With most mega cruise ships embarking from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, the Port of Palm Beach has been living in the shadows of its sister ports to the south in Florida. That's a shame because the Palm Beach area is a dazzling destination in its own right, with plenty to do before boarding a cruise.
The port's history dates to 1915 and even housed a car ferry service to Havana, Cuba, after World War II. Although true-blue, multiday cruises with luxurious amenities sailed from the Palm Beach to the Bahamas in the 1970s and 80s, its passenger services dwindled to casino cruises and budget day trips. Multiday cruises returned to Palm Beach in 2009 when Bahamas Celebration made it a homeport. (Small-ship cruise line Pearl Seas offers a couple of voyages with the Port of Palm Beach listed on its 2015 itineraries.)
The second-largest county in Florida, Palm Beach consists of several notable cities, including Boca Raton, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach, Wellington, Jupiter and West Palm Beach (the largest of the group). Known as a sophisticated playground for wealthy vacationers, Palm Beach has no shortage of lavish golf courses, high-end shopping areas and eclectic restaurants. The area contains 47 miles of Atlantic coastline, as well as the Intracoastal Waterway, which makes it ideal for sport fishing, scuba diving, parasailing, and other water sports, as well as a number of family-friendly beaches.
No matter how long you're there, exclusivity is part of Palm Beach's appeal. You'll be glad you aren't sharing the port with thousands of cruisers disembarking from other ships.
There's no reason to hang around the port before or after the cruise. The terminal lacks dining facilities or gift shops, but there are vending machines and an ATM. The immediate area surrounding the port isn't much better. Besides warehouses and shipyards, there are fast-food restaurants, kayak rentals and a dive operator within a few blocks. The best bet for nearby dining, Internet and shopping options near the port is to drive along Blue Heron Boulevard or 45th Street.
Water Sports on the Intracoastal: No visit to the Palm Beach area would be complete without spending time on the water, and excursion providers offer a plethora of activities, including parasailing, kayak excursions to Peanut Island, jet-ski rentals, snorkeling trips, and catamaran cruises. On Sundays, the outgoing crew on Hakuna Matata fills the catamaran with water toys (fun noodles, kayaks, paddleboards) and sails down the Intracoastal before docking in a shallow cove for banana boat rides, swimming and water activities.
Clematis Street: This something-for-everyone street spills out onto the waterfront and is filled with shops, restaurants, ice cream shops and bars. Kids will love the centerpiece water fountain and indoor playground or riding the free trolley around the downtown area. On Thursday nights, the street becomes a festival-like environment with live music and dancing.
Worth Avenue While this is Palm Beach's version of Rodeo Drive, it's still a relaxing way to spend the day and a place to see and be seen. High-end shops abound, and the strip itself makes for a picturesque photo op.
Golfing: Home to Florida's first 18-hole course -- and more than 40 public courses -- Palm Beach is a golfer's "happy place." Those new to the sport can head to one of the learning centers like the John Webster Golf Academy, located at Breakers Resort.
Beaches: The county is a haven for sun seekers and has more than 25 beaches and waterfront parks that include secluded stretches of sand, family-friendly beaches with convenient facilities, snorkeling areas and beach hotels. Short on time? John D. MacArthur State Park is a one-stop shop for sand dunes, coral reefs and natural hammocks (shaded areas). For those planning to visit more than one beach, having a car is recommended because the beaches are spread out among a number of towns and cities in Palm Beach County.
Palm Beach International Raceway: Featuring a two-mile road course, a drag strip, kart track and mud bog for side-by-side drag racing, the race track is a thrilling way for visitors to spend the day. Those feeling really adventurous can book a two-day sports car driving experience.
Kava Bars: Truly unique to South Florida are laid-back bars that serve kava, an alternative to alcohol that has relaxing properties. This trendy tea that has gained popularity in recent years, and kava bars have sprouted up all over the region. Located on Northlake Boulevard (three miles from the port), Kavasutra is the perfect place to try the drink, and it's open late into the night.
International Polo Club Palm Beach: From January through April, this club hosts a high-goal polo season and attracts visitors from all over the globe. Everyone dresses to the nines during Sunday mimosa brunches to watch the classic sport. The club also has a full-service spa and fitness center, tennis courts, croquet, pool and cabanas.
Scuba Diving: The region is home to a number of dive centers, including several near the Port of Palm Beach. On Singer Island, Pura Vida Divers offers rentals, three-day certification classes, one-day "Discovery Dives" and regular dive trips to nearby sites like the Blue Heron Bridge and "the trench," a dredged-out, seven-foot wide section with reef walls on either side.
McCarthy's Wildlife Sanctuary: This animal rehabilitation center treats everything from bobcats and ligers to alligators and owls. Set on five acres surrounded by a tropical botanical garden, the sanctuary offers animal encounters and tours that go far behind those of a typical zoo. Advance reservations are required.
Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens: Delray Beach's hidden jewel is the center for Japanese arts and culture in South Florida. Resembling a Japanese villa, the museum houses more than 5,000 artifacts, including a 500-piece collection of tea ceremony items. Visitors can also explore a 225-seat theater, authentic tea house, library, cafe and lakeside terrace with stunning Japanese courtyard gardens.
Loxahatchee Everglades Tours: Coast through the Florida Everglades on a traditional airboat and experience the state's natural habitat. Although it is just an hour's drive west from the beaches and shops of the Palm Beach area, visitors will feel worlds away. Tours run hourly and offer a chance to spot sea turtles, alligators, snakes, birds and other wildlife.
Lion Country Safari: For a family-friendly day trip, head to Lion Country Safari, Florida's only drive-through African-style safari, with more than 900 animals, such as rhinos, giraffes, zebras and lions. The park also features nine amusement-style rides, a restaurant and a water "sprayground" to cool off.
The easiest choice for cruisers embarking from the Port of Palm Beach is flying into Palm Beach International. The small airport is served by most major airlines and has a few buzz-worthy amenities: a putting green, spa and children's play area.
The Go Shuttle runs between the Palm Beach International Airport and the Port of Palm Beach (Riviera Beach) and costs around $15 for one person (extra passengers are an additional, reduced rate). Taxis are widely accessible, and most major hotels offer a courtesy shuttle. Public transportation (Palm Tran) is available, however, travel times from the airport to cruise port average around an hour and a half.
Alternatively, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport offers a wider variety of flight options and is about an hour's drive south of the port. Rental cars can be found at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport. Passengers can hop on the Tri Rail to West Palm Beach and transfer to the bus system. Public transportation is not an ideal way to reach the Port of Palm Beach from Fort Lauderdale. Those taking this option should allow extra time: The trains are frequently delayed.
In the Palm Beach Area:
Palm Tran is the public bus system that services the Palm Beach area. Fares are $2 one way, or $5 for an all-day pass. Those visiting downtown West Palm Beach can also hop on the complimentary trolley that stops at most major tourist attractions.
On Foot: Walking around downtown West Palm Beach is a wonderful way to spend the day.
By Taxi: Taxis are plentiful, cheap and metered. Be sure to ask whether the credit card machine is working prior to entering the cab, as many drivers like to pretend it is broken.
By Water: The Palm Beach Water Taxi offers shuttle transportation to and from Peanut Island for $12 roundtrip.
Best for Privacy: To feel away from it all, head to Ocean Ridge Hammock Park, about 30 minutes south of the Port of Palm Beach (by car). Visitors will have this quiet stretch of sand to themselves, but there are no lifeguards on duty or bathroom facilities. Outdoor showers are available.
Best to Spend the Day: Pack a picnic lunch and hop on the water taxi to Peanut Island for a relaxing day away from the crowds. Camping is also available, and the water surrounding the island makes for excellent snorkeling -- but visitors must bring their own gear. The island also has a shaded observation deck, pavilions, walking trails, grills, restrooms and the Palm Beach Maritime Museum, which offers a tour of the John F. Kennedy bunker, a command post during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Best for Nature Lovers: Set on 438 acres between the Atlantic Ocean and the Lake Worth Lagoon, John D. MacArthur Beach State Park gives visitors a taste of Florida's natural environment without having to travel far. Munyon Island makes a quiet oasis for kayakers (rentals are available), or they can explore the shaded hammocks, coves, sand dunes and limestone rock reef. Some 22 endangered or threatened species of wildlife reside in the park. The park has a gift shop, picnic areas, a playground, and nature and photography workshops -- including its "Sea Turtle Talks and Walks."
Most Convenient: The Town of Palm Beach Municipal Beach is just north of Worth Avenue and has a calm stretch of sand without the souvenir shops and cheesy attractions -- but don't expect to be the only one there. Bring beach equipment and prepare to pay hefty fees for nearby parking.
Best Family Beach: About 13 miles north of the Port of Palm beach, in the city of Jupiter, is DuBois Park, a local favorite perfect for families with younger children. During the summer, lifeguards are on duty every day in the swimming area (or on weekends when schools are in session). Set on the Loxahatchee River, the beach also has a snorkeling lagoon, picnic areas, parking, showers and a playground.
With so many miles of coastline, it's no surprise that seafood is a highlight on any menu. Local favorites include grouper, mahi mahi, coconut shrimp and Florida spiny lobster. Visitors shouldn't miss stone crab; during its season from October through May, signs outside restaurants and markets announce that it has arrived. Alligator -- typically served as a fried appetizer -- can also grace menus in South Florida. Although the neighboring islands of the Bahamas made them famous, conch fritters are another irresistible appetizer.
Outside of the local dishes, the Palm Beach area has a strong Cuban culture and a happening foodie scene with plenty of fusion restaurants offering any combination of Thai, Japanese, Italian, French, new American and countless others.
