The Great American Hotel

From poolside drinks and afternoon tea to beautifully ornamented guest rooms complete with crystal chandeliers, these are the country’s swankiest, most dazzling hotels.

The St. Regis Hotel in New York City

There are hotels that are merely places to lay your head before you trip off to your actual destination. And then there are hotels that are the des­tination. Here, we present four of America’s greatest, grandest hotels, beacons of luxury and nearly vanished grandeur. Each dazzles with its own brand of opulence that goes beyond the gilt, the gracious staff, and the legacy-laden guestbook. These hotels are about a feeling—one that’s hard to find in these days of hurry-up-and-go travel. They bring vacations back to the magnificent basics: Pack, travel, arrive and, simply, stay.

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The Breakers: Gilded-Age Splendor by the Sea

Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach Florida
From $289 per night | 1 South County Road, Palm Beach | 561-655-6611

When I was a child, I was fascinated by the opening credits of the brooding afternoon soap opera Dark Shadows. Spooky music crested over a montage of waves furiously crashing over rocks, telegraphing a certain gothic glamour.

I was thinking of Dark Shadows as I walked into the lobby of the Breakers Palm Beach, perhaps because it, too, foretells splendor and mystery. The Breakers is a sprawling 140-acre oceanfront paradise that offers modern cater-to-every-whim service, gift-wrapped in gilt, its architecture a nod to the Italian Renaissance. But its feeling of Gilded Age exclusivity and indulgent luxury remains its real allure, a tonic for our harried, and often harrowing, day-to-day existence.

“I don’t think I can leave this room,” my friend Amy, herself often harried, said as she flung open the dramatic drapes that covered our picture window overlooking the sea. I got her point. Rare is the hotel room so lovely that you ponder locking yourself in. The beauty of the Breakers is the fact that this fog of comfort drifts out to every corner of its meticulously manicured, rolling lawns. During the day, the Breakers is a hive of well-dressed attendants (there’s an army of 1,800) fetching poolside drinks, caddying on the golf course, leading historic walks or unraveling fluffy white towels over chaises, and offering a relentless parade of smiles and “Hellos!” not seen in such force since the “Be Our Guest” number in Beauty and the Beast. Come evening, there’s a palpable downshift to a vibe of classic cool, of tarty cocktails and slouchy haute style that reinforces the notion you’re in a high-tone, special place, but one that is mercifully neither stuffy nor snobbish.

One of the last great family-owned hotels in the world, this Downton Abbey on the Atlantic opened in 1896, was rebuilt in 1926, and just completed a $250 million overhaul. You can feel the spirit of Henry Morrison Flagler, its grand founder, everywhere. He wanted a place where the affluent would come and relax, but his vision was bigger than that. I think he really wanted a piece of distinctly American grandeur that would endure. To that end, he’d no doubt be horrified to see the clumsy fanny-pack-and-flip-flop-wearing tourists who rumble through your average hotel lobby today, foraging the nearest buffet.

There are no fanny packs at the Breakers. There is an unspoken code of conduct that comes with staying within a fine resort, and this code is adhered to almost universally. People speak in hushed voices as they greet; they dress for dinner, and wear swimwear that both is modest and actually fits. Their children behave. If nothing else, the Breakers has achieved something rather remarkable: It has preserved the dying art of decorum.

Several of my days were wet, a hazard of Southern Florida living, I suppose. One afternoon I sat just off the main lobby, looking out at rain splashing into the fountain in the central courtyard. My thoughts were not of vanished beach time, but rather of the simple, divine pleasure of sipping a hot cup of tea in a beautiful room. The Breakers does that to you.

A solicitous server interrupted my reverie. “May I bring you more tea?” she asked brightly.

I glanced at the delicate bone china and smiled. “That would be lovely,” I said. And it was. –Michael Callahan

The Hay-Adams: Discreet Old-Boys’-Club Luxury

The Hay-Adams hotel in Washington, DC.

From $349 per night | 800 16th Street NW, Washington, D.C. | 202-638-6600

A few years ago, a family of four relocated to Washington, D.C. Their home wasn’t ready yet, so they moved into the Hay-Adams hotel, a nine-story cocoon of luxury in the middle of Lafayette Square, and lived there for 12 days. It’s a typical snag in the thorny logistics of moving, but what makes this story less typical is that the head of this particular family is the president of the United States. The home they were waiting to move into was the White House.

