Ken Hoffman: West Palm Beach wows with Houston Astros Spring Training and the luxe life

Your World Series champs Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals share FITTeam BallPark during Spring Training. Courtesy photo

Originally appeared on CultureMap

This month, many Astros fans in Houston will make their annual spring break/spring training pilgrimage to West Palm Beach, Florida, to watch our World Series champions get ready for the 2018 season. It feels good saying that, "World Series champions," doesn't it?

Traditionally, spring training games are daytime affairs, starting at 1 pm, and, even with all those pitching changes, end around 4 pm.

Now, what to do?

Plenty to do!

The Palm Beaches, 39 municipalities from Boca Raton to Jupiter, has 47 miles of coastline and 16 public beach parks on the Atlantic Ocean. The sand is golden and the water deep blue. The beach parks have snorkeling, volleyball courts, shops selling sunblock and beach souvenirs, and picnic areas with barbecues grills. Just pull up, find a parking spot and dive in.

Let’s see: there’s a zoo, the famous Palm Beach Polo Club, hundreds of restaurants and hotels, comedy clubs, playhouses, live rock music, jazz and blues spots, opera, ballet, 160 golf courses, tennis courts, dog racing, art and science museums, old school Florida tourist attractions — and everything else a family or sports fan could want in a vacation.

I could give a list of everything Palm Beach County has to offer, but it would look like that rack of brochures in finer motel lobbies. (And some motels that aren’t so fine.) Just visit the site, and make your own “vacation to do” list.

I spent a few days in Palm Beach County last week. How about if I just tell you about some of the places I visited? My host ran me pretty ragged, so I did a lot.

Tourism is a thriving industry in the Palm Beaches; the county is a string of beach towns. There’s every kind and price of hotel imaginable, from mom-and-pop joints on the highway, to palaces with waterfront views and heavenly spas.

A World Series champ of resorts
I checked into the Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa on South Ocean Boulevard in Manalapan. Its 309 rooms and suites are elegant beyond belief, and not nearly as expensive as you’d think. Its backyard is the Atlantic Ocean. My room was on the sixth floor, next door to the suite where China president Xi Jinping stayed last year when he visited Florida. (Guessing his room was bigger.) I wonder if he took home the little bottles of shampoo like I did.

Eau Palm Beach originally was a Ritz-Carlton. Pretty spectacular, right? The new owners saw it as a fixer-upper. Now, it boasts five stars from Forbes, and five diamonds from AAA. (Five is the limit.) The minibar in my room had more snacks than a corner convenience store. The resort has three Har-Tru tennis courts and onsite instructor. I want to go back and bring my racket this time. 

Normally, when I visit a new city, I hop on a tour bus and get a feel for the place, its history, and culture. 

Come for the baseball and luxury, stay for the food
West Palm Beach has something better — a food tour of Palm Beach County’s biggest city. It’s like a regular tour...except you stop nine times to stuff your face with local goodies. It’s called “food tourism” or “the Anthony Bourdain effect” — learning about a place through its food.

We stopped at Johan’s Joe for Swedish coffee and chocolate pastries, The Blind Monk for prosecco mojitos and Cuban sandwiches, Pizza Girls for slices, and Ganache Bakery for key lime tarts and a lesson in how to crack open a coconut.

When a certain local resident, who happens to be the President of the United States, comes home for a weekend, the Secret Service orders 30 pies to go from the Pizza Girls. The delivery guy assured me, “They’re good tippers.”

The West Palm Beach Food Tour last three hours and tickets range from $65 including one wine cocktail to $79 with three cocktails. It’s a walking tour, but you never tread more than three or four blocks between eating breakpoints. 

West Palm Beach is a colorful town with lots of murals on sides of buildings. Perhaps the most famous is a mural of five dead rock stars in downtown West Palm. The first four are easy to guess: David Bowie, Prince, Kurt Cobain, and Bob Marley. The fifth rocker stumped everybody in my food tour group: It’s Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. Not that I’m an art critic, but the mural looks nothing like him.

My first night for dinner, I had to get the “Astros BBQ Big Hot Dog” at Grease Burgers Beer &Whiskey Bar on Clematis Street, West Palm Beach. It’s a honking quarter-pound dog made with premium beef, infused with beer, and topped with proprietary barbecue sauce, Applewood-smoked bacon, and Southern-style cole slaw. It’s $5.75.

