At hotels everywhere the sun shines, cabanas are more luxurious, high-tech—and numerous—than ever. Stephen Drucker examines the return of the poolside status symbol

Who is that?She can't possibly be 18. Look at the way she's wriggling out of those cutoffs. Could her bathing suit be any skimpier?And what is that piece of jewelry hanging from her navel?Do you think those diamonds are real?And what's the story with that older woman next to her?She just keeps staring at her. Omigod, she's smoking a cigar.

Everybody thinks I'm reading the New York Times, but I'm not. I am focused just above the page on the real news of the day, across the swimming pool, on Best Performance Before 11 a.m. by a Beverly Hills Hotel Guest. And if everything is working right, at this very moment, somebody across the pool is peering over a newspaper and taking a long analytical look at me: Is he Anybody?He looks familiar. That blonde with him must be six foot two. Doesn't she ever take off those sunglasses?Fabulous. He must be Somebody. I mean, he's in cabana No. 7.

By now every student of luxury hotels has noticed that in recent years the cabana—that icon of mid-century sophistication, like baked alaska—has been making a steady comeback. Perhaps it was the need for a little shade after all that sun damage. Perhaps it was time to redress the balance of poolside power. In any case those damp little changing cabins that have been with us since the Victorian era are multiplying rapidly and being upgraded considerably in terms of style and amenities.

The Phoenician first reminded American hoteliers what a cabana could be when it dug a mother-of-pearl pool in 1987 and lined its edge with chic tents the color of egg yolks; someone was clearly thinking Cap d'Antibes, not Scottsdale. Ian Schrager, building upon the swinger heritage of poolside life, exploited a different line of possibilities in 1994 at his Delano in South Beach, with the first of the new generation of MTV-model-posse poolside sex pits. Today it's hard to find a hotel in the sun that does not have cabanas competing to impress the traveler. Bottled water and a bowl of fruit are the minimum to expect. Many have fax machines, Internet service, and minibars. Some have full bathrooms. At Paris in Las Vegas, they're air-conditioned; at the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, they are arranged like the tiers at La Scala.

To the uninitiated, the world of the cabana is a complete mystery. Hotel guests rent them by the day, for as much as $500 in high season, as poolside or beachside extensions of their rooms. Swimming has very little to do with it. Cabanas afford space, shade, and a place to entertain, and confer the aura of Somebodyness that only money can buy. Businesspeople often hold court in them, as does the sort of person always ready to pay a little extra to separate himself from the crowd, no matter how rarefied the crowd.

In the beginning, cabana life can be intimidating; there are so many possible missteps. Showing up at an appropriate time and securing a good location; tipping the pool boy; having the right clothes, accessories, reading material; occupying yourself for hour after hour in the hot sun; feeling you are making a worthwhile contribution to the mise-en-scène—there is no school for such things. How many of us naturally have the body image and sense of entitlement so public a performance requires?But it's amazing how quickly you adapt, as I did recently at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Nowhere is the cabana as fully appreciated as it is in Beverly Hills, where relaxing by the pool is a blood sport. The Four Seasons Beverly Hills has seven lovely ones hovering politely in the background of its lively, easygoing pool scene. At the Peninsula Beverly Hills, 12 stately tents with misters and flat-screen televisions dominate a rooftop pool so intimate that everybody feels obliged to behave fairly well. For pool play at its most extreme, people have always gravitated to the much larger Beverly Hills Hotel pool, where the ghosts of the beautiful and the damned seem to be lying beside you on your green-striped chaise longue.

It is hard to imagine a more cunning design for a swimming pool. To approach it you must descend a flight of stairs; that is, you must make an entrance while everyone watches. It's the walk of a lifetime or the walk of death, depending on your perspective. You are greeted by the pool manager who, like the maître d' at Spago, pauses thoughtfully and proposes where you will be seated, which may or may not be what you had in mind. This is sometimes the beginning of a spirited negotiation. On one side of the pool, at no charge, are three rows of chaise longues, about 100 in all. On the other side, for $175 a day, there are 12 cabanas in the glamorous Hollywood Regency style, which may or may not already be reserved. Four decades ago you would have found starlets on one side and star makers on the other (and if the curtain to a cabana was closed, you could guess the rest). Not so much anymore, but there is still a distinct charge in the air: It's as if everybody in the first-class cabin on an airplane were forced to sit facing everybody in the economy cabin for the duration of an eight-hour flight.