I didn’t see the suite that housed the Obamas—someone else (perhaps another head of state?) was sta­ying there—but I toured a similar one during my stay at the Hay-Adams. It’s grand, naturally, but not in the way you might think. There are no chandeliers dripping with cut crystal; intricately latticed moldings are painted white rather than splashy gilt; and pale green toile is used in everything from draperies to lushly canopied beds. The secondary connecting doors aren’t for waitstaff, but for Secret Service members or visiting dignitaries who require an inconspicuous exit. The luxury here is discreet, quiet, tucked in places where people attuned to these things will notice it, as in the intricately hand-carved rosettes dotting the egg-and-dart molding in the hallways. It’s the sort of subdued grandeur that has been often and lately replaced by in-your-face displays of wealth. (See: the 90,000-square-foot Versailles-inspired palace that was being built for a Florida couple in one of America’s most gaudy parades of excess—before they lost it all.)

No doubt the original owners of the land on which the Hay-Adams was built—and for whom the hotel is named—would be pleased. John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary and, later, the Secretary of State under McKinley and Roosevelt, lived in a grand home on the site. His neighbor and dear friend was Henry Adams, a descendant of presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Both homes were razed in 1927, replaced by this Italian Renaissance 145-room boutique hotel. But instead of building out, the architect simply built up. Stay in a south-facing room; anything higher than the sixth floor offers a jaw-dropping view of Lafayette Square, the White House, the soaring Washington Monument (our own arrow-straight Tower of Pisa), and tourists feverishly snapping photos of it all. (Bring your camera.)

I wonder if the Obamas gazed at their future home from their perch in the Hay-Adams. I’m sure they relished their last few days of relative normalcy in the sweet confines of this plush, hushed hotel. I’d have asked for the designer’s name (if you’re curious, that would be Thomas Pheasant, who oversaw the hotel’s $20 million renovation in 2002), so the Hay-Adams brand of warm elegance could be replicated within the White House’s imposing walls. But that’s just me.

The staff is used to power players breezing through the small, intimate lobby. They’ve seen countless dignitaries take the secret elevator that leads right up to the highest floor (where top-secret meetings are held, as well as weddings). They’ve served members of various administrations stiff drinks in the clubby, secluded downstairs lounge, Off the Record (where you’ll want to try the Washingtonian, a citrusy concoction that looks delightfully feminine in this otherwise dark-walled, red-tufted space). They’ve shined the silver for breakfasting politicos in the Lafayette, a restaurant that features some of the only crystal chandeliers in the place. And they’ll eagerly snap to attention for you, too, noting the names of your kids and bringing them milk and cookies before bed, because they know—in the way so few do—that real luxury and world-class service go beyond crystal and gold leaf and the bigger-is-better behemoth hotels that anchor most cities. It’s really about making you feel at home, whether you actually live in a grand mansion, a tiny apartment or the White House. –Emily Goulet

The Palace: Silver-Screen Glamour in the City

The Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

From $199 per night | 2 New Montgomery Street, San Francisco | 415-512-1111

I’ve always suspected I was born in the wrong century—or at least at the wrong end of it. Along with my love of all things vintage, I crave a certain level of sophistication—rules of social conduct, the idea that one does something a certain way simply because that’s how it’s done. Period.

My sensibilities felt right at home at the Palace Hotel, the grand one-square-block gem in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district. It’s hard not to be impressed—and audibly gasp, if you’re me—when you walk through the front doors. This is what luxury looks like: soaring archways, rotunda ceilings, Italian-marble columns, Austrian- crystal chandeliers. It’s no wonder the hotel has hosted 10 U.S. presidents, countless royals, and the who’s who of sparkling Hollywood society over the years.

The first thing you’ll want to do is look up—beautifully ornamented ceilings drip with architectural detail—then march right by the check-in desk to gape at the Garden Court. Once an indoor turnaround for horse-drawn carriages, the space has been transformed into the hotel’s pièce de résistance, a five-story atrium filled with live foliage and topped with a nearly 70,000-pane stained glass ceiling. It’s here that society events like San Francisco’s Cotillion Debutante Ball and countless weddings take place each year. But the Court is also home to the city’s best Sunday brunch, a $75-a-plate affair (would you expect anything less?) with everything from sushi to waffles to oysters on the half shell, and live jazz to boot. Make a note to come back.

While it’s easy to picture mustachioed gents wooing corseted dames in secluded corners, the opulence here doesn’t tell the whole tale; it’s the hotel’s long and storied history that cements the Palace’s legendary status. Built in 1875, it was touted as the world’s largest hotel, the height of 19th-century luxury, with bathrooms and air conditioning in every room—a rarity—and a telegraph machine on each floor. Although the telegraphs have been replaced by wireless Internet and the bathrooms are upgraded with sleek marble countertops, the hotel retains much of its Victorian charm—from the lobby’s throne-like chairs to the old-fashioned locks on guest-room doors, which have been slyly retrofitted to accommodate modern key cards.

