By Scott Kauffman
Palm Beach Gardens – In late August, a time when most real estate agents are experiencing the dog days of summer/residential sales, Lynn Bird is surprisingly busy at Frenchman’s Creek, a 36-hole private club community here in South Florida. She’s especially busy considering Florida’s real estate market is generally still sputtering along.
“The market is really really good in Frenchman’s,” says Bird, a longtime resident of Frenchman’s Creek and broker associate with Illustrated Properties Real Estate. “I made quite a few deals just in the past couple months and that’s unusual for the summer. Things are selling for higher than ever before
“I’m struggling with buyers sometimes because they think, ‘This is a very slow market and I should be able to make a deal.’ But it’s not happening here. Prices are going up.”
For anyone familiar with Frenchman’s Creek, a luxurious low-density development in the heart of swanky Palm Beach County, that should come as no surprise. In real estate, in order for a property to truly stand out, it has to have a little “romance.” And Frenchman’s Creek, a place inspired by the enduring romance novel by English author Daphne du Maurier, has a lot of romance.
Much of the romance to Frenchman’s Creek — the community — is a credit to the late billionaire and well-known philanthropist John D. MacArthur. MacArthur, who used to be one of the largest landowners in South Florida, originally developed Frenchman’s Creek in the late 1960s as a stand-alone golf course facility and preserved its golf-only state for nearly 20 years.
At the time, MacArthur also was in the midst of developing and marketing a nearby golf project called PGA National Golf Club, which, in March 1965, became the new headquarters of the PGA of America (the PGA of America eventually relocated to its current Palm Beach Gardens location and PGA National was later renamed Ballen Isles). Unlike high-profile PGA National, though, Frenchman’s Creek was a remote low-key golf course.
That’s not to say Frenchman’s Creek wasn’t popular.
Soon after it opened, Jack Nicklaus would regularly practice and train at Frenchman’s Creek, a quiet retreat surrounded by nothing but ancient Florida forest land (the Golden Bear still maintains his longtime home at nearby Lost Tree). Other professional golfers who made Frenchman’s Creek their new home course were Toney Penna and Gardner Dickinson.
“There were these two pristine golf courses in the middle of the woods, so it was very low-key,” says local attorney and Frenchman’s Creek member Barry Bird. “A lot of the pro golfers used to hang out here because they were very low-key, very beautiful, elegant golf courses. The only thing around it was all this vacant natural forest.”
Frenchman’s Creek remained that way until late 1985, when the MacArthur Foundation finally sold the estimated 800-acre property to well-known Palm Beach-area developers Haft & Gaines for $64 million, according to Bird. As part of the transaction, Haft & Gaines also acquired additional property across the street from Frenchman’s that would later become the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club and Spa and the Bear’s Club – Nicklaus’ new “home” course.
But long before the Bear’s Club and other exclusive private communities began popping up along Florida’s Gold Coast, the “new” Frenchman’s Creek development was the gold standard for new high-end private clubs. In fact, the project was so popular, Haft & Gaines sold out its roughly 600 residential units within 5-6 years. Bird, who was the first salesperson hired by Haft & Gaines, remembers that time well.
“Before it opened, I used to fly to New York a lot and I would fly over this property on my way out,” Bird recalls. “It was so gorgeous with all these big pines, big oaks and banyan trees. There was no place else in the area where you would see such lush mature vegetation.
“When I read in the paper it was selling, and it was going to be the most expensive land sale in county history, I remember thinking this has to be a special development. When I signed on I thought it would probably be an 8-9 year project. In ’90-’91, we were selling the second phase of the project by lottery because we had so many buyers. And by ’92, I was doing resales already.”
One reason for the tremendous success was the strategy of Haft & Gaines to preserve, for the most part, MacArthur’s original vision. So, at a time when most developers squeezed as many homes on a golf course as possible, Haft & Gaines made a rare move by dramatically downsizing the approved density and keeping the two courses virtually untouched by development.
This core golf experience that exists today, in many ways, is the same feeling Nicklaus and so many others got when they first played Frenchman’s Creek nearly 40 years ago. To be sure, Haft & Gaines changed the feel of a couple holes, but because the original footprints of the two courses were preserved, there isn’t one hole where homes sit on both sides of the hole.
So most of the Frenchman’s Creek houses – prices range from $1.1 million for a small patio home to $9.75 million for a 13,000-square-foot estate on a double lot – look across double and triple fairways.
Basically, Frenchman’s Creek is an oasis in the middle of what is now heavily developed North Palm Beach. And that setting next to the Intracoastal Waterway is certainly of the main attractions for the community that also features 75 homes on deepwater lots.
“I play in a lot of golf course communities around here, and they’re all nice homes, but they’re all lined with homes along the fairway,” says Barry Bird, who plays to a 12 handicap. “When you sit on a teebox at virtually any given hole in Frenchman’s, there might be homes off on the left side or right side or a couple holes away, but when you’re sitting there you’re pretty much just looking at nature. So it gives you that sort of communion with nature in every golf hole that you lose in today’s world of development.”
Of course, there’s more to Frenchman’s Creek than just sheer beauty. For example, the club amenities are second to none, starting with a 66,000-square-foot clubhouse, a fairly new 11,000-square-foot state-of-the-art fitness and spa facility, 17 Har-Tru tennis courts and golf cart access to an independent marina and yacht club.
If that isn’t enough to satisfy one’s tastes, Frenchman’s Creek also features a private beach club facility just a few miles away on Juno Beach. Featuring a gourmet seafood restaurant open five nights a week, an oversized heated pool and separate children’s pool, and resort-like service on the beach with lounge chairs, towel service and staff, this property is a rarity for non-coastal communities.
What makes all of the Frenchman’s Creek amenities so special, however, is the attentive service-oriented culture of the community. Frenchman’s Creek believes in catering to its clientele so much that it has its own internationally acclaimed hospitality training program.
Executive director and chief operating officer Achal Goswami, a former Ritz-Carlton executive who speaks five languages, is the architect of the program that annually draws more than 50 international students from major hospitality institutes worldwide.
Les Roches Hotel Management School in the Swiss Alps, which specializes in hospitality career development, has praised the program saying, “(Frenchman’s) excellent reputation has paved the way for employment after graduation.”
“Our campuses are located in Switzerland, Spain and China and students welcome the training diversity, rotations into different departments and the extremely professional treatment of staff and supervisors,” says Les Roches manager Hans Ferch. “Frenchman’s Creek has become an exceptional training environment for our students from all over the world. Excellent staff lodging, extraordinary food and the proximity to a regal lifestyle make their transition particularly enjoyable.”
Likewise, it’s an extremely smooth transition getting used to the lifestyle at Frenchman’s Creek.
One member tells of lavish dinner parties catered for twelve in a private home, all of which were arranged on short notice and included polished silverware and a banquet table. Others point out the little touches, like the mugs of hot chocolate that greet golfers on those chilly winter mornings.
“Our members should always feel especially welcome every day,” Achal points out. “We like to think of Frenchman’s Creek as a cruise ship on land.”
Most just think of Frenchman’s Creek as a romantic relationship that never loses its passion.
Editors Note: This first appeared in Florida Golf Journal’s Aug. 2007 issue.