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: 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