Naples vs. Palm Beach: A Tale of Two Towns
Are these two luxury communities really so different? You bet they are - and here's why.
When the whole east coast vs. west coast thing gets brought up in conversation, most of the country thinks of the late Notorious B.I.G. and the equally deceased Tupac Shakur. But not those of us living in Florida.
The Sunshine State is known for being as diverse as the people who flee here from various other, colder parts of the globe. In Florida, a 30-minute drive can land you in what feels like a totally different world. Just think of the differences between Fort Myers and Sanibel or Marco Island and Everglades City or Estero and Lehigh Acres.
But when the time comes for someone with deep pockets to move to Florida—and that time always comes—there seems to be just one decision to make: Naples or Palm Beach.
Life on the two coasts might appear similar on paper (it’s warm, there are palm trees, you can get your Aston Martin serviced at the dealership, etc.), but there are some very real differences between the two mega-wealth destinations.
First and foremost: formality. Palm Beach, having been established as a resort community by Henry Morrison Flagler (a founder of Standard Oil) in the late 1800s, has some. With the benefit of age, Palm Beach has a solid foundation of old money with structures to match. Homes, such as Mar-A Lago, built by Marjorie Merriweather Post and her then husband, E.F. Hutton, in 1924 (now owned and operated as a private club by Donald Trump), and hotels such as The Breakers, have history behind them. The rich and famous fl ocked to the island, making it synonymous with chic sophistication. It was (and/or still is) populated by names such as Vanderbilt, Astor, Whitney, Wilmot, Trump, Kennedy, Kluge, Perelman, Lauder, Limbaugh and Madoff .
Though Naples was founded at much the same time, no one got the memo. And almost no one bothered to visit until The Ritz-Carlton, Naples opened its doors in 1985. Since then, however, Naples has gained in reputation and stature, landing several big fish of its own (Tom Golisano, Papa John, Judge Judy, among others), but still doesn’t garner the same respect.
“Naples is such a wonderful place—to read a book,” says Lidia Bazar, a renowned art collector from New York, while browsing the Palm Beach Jewelry, Art & Antique Show at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, just minutes before celebrity photographer Patrick McMullan took our photo. “I mean, it’s lovely, but they don’t have what we have here in Palm Beach.”
The “what” it seems, is respect. The New York Times once reported, “Naples is sound asleep by 10:30 p.m. The population is older, socially conservative and startlingly homogenous. Although the number of single, educated young professionals is rising in Naples, the city remains a place where an attractive woman in her 20s, sunning by the pool at La Playa Beach & Golf Resort, is asked by an attendant, in all seriousness, ‘What are you even doing here?’”
Yikes. And that reputation continues to be hard to shake. Take, for example, the aforementioned Palm Beach Jewelry, Art & Antique Show, which held its opening night VIP event on a Friday with a 7 p.m. start time. The Naples version of the exact same show a week earlier had a 5 p.m. Thursday launch time. In Palm Beach, there was a 25-minute wait just to give your car to the valet. In Naples, you could pull right up and walk in. No wait. Naples residents will tell you that’s precisely the reason they live here: They’re well-rested.
“I think the whole ambience of Naples, I mean the small-town feel of it is very appealing to people,” says the Baroness Mimy von Schreiner-Valenti, a luxury residential specialist with John R. Wood Realtors. “I think the cultural opportunities here, between the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, the museums, the restaurants, the properties; I mean the beachfronts that you can have access to, the high-end gated communities like the Bay Colonies, the Pelican Bays, the Port Royals. I think all of that appeals to people. For a lot of them, it’s the lifestyle. … If Palm Beach is Newport, Naples is Nantucket.”
For Dawn Hoff man, who used to live in Naples but now calls Palm Beach home, that point rings true. “I think that Naples is more welcoming,” says Hoff man. “I go back to the Midwest and the type of people that live there. The Iowa, Ohio, Michigan natives are much more welcoming than Palm Beach proper is. You’ve got more of that blueblood society here that is not as accepting. Don’t get me wrong: They’re very gracious, but they’re not going to welcome you in unless you are connected to somebody who is connected to them.”
And though Palm Beach has Worth Avenue with its Jimmy Choo, Chanel and Georgio Armani boutiques, Naples counters nicely with similar options at Waterside Shops, Third Street South and Fifth Avenue South. It’s just that while Palm Beachers tend to do their shopping and lunching in Lilly Pulitzer, Naples tends to appreciate a Tommy Bahama vibe.
“There is a lot of black belt fashion happening here, especially at the big charity events, but that’s because so many residents are from New York City,” says Colleen Orrico of C. Orrico boutique in Palm Beach. “Still, there’s … a chic beyond the de la Rentas and Yves St. Laurents here that can be very simple: a cashmere sweater with slim silk capris or ball skirt, a Chanel jacket with a pair of simple leggings and exquisite shoes.”
Even the men are in button-down oxfords with bowties under windowpane sport coats on a Friday afternoon. Naples men have, for the most part, eschewed any sense of formality and are working the comfort angle. Many feel they’ve paid for the privilege. Khakis and a polo shirt at dinner are not going to upset anyone on the Gulf coast. It truly feels as if it’s Mr. Bahama’s world and we’re just living in it.