The convergence of past and present is everywhere you look—and it works. While fresh coats of paint and updated decor (not to mention the so-this-century fitness center and indoor pool) keep the place worthy of its Starwood Luxury designation, designers have not only managed to nod to the past; they’ve embraced it to the point that historical accuracy dictates modern comforts. Take the guest rooms: The hotel’s original 750 rooms have been converted into 553 rooms, including 34 spacious multi-room suites. No two are identical, with layouts, shapes and sizes varying according to the whim of the architecture.

Mine was a corner suite with a bedroom boasting a cozy king-size bed and a separate living room with a large desk, a comfortable couch, and an Art Deco sideboard housing a Keurig coffee machine. The best feature was the large, wide windows looking out over bustling Market Street.

One evening, coffee in hand, I perched on the bench-like sill and watched the sidewalk activity from above, picturing fine men in top hats and women in silk and chiffon. In the quiet of the moment, with the backdrop of this palatial piece of living history, it felt right to imagine myself as part of it, a traveler from a more sophisticated time, when extravagance and elegance existed just for their own sake.

But just as easily as I was transported, I was brought back to reality. “I want a burrito,” chirped my husband from the couch, breaking the silence. “Want to get dinner?”

“Sure,” I said, “but let me change into jeans first.” This is the 21st century, after all. –Emily Leaman

The St. Regis: Manhattan’s High Society

The St. Regis Hotel in New York City
From $1,045 per night | 2 East 55th Street, New York | 212-753-4500

On a recent Friday afternoon, I found myself tucked into a cozy velvet love seat in the Astor Court at the St. Regis. I was there for tea, the idea of which seemed delightfully quaint and Kate Middleton-esque. I glanced around the room, tactfully avoiding the stare of my boyfriend, who’d had something much different in mind when he accepted my admittedly vague invitation for a quick midday drink.

This is what being inside a Fabergé egg must feel like, I thought to myself. The room was a cocoon of extravagance: high, church-like ceilings and columns; glittering gold moldings; perfectly pressed white tablecloths beneath every place setting. “Moms love to bring their little girls here for tea during the holidays,” Jessica, a member of the hotel staff who’d arranged our tea, noted conspiratorially. I envisioned Chanel-suited moms sitting across from their taffeta-skirted girls, splashing sugar cubes into Limoges china teacups before setting out for Fifth Avenue shopping. Quite different from the tea parties I’d hosted as a child, during which I poured chocolate milk for a few Barbies. But John Jacob Astor—of the Astors, as close to American royalty as one can get—surely had this level of glamour in mind when he built the hotel in 1904, as an intimate Beaux Arts refuge for members of New York’s upper crust.

The electric, buzzing city just outside the St. Regis feels worlds away; here in the hotel’s gilded halls, things are muted, hushed as if not to disturb a single crystal teardrop of the grand Waterford chandeliers that sparkle overhead. Tuxedoed butlers stand poised and ready to jolt to service at the mere lift of a guest’s eyebrow; they silently sweep in and out of guest rooms through separate service doors, leaving in their wake tidied suites, pressed suits (you’ll wear these to dinner at Alain Ducasse’s Adour restaurant inside the hotel) and—at your stay’s end—immaculately packed suitcases. With a smile, I imagine an unfazed butler ferrying plates of food to the room of Salvador Dalí, who wintered at the hotel … with his pet ocelot. Here, in this plush jewel box of luxury, with all needs attended to, you find your mind is free to wander to things like this.

At the end of afternoon tea, our minds were fixed on only one thought: how we’d ever regain our appetites in time for our 7 p.m. dinner reservation at Adour, located just beyond the St. Regis’s quiet reading room. Tea was decadent (as we probably should have gathered from the $55 price tag)—a castle of dainty fruit tarts and plump, crumbly scones teetered on a tall silver dessert tray; plates of stuffed finger sandwiches were lined up like soldiers on white porcelain dishes. My boyfriend’s eyes brightened as he tasted a rectangular slab of rye bread topped with hot pink slices of smoked salmon; it appeared he’d gained a whole new respect for tea sandwiches. (Of course, we did still manage to indulge at dinner; the duck à l’orange was too tempting to pass up.)

And me? I developed a new fascination with the grandeur of Old New York—the grandeur I suppose I was trying in some small way to conjure in my childhood playroom, serving Yoo-hoo to dolls.

After dinner, we sat in the hotel’s King Cole Bar and sipped cocktails—a classic gin-and-tonic for me; for him, the Red Snapper, a meaty variation on the Bloody Mary (a cocktail many believe made its first U.S. appearance in this very lounge). We talked of returning home and all we had to do once we got there: feed the cats, do the laundry, unload the dishwasher. But for now, we were a part of New York’s Gilded Age, a time when American royalty like the Astors, Rockefellers and Carnegies ruled the city. And we headed back to our beautiful suite, put thoughts of the mundane to the backs of our minds, and indulged just a little while longer. –Erica Palan

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