Beaches, wetlands, wildlife sanctuaries, spas and heavenly tearooms – The Palm Beaches in Southeast Florida have it all, as Gayle Ritchie discovers
“Keep your eyes peeled for alligators,” chirps John Welch, as we paddle through a freshwater creek lined with cypress trees.
“Humans aren’t their favourite food, but it’s not a great idea to get in their way.”
I’ve come to Riverbend Park in Jupiter for a morning of kayaking with John, a naturalist bursting with fascinating facts and anecdotes.
So far, no alligators, but we do spy dozens of cute turtles resting on the banks of the Loxahatchee River.
There’s also a chance of spotting wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, marsh rabbits and raccoons, although they seem to be on vacation when we visit.
John regales us with stories about the park, which was the site of the historic battle of Loxahatchee in 1838.
On reaching dry land, he points us to the battlefield, and we while away an hour wandering along scenic wooded pathways.
We’re visiting Florida’s Palm Beach County, which boasts destinations such as Jupiter, Boca Raton, the Everglades and the island of Palm Beach itself, where President Trump has a home.
Flying into Miami, it’s a 90 minute drive to Jupiter, where we’re spending a few nights before heading south to Delray Beach.
Waving goodbye to John and thanking him for keeping us free from gators’ jaws, we head to Busch Wildlife Sanctuary, www.buschwildlife.org, where nearly 90% are being rehabilitated back to health.
Animal care director Amy Knight guides us along nature trails, stopping to see everything from crocodiles and gators to foxes, snakes, bears, birds of prey, skunks and deer.
A highlight is getting to stroke the friendly bobcats, which purr and rub against us like domestic cats.
Lunch is at our hotel, the luscious Jupiter Beach Resort and Spa, www.jupiterbeachresort.com, and boy, do they lay on a sumptuous feast!
After letting our bellies settle, we drink in the sweeping views across the Atlantic.
I’m a massive fan of ocean swimming and, shark fears aside, had been looking forward to floating in Florida’s finest.
However, there’s a strong wind blowing and the sea doesn’t look very inviting.
Locals tell me it’s usually a dreamy, glass-like turquoise blue, but the surf churns a strange colour of brown and green during our stay – the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
Not to worry because I’ve booked a spa treatment – the Signature Perfect Massage – at the hotel.
Staff kit me out in a fluffy robe and slippers and invite me to relax with herbal tea and a magazine in the waiting area.
Then I’m taken into a warm, aromatic treatment room for 80 mins of sheer, unadulterated bliss.
Therapist Kristen Gonda incorporates essentials oils and heated tiger shells into the massage, which soothe my mind and body and leave me, quite literally, walking on air.
Dinner is a short stroll down to Tommy Bahama Restaurant and Bar, www.tommybahama.com/restaurants/jupiter, which sits along the handcrafted brick streets of Jupiter Riverwalk at Harbourside Place.
It’s a vibrant, colourful venue, buzzing with people of all ages – and the food and drinks are sensational!
The excitement in the air is tangible, as this is an area very much on the up.
Just across the road, Tiger Woods has a restaurant, The Woods Jupiter, and he also owns a swanky piece of real estate on Jupiter Island.
The region is big on golf; other golfers who live here include Greg Norman, Nick Price, and Lee Trevino.
Actor Burt Beynolds once called Jupiter “the best place in the world” and can still be seen dotting around, while Kid Rock, Michael Jordan and Celine Dion have homes here too.
We stroll back to the hotel and enjoy a refreshing sleep in the huge bed, the sound of the waves crashing on the shore outside.
The next morning, after consuming our body weight in blueberry pancakes, omelette, toast and fruit – the portions are obscene – we waddle our way to Blueline Surf and Paddle Company, www.bluelinesurf.com, for a morning’s paddleboarding.
Our guide, Alex Cotleur, takes us on a tour of Jupiter’s Intracoastal Waterway, past decaying ship wrecks, through mangroves, newly planted to help the harbour regenerate.
As we breeze past a tiny island, we notice hordes of black vultures circling high rather ominously above.
Invigorated and rather smug about not having falling in to the water, we browse Blueline’s epically cool shop and buy a couple of baseball caps and T-shirts.
We’ve booked a table for lunch at Guanabanas, www.guanabanas.com, just across the road.
Opened by surfers as a sandwich shop in 2004, the colourful outdoor restaurant and bar has become an institution thanks to its lush, tropical setting, great cuisine and cocktails, and live music.
Woven tiki huts and banyan trees tower overhead, and hand-chiseled coquina stone pathways are underfoot.
It’s such a fantastic ambience that you’d forgive the food for playing second fiddle, but the fact is, the food is excellent.
In the afternoon, we head to the Loggerhead Marinelife Center, www.marinelife.org, at Juno Beach – one of the most densely-nested loggerhead turtle nesting beaches in the world.
On arrival, we meet Hannah Deadman, who’s in a panic. “Reports of a beached whale have just come in! I’ll be 20 minutes!”
While we wait for her to return, we check out injured and endangered turtles of all shapes and sizes in spacious aquariums.
Volunteers are keen to tell us how the creatures came to be here; many became entangled in fishing lines, were struck by boats, or ingested plastic.
When Hannah gets back, she’s a tad flustered – the whale is in a bad way.
But ever the professional, she takes us on a tour of the turtle rehab hospital, and shows us some of the objects found lodged inside the creatures’ bodies. The amount of plastic is troubling.
