Crash the party: Palm Beach, Florida

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It just may be the snootiest town in America, but if there's room for Rush Limbaugh and Jimmy Buffett, there's room for you

Welcome to Palm Beach, Florida's exclusive island of stately mansions, luxury yachts, and turquoise waters. It's a playground for the obscenely rich and occasionally famous--but that doesn't mean you can't get in the sandbox with the big kids.

Peak season, from mid-December to mid-April, is when temperatures hover at 70 degrees and the social scene jumps. During the summer, however, when the heat rises and crowds fall back, you'll get amazing deals on luxury hotels--and keep them all to yourself. Some travel agents have exclusive lines on the best bargains. Call Eileen's Travel to book the elegant Brazilian Court, dating from 1926, for as low as $110 (standard high-season rate: $375). Another strategy is to drop your bags in neighboring West Palm Beach (full of $60 motels) and cross the bridge to the island.

In season, sleeping at Palm Beach's most famous property, The Breakers Resort, is too pricey ($450 per night), but there's no charge for slinking around the grounds like a gigolo on the hunt. Play a game on the six-foot-high vertical chessboard. Munch on free wasabi peas at the Seafood Bar. For a breathtaking view, dress up and charm your way onto the private Flagler Club terrace by sweetly asking the bellman for a tour.

The Palm Beach Daily News doesn't waste column inches on bothersome issues like Iraq; instead, it reads like morning announcements at the School of Civilized Gossip. Expect updates on which dignitaries are in town and where they'll be clinking glasses. But skip the charity balls and hit the after-parties. Many Palm Beachers stop by the Chesterfield hotel's swanky Leopard Lounge supper club--every inch coated in red paint or leopard print--on their way home to loosen their ties, smoke cigars, and tell one another how marvelous they look in their green jackets and velvet shoes.

As one island socialite puts it, "I go there to take in the scenery--or, I should say, the scenario."

Palm Beach Par 3, the town's public golf course, spans the island from the Atlantic Ocean to the Intracoastal Waterway. Even in season, it costs just $23 to play 18 holes and $6 to drive a bucket of balls. Croquet lessons are free on Saturdays at West Palm Beach's National Croquet Center, the world's largest facility of its kind. The beach is the best place for reef snorkeling and stargazing.

If your game plan involves meeting a billionaire who will invite you onto his megayacht, go to Cucina dell' Arte: Rod Stewart and Rush Limbaugh pop in for breakfast, businessmen stop by for goat cheese pizzas (and the complimentary buffet with a two-drink minimum) during happy hour. Trust-fund kids roll in around midnight--the kitchen's open late.

Worth Avenue is the exclusive shopping street. But even more exclusive are the trendy "trunk shows" held in its stores, where fashion designers present their entire collection directly to customers who can special-order the items they want. At the Saks store on Worth Avenue, they're free and happen about every other day in winter. These mini fashion shows beat window-shopping, and you don't have to buy anything. Also check out the dozen or so secondhand shops on nearby Sunset Ave. At the Goodwill Embassy Boutique, for example, Lily Pulitzer threads that retail at $149 can sometimes be picked up for $39.

And, of course, get a good look at those fabulous mansions. Here's how:

  • Stalker-style Peek into backyards from Lake Trail, the paved path along the Intracoastal edge of the island.
  • Tourist-style Take a Now & Then cruise, offered by Palm Beach Water Taxi, for the lowdown on who lives where and who paid what.
  • Undercover agent-style Attend the open houses, held every weekend at properties that are for sale. Don't wear jeans (it'll give you away as the mere thousandaire you are), test all the gold-plated faucets, and inquire nonchalantly about property taxes. "We're nice to everyone," says one prominent real estate agent in town. "You never know. Those people could be our clients next time."
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