Take me out to the ball game
The Astros share FITTeam Ballpark of the Palm Beaches with the Washington Nationals. There is an enormous “H” structure for Houston outside the stadium on the third base side, and an equally large “W” for Washington on the first base side.

The only difference between the two letters? The “H” has a banner across it that says “2017 World Series Champions.” Too bad, do better next time, Washington.

FITTeam Ballpark opened last year, and has a seating capacity of 6,500. Another thousand or so fans can sit on the “Banana Boat Lawn” behind the outfield fences. Tickets range from $13 for the lawn, to $55 for reserved seats behind home plate.

FITTteam Ballpark is more than one stadium. The Astros and Nationals each have six practice fields. There are five multipurpose athletic fields, plus luxury suites, and a wide variety of concession stands. I had a funnel cake on opening day — made to order, and superb.

There’s an all-you-can-eat deal that is over-the-top. Instead of limiting your choices to hot dogs, popcorn, chips, and soda, the spring training park adds Buffalo chicken, bratwurst, cole slaw, and cookies to the menu.

The stadium will host a bar mitzvah party this month, with the kids taking batting practice on the field. The best spot to snare Astros autographs is the open area down the left field line. A small lagoon in the parking lot has a sign — watch out for alligators. (Visit the stadium's site for information, ticketing, and schedules.) 

Travel tip: United and Spirit have non-stop flights between Houston and West Palm Beach Airport. But you’ll find flights, cheaper by about 50 percent, between Houston and Fort Lauderdale Airport. It’s about a 30-minute drive from Lauderdale to West Palm. You’re probably going to rent a car, anyway, so flying to Lauderdale will cover the cost of the car.

Presidential Palm Beach 
Let’s go to Moneyville. I took the Island Luxury Tour of Palm Beach with guide Leslie Driver. The city of Palm Beach, locals call it “The Island,” is home to 30 billionaires, including President Trump. It's one of the richest zip codes in the U.S. — 33480. President Trump’s neighbors include Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, Jimmy Buffett, Tony Robbins, and non-celebrity kings and queens of industry. Rod Stewart hangs out at the Starbucks in Palm Beach. Starbucks is the only chain restaurant allowed on “The Island.”

President Trump bought his Mar-a-Lago home in 1985 for a mere $5 million. Today it’s worth $180 million. 

The crime rate in Palm Beach is practically zero. One reason: there are only three drawbridges that lead from the mainland to “The Island.” Cameras take photos of every car that crosses the bridges. If a crime is committed the drawbridges go up, trapping the criminal on “The Island.”

Worth Avenue is Palm Beach’s main, and very exclusive, shopping street. I saw a woman walk a big, fat pet pig past Tiffany’s and Chanel on Worth Avenue. The pig pooped. Sure, the woman cleaned up after the pig. Still weird, though.

Palm Beach tour guide Leslie Driver tells wonderful stories about the history and characters who live on “The Island,” and she doesn’t hold back scandals and juicy gossip.

Here’s one: not all the locals are crazy about President Trump. He’s been a pain in the neck to building code enforcers. And he causes traffic tie-ups when he comes home. In fact, Hillary Clinton won Palm Beach County in 2016. But you will never hear a bad word about first lady Melania Trump. She’s well-liked and admired on Ocean Boulevard. For information on Driver’s tours, visit her site.

A (swank) day at the races
I went to the dogs — the racing greyhounds at the Palm Beach Kennel Club. Dog tracks may struggle across the rest of the country, but the Palm Beach Kennel Club is doing quite well. The puppies run six afternoons a week, with evening races Friday and Saturday nights. It’s free to park and enter the track.

One reason the Palm Beach Kennel Club succeeds while other tracks flop: this one has a poker room with 50 tables. The poker room is open until 4 am on weekdays, and 24 hours on weekends.

The track has a casual restaurant called the Terrace Restaurant, and an upscale fine dining room, the Paddock Restaurant. This one is classy — men aren’t allowed to wear jeans. I had a King Cut Prime Rib the size of a catcher’s mitt, lobster bisque, garlic smashed potatoes, creamed spinach, and onion rings. Each table in the Paddock Restaurant has a television monitor so you can follow (and bet) horse and dog racing, and jai alai, around the world.

I’m not a gambler. I usually bet the favorite to place (finish first or second). I won $6 that night.  Hey, that’s $6 more than I had walking in.

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Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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