Another notch in Naples’ belt is that there is a lot more waterfront available here than Palm Beach. Frankly, there is very little appealing beachfront on the other coast. And what you do find only gives you sunrises, not the spectacular sunsets found in Naples.
“There isn’t any waterfront available that I am aware of like where we’re living now,” says Ralph Stayer, CEO of Johnsonville Sausage, of his home on the Gulf. “We have wonderful sunsets and we do get the sunsets. They don’t get the sunsets; they get the sunrises. Not many people are awake to appreciate sunrises. In the last three years, we have seen six or eight green fl ashes. ... So if anybody says there is no green flash, they are full of baloney.”
Those same disbelievers will find it hard to accept that Naples isn’t filled with oxygen-wearing octogenarians, either.
“I think people are often surprised at how young Naples is and how much it has going on,” says Schreiner- Valenti. “I think it has taken a long time for people not to feel like Naples is God’s waiting room because for a long time it was. Naples is not so old. Not that Palm Beach is that young.”
But don’t tell anyone in Palm Beach. Though its residents are every bit as mature as those in Naples, they’re an eclectic bunch and dress as though they’re just coming from an event in the Hamptons. In fact, many probably are. Palm Beach International Airport is stunningly convenient to the island—4.6 miles, to be exact.
“When you look at the availability of flights between the Northeast, Palm Beach or Fort Lauderdale versus the commercial flights that go into Fort Myers,” says Palm Beach resident Thomas Quick, of Quick & Reilly fame, “that tells you a lot right there. I can take flights all day long from five airports in the greater New York area, starting at 6 a.m. and the last one is about 9:30 p.m. ... That’s telling about the size of the population and the demand. People do it in a day for business: take an early flight and leave early evening and they’re back home here.”
Though Palm Beach proper is just a sliver of land 16 miles long, residents can just cross some bridges and take advantage of the amenities of much larger communities of West Palm Beach, Jupiter, Wellington or Lake Worth. Naples is its own oasis, separated from Miami by 110 miles of swamp on one side and from Fort Myers by 30 miles of indifference.
The contrast between the two communities can easily be summed up in one word: hedges. Palm Beachers take great pride in having spectacularly tall hedges that define privacy. Naples, while certainly enjoying some quality landscaping of its own, prefers a more natural, relaxed, open setting.
But even with Naples’ more spectacular waterfront, its newness and its relative sense of privacy, it’s tough to shake the general sentiment of Palm Beachers when they think of their neighbor to the west: Naples is a charming, but largely inconsequential, spot where people retire to play golf and dote on grandkids. Palm Beach, they’ll tell you, is a vibrant extension of their lives in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Greenwich and Newport. You know, the places that matter.
“We have friends from all over the world who live in Palm Beach. It seems there are more people from the Midwest on the Gulf side of Florida,” says socialite Marylou Whitney, the widow of the legendary Cornelius “Sonny” Vanderbilt Whitney, who co-founded Pan-Am Airways, financed Gone With the Wind, won the U.S. Open polo title three times, was a director at Churchill Downs and founded Marineland. She, along with her husband, John Hendrickson, just purchased a charming $3 million home in Palm Beach. “We bought in Palm Beach because we wanted to be near our horses.”
The couple, known for their thoroughbred racehorses and philanthropic pursuits, is selling their other Florida home in Longboat Key. “We loved the west coast of Florida—the beaches are glorious and the people are so kind. We just needed to be closer to our horses,” says Whitney, who is the embodiment of old Palm Beach with her starched posture and vowels to match. Whitney had a home in Palm Beach previously, the famed Elephant Walk, but sold it when Cornelius passed.
“When we lived on the west coast, most restaurants were ‘smart-casual,’ which just meant ‘bring your wallet,’” says Hendrickson. “In Palm Beach, people do tend to dress up a bit more.”
However, says Whitney, “You can make Palm Beach whatever you like. John and I are choosing to be more casual. We are not attending all the black-tie functions.”
That might be because the social scene in Palm Beach is so rigorous it can be dangerous.
“John and I were at the Zoo Ball a few years ago, and the gentleman I was sitting next to starting choking on a piece of meat. I was hoping they weren’t serving zebra,” says Whitney. “Everyone at our table was in shock. Before anyone could get up to do the Heimlich maneuver on him, the society columnist from the Shiny Sheet jumped from her seat across the room and came running to our table. Well, she started riding him like Seabiscuit until the piece of meat was dislodged. It was a very scary scene, but that memory still makes me smile.”
To our knowledge, Naples has yet to have a society columnist perform any medical procedures. But it does give you some idea as to just how important the social scene is in Palm Beach. Their very lives are dependent upon it.
COMPARING THE PRICES OF HOMES
“So many people who fl y in to look at property go directly from here to Palm Beach or vice versa,” says Shelly Stayer, who, along with her husband, Ralph, have listed one of their two Gulf front homes for sale. “These are their top two choices.”
It’s not difficult to see why. Both places offer residents a lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed, with terrific restaurants, worldclass shopping and spectacular housing.
Currently, Palm Beach’s infamous Bilionaire’s Row has one home listed at $74 million, another at $59 million and yet another at $37.5 million, with eight more in the 20s. Naples, for its part, has one home available for $22.9 million and 24 more available between $10 million and $20 million (the majority in the tony Port Royal community). It also saw two Gulf front homes sell in private transactions for between $40 million and $45 million—each.