We spend the rest of the afternoon at Manatee Lagoon, www.visitmanateelagoon.com, hoping to spy one of the strange, aquatic marine mammals, sometimes known as sea cows.
The centre was built shortly after Florida Power and Light Company (FPL) modernised their natural gas plant, attracting the creatures to the warm water outflows.
Apparently you can find them year round in Florida but alas, we see none and pledge to return another day.
Tonight’s dinner is at Sala Thai, salathaifl.com, an excellent value eatery serving up traditional Thai delicacies prepared with exotic herbs and spices. Yum.
The following morning, we head to the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, www.jupiterlighthouse.org.
The landmark 1860 building towers high above the Loxahatchee River, with a series of spiralling stairs that take you to the top.
It’s pretty vertigo-inducing and a sign at the bottom warns those with heart conditions to think twice before attempting the climb.
The vista from the top is sensational – and quite rightly billed as the best view in Palm Beach County.
All this exploring is thirsty work and we pop in for a bite at Schooner’s, schoonersjupiter.com, a relaxed American seafood restaurant-cum-pub.
Then it’s time to head off, and we do so just as the heavens open.
We’re bound for Delray Beach – 40 minutes down the east coast – where we book into the luxury Seagate Hotel and Spa, www.theseagatehotel.com, just seconds walk from the ocean.
Our room is a stunner, with fresh orchids by the bath and chocolates on the pillow, and we’re treated to a bottle of fizz and cake on arrival.
After a relaxed (and cheap) dinner at Ocean One Bar and Grille, we aim for the newly-opened Silverball Museum and Arcade, silverballmuseum.com/delray-beach.
I’d never have thought this would have been up my street but as soon as I enter, I’m like a kid in a sweet shop.
With more than 150 video games and pinball machines buzzing, whirring, flashing and bleeping, it’s a bit of an overload for the senses, in a good way.
It really is nostalgia-central, with classics such as Ms. Pac Man and Qbert and original skee ball alleys from Coney Island’s Eldorado Arcade.
It’s a brilliant place to hang out, and there’s a real party atmosphere, with drinks flowing and music pumping.
The following morning, after a dip in the hotel’s outdoor pool, I book in for a hot shell massage with therapist Liliana Marsh.
Explaining I have a painful shoulder, Liliana squeezes muscles in my neck and shoulder tightly, warning that it might hurt, but promising that it will help relieve the pain and tension.
And you know what, it worked wonders! The rest of the treatment is very relaxing, and feels just amazing. Thanks Liliana!
I’m also treated to a vitamin sea radiance facial, which promises to refresh tired skin and leave me with a brighter and more radiant appearance. Wonderful stuff.
Lunch is at the magical Yaxche Tearoom, www.yaxchetearoom.com, a hidden gem off the beaten track offering more than 100 artisanal teas, soups, sandwiches, salads, desserts and more.
Knowing little about tea, I’m very grateful when owner Alexandra Wayne opens up a few containers so have a sniff and choose the one that most appeals.
The menu is mouthwatering and I opt for a chicken salad, which is humongous and utterly delicious.
The tearoom is crammed with students, yoga-lovers and regulars – it’s a fantastic place to hang out and in fact is less like a tearoom and more like a cute, colourful cottage, with healing crystals, artwork and inspirational signs everywhere. The one that says, This Is A Happy Place, definitely sums it up.
Alexandra is proud of the fact that people come in to buy gallons of their water, which they call Goodwater – “the purest, cleanest water on earth”. The water is used in all their drinks and a portion of the tearoom’s proceeds goes to charity.
As we chat to Alexandra, we ask why this peaceful haven is called Yaxche. Pointing to a weird, knobbly, gnarly looking tree outside, she tells us it’s called a yaxche tree, or the tree of life.
“This tree represents many things, but for the Mayans it represented a place where the spirit world, the heavenly world and the earthly world all meet, where they come together in one plane, a moment of almost pure perfection,” she says.
“We wanted to create a space where people could get away, escape, and be part of something. I believe people are searching for meaning, for spirituality, to be inspired to go out there and do better things in the world.”
The desserts in here are out of this world, and we linger over a delicious spread of cakes and traybakes. In fact, we love this place so much that we return the following day for lunch.
The rest of our stay is spent doing a combination of walking up and down Delray’s streets, which are peppered with amazing boutiques, sunning ourselves on the beach, and even going for a swim in the shallow water. It’s calmer here than it was at Jupiter and it’s a refreshing experience, the odd wave crashing over my head aside.
Certainly, Delray is a place for beach lovers, and there are plenty of bronzed, ripped bodies on show, whether sunbathing, jogging, kitesurfing, playing volleyball or simply strutting up and down the sand.
We also fit in a trip to Sandoway Nature Center, sandoway.org, where we watch a theatrical feeding of nurse sharks and dip our hands into a salt water tank to stroke stingrays!
Another highlight is a stroll round Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, morikami.org, which boasts 16 acres of sprawling historic gardens, a world-class bonsai display, and exhibitions featuring art and artefacts.
For anyone who thinks of Florida as simply Disney World and the Keys, a trip to The Palm Beaches will prove there’s way more to it than that.
And with winter blasting the UK, now is the perfect time to book a trip to this warm, sunny slice of American paradise.
Gayle flew from Heathrow to Miami with Virgin Atlantic, www.virginatlantic.com
She travelled round The Palm Beaches using Uber, www.uber.com
For more information, see www.thepalmbeaches.com
Visitors can enjoy an average annual temperature of 24C.