Steps from Worth Avenue in the Brazilian Court Hotel is Cafe Boulud, a highly acclaimed French-American restaurant that is part of the Daniel Boulud restaurant group. Whether ordering a premium wine off the extensive list, or a five-star entree off the breakfast, brunch, dinner or prix fixe menu, this restaurant delivers consistent quality. To enhance the dining experience, make a reservation and request courtyard seating. (301 Australian Avenue; 561-655-6060; open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Sunday)
Tiki Waterfront Sea Grill near the port is the perfect place to spend time before or after the cruise. Outdoor dining at two tiki huts and live music set the laid-back tone. Menu selections include cracked conch, crunchy grouper sandwiches, blackened dolphin, crab dip and burgers. A gift shop is on hand if weekday happy hour (2 p.m. to 6 p.m.) cuts into shopping time. (200 E. 13th Street, Riviera Beach; 561-845-5532; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday to Saturday, call first, hours are tentative based on business)
RACK's Fish House and Oyster Bar offers a large variety of raw bar items, fish tacos, sandwiches, burgers, a selection of fresh fish filets and even lobster macaroni and cheese, Rack's is an upscale, yet casual choice for lunch or dinner. (5 SE 2nd Avenue, Delray Beach; 561-450-6718; open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday, 11:30 to 11 p.m. Thursday and 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday to Saturday)
Havana Restaurant is a two-story authentic Cuban restaurant in West Palm Beach that has been family-owned and operated for more than 20 years. From classics like ropa vieja, (shredded beef stewed with peppers, tomatoes and onions), to shrimp enchiladas with Creole sauce and Cuban-style chicken fajitas, the menu offers a wide variety of lunch and dinner options. There's also a 24-hour walk up window for cafe con leche and pastries. (6801 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach; 561-547-9799; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday to Saturday)
Located on the waterfront in Delray Beach, patrons of Deck 84 can gaze out at the luxury yachts and motorboats passing by on the Intracoastal Waterway while sipping on reasonably priced cocktails. The menu consists of local and Caribbean favorites like conch fritters, Key Lime-soaked mahi mahi and fish tacos as well as Mediterranean and Thai-inspired dishes. Their $10 lunch specials are unbeatable, and the "24-hour French toast" is a must-try. (840 E. Atlantic Avenue, Delray Beach; 561-665-8484; open 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday)
For not-so-traditional Italian cuisine, try Hullabaloo Italian Gastropub, a trendy pub with a small storefront on the lesser-visited side of Clematis Street. Everything there has a craft twist to it, from appetizers like fried green heirloom tomatoes and flame-roasted marrow bones with Florida orange marmalade to wood-fired pizzas and braised short rib ravioli. Serving lunch, Sunday brunch and dinner, this is also a top choice for local and regional microbrews. (517 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach; 561-833-1033; open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday to Saturday and 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday)
By successfully blending Thai, sushi and tapas, Kabuki has established itself on competitive Clematis Street. Menu options include signatures like Thai tropical stir fry and lobster teriyaki as well as a plentiful list of Asian-style tapas and sushi. Happy hour runs every day, and outdoor seating is available. (308 N. Clematis Street, West Palm Beach; 561-833-6349; open 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday to Saturday)
Rocco's Tacos and Tequila Bar, a rapidly expanding Mexican restaurant, has been opening locations all over South Florida. Delicious guacamole is prepared tableside, and the bar offers more than 225 types of tequila. In the evenings, it becomes a "scene" bar and offers a late-night menu as well as a weekend brunch menu. (224 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach; 561-650-1001; open 11:30 a.m. to midnight, late night menu from midnight to 1 a.m., bar closes at 2 a.m.)
Port of Palm Beach Cruise Port Address:
1 East 11th Street #600, West Palm Beach, FL 33404
The Port of Palm Beach is just over eight miles north of the airport in the small city of Riviera Beach. In the marina district, there's not much to see and do within walking distance. However, Riviera Beach has restaurants, shops, water sports, and creature comforts within a few minutes' drive from the port.
The main tourism hub of West Palm Beach is five miles south of the port, before you get to the airport.
Dolphin appears on many restaurant menus in the area, and it can be worrisome to some visitors. As a heads up, they are not talking about Flipper: It's a nickname for mahi mahi, a white flaky fish that is absolutely delicious.
The area surrounding the port isn't exactly tourist friendly -- so don't linger. While the shopping areas in West Palm Beach are beautiful, they are not immune to pick-pocketing, so keep your belongings close.
U.S. dollars are used, and ATMs are readily available.
English is primarily spoken in the Palm Beach area, but visitors will likely encounter some Spanish-speaking natives during their visit.
Colorful, floppy hats help block the strong sun of the region and add an element of fashion to beach attire. They can be found at most gift shops. Close to the port is Sea Shell City for T-shirts, shells and other souvenirs. Visitors also can spend a day shopping in West Palm Beach to uncover truly individual items.
Just about any tropical cocktail is served in South Florida, but the Rum Runner, invented in the Florida Keys in the 1950s, is still a refreshing favorite. The recipe differs from bar to bar, but generally includes blackberry liqueur, banana liqueur, grenadine, lime juice and -- you guessed it -- rum.