine either before or after getting your fill of artworks.
My best meal in town, hands-down, was at LGBTQ-owned Almond Palm Beach, which is on the island, a short bike or car ride from The Ben. From the Fig’d Up drink, which impressively makes fig work in a cocktail to the Lobster Lettuce Wraps appetizer (creamy and so flavorful), I was hooked. The space is cozy, with huge roll-up doors that blur the inside/outside eating experience. There’s also plenty of outdoor eating space, too, for those who are set on al fresco dining. My entrée, the Yellowfish Tuna, was perfectly prepared, seared on the outside. Even its accompanying eggplant and bok choy were so good that I considered asking for more. Dessert here is a slam dunk — get the Date Cake, which is a little piece of heaven on Earth.
Before visiting West Palm Beach, I didn’t know anything about the Lexus International Gay Polo Tournament, but I jumped in and attended this fun annual event, which is held at the International Polo Club in Wellington, Florida, about a half-hour drive inland.
Varla Jean Merman performs at the International Polo Club
On Friday night, we gathered at the Club for the annual fundraising event, Polotini. Here, everyone is encouraged to wear their most fabulous wig, and the gays really turned out here. There was every shade of hair imaginable, including a huge eggplant emoji hair sculpture, a wig that channeled Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, and a perfect Cruella de Vil hairpiece. There was food, music, dancing, and a delightful performance by drag queen Varla Jean Merman, who kept the crowd roaring with her Covid-oriented song parodies. There was also a heartfelt presentation by Barbara Poma, owner of the Pulse nightclub and founder of the onePULSE Foundation, which is raising money to construct the National Pulse Memorial & Museum, a stunning project being designed for the site of the former nightclub.
Seven of this year’s players were at the championships for the very first time.
The following day, we all reconvened at the Club for the actual tournament. This year featured 16 queer polo players from Argentina, Peru, France, The Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United States.
Riders and mounts at the Lexus International Gay Polo Tournament
Being a polo virgin, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I loved every minute of the sunny afternoon experience. Polo games are played in 6 chukkers (periods), which are 7.5 minutes in length. While the matches were played, attendees tailgated along the sidelines, with a long row of hospitality tents providing the opportunity to socialize, network, eat, and drink mimosas. We even watched the games at times! Halfway through the sporting matches, there’s a fun polo tradition that we took part in. Here, attendees are encouraged to walk to midfield of the pitch (field of play) for free glasses of champagne, stomping down the divots along the way to help prepare the field for the next rounds of play.
Not To Be Missed
There’s plenty of other things to do in and around West Palm Beach. Some favorites include:
Take the sightseeing cruise right from West Palm Beach on the Hakuna Matata for a great outdoor experience. Captain Lisa steered us up and down the Intercoastal Waterway for a bit more than two hours, while the crew served margaritas, rum punch, mojitos, beer, mixed drinks, and mimosas. For an extra charge when booking, you can even get bottomless mimosas, a dangerous option!
Getting around the area is easy and free with the local Circuit app. This shuttle operates from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in a wide area in and around West Palm Beach. The shuttles are 100% electric, and seat 5 passengers each. My driver told me that there’s a 10-vehicle fleet and each one’s charge lasts about 6 hours. The app is easy to use and the ride was smooth and enjoyable.
The Compass Community Center has a drop-in center for local LGBTQ+ youth
The Compass Community Center, located in Lake Worth Beach, is a fantastic local LGBTQ resource that’s been in existence since the 1990s. The center has a huge library on queer culture and history, as well as a clinic that’s open three days a week. Other programs here include HIV care and prevention work, STD testing, mental health counseling, a large youth group drop-in center. The CCC also sponsors The Legacy Project, where they link a youth with a community elder for mentoring and recording histories about what life was like when they were coming out and growing up.
Upcoming Palm Beach County area events include:
May 16: Coffee Clatch at Compass: 10 a.m. to Noon, held 1st and 3rd Mondays of each month (social group for mature LGBTQ community)
June 4: Third Annual Pride on the Block, Clematis Street, West Palm Beach (live music, drag shows, kids’ activities, vendors, local artists, afterparty)
June 25: 20th Annual Stonewall Ball, Cox Science Center (fundraising event with this year’s theme being Electric Disco; food and drink, entertainment, silent auction, awards presentations)
Now through September 11: Dürer, Rembrandt, and Picasso: Three Masters of the Print, Norton Museum of Art (an exhibition juxtaposing two great traditional artists with one of the most important modern artists)