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 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