As a newcomer to Palm Beach this season, I’ve roamed incognito on the rarefied patios trying to find my crowd. At most gatherings, women covered in A-frame pink-magnolia fabric and grown men in lime-green pants smile at me as if they’d just sucked on a lemon. My gut reaction: These people have got to be kidding. But they are not.
Palm Beach social life is very regimented and rule oriented, but this contrarian rule breaker decided to keep an open mind. Everything is taken seriously here. Matching the yarn of the alligator on an Everglades Club needlepoint belt with the stitching on one’s Stubbs & Wootton velvet slippers is de rigueur.
After digging into the party scene further, I discovered that, sometimes, earnest effort can be a good thing. Nowhere is Palm Beach camp more fun than in the poolside- and oceanfront-cabana scene.
Inside these three-walled structures, I discovered a Palm Beach social scene transformed and transfused with new people and new vivacity. Forget those ossified old-guard types; their money ran out a generation ago and they are just grumpy.
Nowhere is Palm Beach camp more fun than in the poolside- and oceanfront-cabana scene.
“If you want to find out what’s going on, go down to the cabanas at wine time, when you see the Florida sky turn rose in the west,” advises Tom Shaffer, Palm Beach director of the interior-design firm Rinfret, Ltd. “People are in a good mood.” Smaller and more European than a pool house, the good cabanas here are often styled for vigorous entertaining.
“Cabanas are a sign of status, because there are always more members than cabanas,” explains Ryan Williams, executive vice president of the Targeted Victory marketing agency (and my Florida anthropological guru). “If you have a cabana at your country club or by your apartment-building pool, you’ve gotten into the club within the club.”
Cabanas have always been part of Palm Beach society. My preppiest-of-the-preppy friend remembers her neighbors in the 1960s and 1970s gathered at her beach-association cabana at the end of her father’s sandy lane. “North of town by all those streets with the bird names—Mockingbird Trail, Nightingale Trail—each street had their own beach structure,” she reminisces. (A few streets still do.) “Past town near the Kennedy compound and the Phipps estate. WASP-y, bare-bones … that was part of the charm.”
A cabana at a Palm Beach apartment building is very different from the forlorn, look-alike-cabanas ethos at a country club. Turns out that upping the ante on one’s cabana game is a competitive, serious sport in the best way. Many poolside cabanas here (and at private homes) are filled with whimsical designs and accoutrements.
At the apartment building on South Ocean Boulevard where I spend my time, entertaining author and designer Steven Stolman, also famous on the Eastern Seaboard for his legendary cheese puffs, can be spotted in his cabana, styled with full-on camp. His Gilligan’s Island–themed abode comes complete with framed photographs of Lovey and Thurston Howell III, Ginger, and Mary Ann. He’s also added shrunken coconut heads, and a fancy, stocked bar.
“Our ‘Cabana Crawl’ morphed over the years into this hysterical cocktail train of guests where anyone is invited,” explains poolside partier Scott Sanders, an interior designer with offices in Palm Beach and New York. “They are always wildly successful: each cabana has a signature drink and food. I serve my father’s famous party food, called Charlie’s Chip Dip, with a top-secret recipe from our family’s 1940s Sanders Dairy in Ohio. My friends call it the “crack dip.” It can only be served with Ruffles potato chips–the ones with the ridges!”
Told you—Palm Beach social life is structured everywhere you turn, down to the exact texture of a chip. You just have to ignore the dreary pink-and-green-attired crowd, who believe their undefeated Exeter squash season still counts. If you come, go hunt for the refreshing cabana scene, with their modern ideas about what to do when—rules you’ll actually enjoy following.
Holly Peterson is the author of The Manny, It’s Hot in the Hamptons, and It Happens in the Hamptons. She has contributed to The New York Times, the Financial Times, Vogue, Departures, and numerous other publications