Florida coast: a pink stucco, multi-minaret playground

What I love about Florida's east coast is that you can greet the day at the Alhambra, otherwise known as Boca Raton, join the recreational-vehicle set stooping for shells up the way at Vero Beach, and finish off licking an ice cream cone and counting Rolls-Royces and Bentleys on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach.

In other words, the 80 or so miles between Boca and Vero is a coast for all persuasions, even if it seems to tilt toward the merely rich. It's also worth remembering that after April 15 even the loftily priced hotels become affordable , while an everyday double room within a duckboard's walk of the sea can be had for $20, provided you steer yourself north of Boca and the Palm beaches.

Addison Mizner and other 1920s eccentrics sought to turn the east coast into a pink stucco, multi-minaret playground, and nowhere is this style more effulgently displayed than at the Boca Raton Hotel & Club, where I bunked of 28, 000, but the hotel, its surrounding canals, and particularly the 1926 building called the Cloister are the geographic poles of the area. I would have delighted in losing myself in the mysterious corridors and towers of the Cloister, but I stayed inthe hotel's just- opened wing, the Boca Beach Club, half a mile across the Intracoastal Waterway.

What the Boca Beach Club has that the Cloister doesn't is an ocean lapping at its feet. Boca prides itself on being nearer the Gulf Stream than any other east coast Florida community, and indeed that fisherman's haven is highly visible from the beach club lawn -- a ribbon of deep blue that begins only a mile or two offshore, with swells that stab the horizon like azure pyramids. You go back and forth between the Boca Beach Club and the palmy pink Cloister, either in the launch, Mizner's Dream, named for the offbeat architect who build Boca, or in an ancient limousine driven by elderly and patient chauffeurs.

It was in the limo returning from the Cloister's splendid tennis spread (22 courts, overseen by a one-time Australian star, Warren Woodcock) that I happened onto a new Florida tourist phenomenon -- the influx of European and particularly British travelers. Bernie and Miriam Moss of London at first seemd strangely misplaced in this American Arabian Nights setting, but they said Florida was becoming a habit, owing to decent air fares and the stretching of the pound. Indeed, I learned that Boca had done 40 percent European business over the Christmas holidays and might go to 80 percent next season.

With tennis, golf, swimming, beaching, biking, and various lawn games at my Boca disposal, people thought mem a bit offbeat for wanting to leave the premises , but I had a date, long overdue, with Vero Beach. Since the first day I opened a sports section, the dateline Vero Beach has been magic. Vero was the spring training grounds of the old Brooklyn Dodgers and their farm team, the St. Paul Saints, my hometown heroes of the 1940s and '50s. The Saints are two decades gone and the Dodgers, now in Los angeles, no longer excite me, but the Dodgertown camp is still at Vero Beach, and a hot attraction from late February through March.

Camp was yet a few weeks off, but I knew Vero had other assets. My only mistake was devoting much time and mileage to US 1 and A1A, poky and unattractive roadways except for a few stretches of coastal scenery, when the Florida Turnpike would have chewed up the 80 miles in no time. Downtown Vero has wide, quiet streets anda palm-lined square with shuffleboard courts, but the chief allure when the Dodgers aren't in town is the beaches. There are fine, untracked beaches up the coast in either direction, but I was content with the main strand, which at low tide revealed a hard-packed surface, unlike the soft, warm, collapsible stuff in front of the Boca Beach Club, and a great bounty of shells. Moreover, the hotels and restaurants at water's edge have a well-weathered, low- rise, low-key, low-price appeal.

Dodgertown, a seasonal community also alive in the summer when the New Orleans Saints are tenants, is the place where Robinson, Campanella, Resse, Hodges, and all the others once took their vernal swings. The fields were empty now, and an attendant told me he was trying to "green up" the brownish lawns in the wake of a rainless winter. Running through the players' quarters were avenues and lanes named for Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, and others.

Back down the coast at Palm Beach, Worth Avenue was very much in season. There are cozy little tiled arcades, one named Via Mizner; few if any price tags in the windows; and -- despite reports of a slackening cachet -- probably more period limousines than on any street east of Rodeo Drive. "How civil," I thought, spotting Madame steering a shiny Rolls away from the curb while her liveried chauffeur relaxed beside her. And then I realzed the auto had a right-side drive and chauffeur was at the wheel after all. prominent in the Doubleday window was Supermillionaires and their Money." And, of course, "The Preppy Handbook."

I doubt if there is a finer way to dine, whatever your station, than on the yacht Imagine, a sailing restaurant that berths at Dorset Dock at the foot of Seminole Avene in Palm Beach. Terry bosley, who doesn't look unlike Clint Eastwood, pilots the 41-footer while his wife, Linda, who has been told she resembles Angie Dickinson, performs small miracles in the tine galley below. She passes up one dish after another -- sailfish dip, fresh baked bread, filet of grouper in banana sauce -- to the lamplit cockpit, which holds a half-dozen customers. Six are charged $240 for the three-hour Movable Feast. There are cheaper places to eat and many more expensive between Boca and Vero, but none w ith quite as high a ceiling.

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