A cabana reservation here is a guarantee of prime pool real estate, about 250 square feet of tented and outdoor space, in most cases at the water's edge. You get four chaises, an umbrella, a table for six, a ceiling fan, bottled water, fruit, ice, and a cordless phone; a TV and fax machine are yours for the asking. The most coveted cabanas, Nos. 5 through 8, are at the center of the pool; Nos. 6 and 7 are unimpeachable. Dodi Al Fayed was partial to No. 8. Jacqueline Susann was a regular in No. 9. People still talk about the day in the seventies when Elizabeth Taylor, whose blousy condition was causing too much loud comment, was quietly escorted to upstairs cabana No. 7—one of nine "upstairs cabanas" in the days when seclusion elevated your status. The Beatles used to like it up there. (Nobody wants privacy anymore; the old upstairs cabanas are now used for massages.) Yet not long ago Whitney Houston settled near the pool in No. 12, surrounded by her entourage. Why, in the tabloid age, would Whitney Houston make herself so visible?When you need a little attention, you just need it.

To fully enjoy a cabana, you have to get to know the pool boy, a character who, like the lifeguard and the tennis pro, theoretically lives for pleasure. Actually he works pretty hard, dragging around furniture, picking up dirty towels, managing egos, and spreading just enough information about who's who at the pool. Still, his most obvious job is to be attractive, and the Beverly Hills Hotel staff is clearly chosen for its bright eyes and tousled hair as well as its way with terry cloth. Svend Petersen, who came to the hotel in 1959, is the most famous pool boy in the world. Today he's called Hotel Ambassador; he waves, smiles a lot, shakes familiar hands that have grown liver-spotted, tells the new generation stories that start with phrases like "The first time I met Marilyn Monroe...," and generally advises his successor, Mark Jablonski, who has been in charge of the pool for two years. Svend is an international smoothie, in a Cary Grant studio-system way; Mark is a cool modern California guy, very HBO. His job is a little less cutthroat than it was in Svend's day, but people still do get crazy over where he seats them. "The big shots never reserve their cabana," Mark says with a smile. (Mark says everything with a smile.) "You're just expected to know when they're going to show up, and their cabana had better be available when they do."

So you like your cabana, and the pool boys have you in their sights; it's time to relax and enjoy the show. If the scene isn't quite what it was in the sixties, rest assured, on any warm day the characters at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool are plentiful. In the strong sunlight of southern California, everybody is a character.

"You used to be able to tell what someone did by how he looked," Svend says. "If the guy had a belly and a cigar and something tucked under his arm, you knew he was a producer. Today you never know who anybody is." After a while, however, you begin to recognize certain types. There are the old-timers: men who look like Walter Matthau, in gold chains, with spouses who look like Ruth Gordon, in white newsboy caps and hoop earrings. There are carefully accessorized young women who extract copies of Bergdorf Blondes from Lulu Guinness bags. There are women trying to look like Beyoncé, or still trying after 40 years to look like Kim Novak, as well as graduates of the school of Aristotle Onassis, unthinkably tan, and getting darker by the minute. (Haven't they heard?) It's amazing how many men in Beverly Hills look like David Gest. And there's a constant supply of the Breasts and the Abs, trying to be noticed, pacing the pool like animals in a cage.

Each cabana reminded me of a diorama in a natural history museum. On one side I had a group of old-timers, huddled around a Vuitton Monogram Multicolore bag glistening in the sun. When the music mogul Clive Davis strolled by, one of them grabbed his hand, shook it enthusiastically, and reminded him—in a voice the entire pool could hear—how they knew each other, and she wouldn't let go. On my other side was a man who has come to cabana No. 6 every year since 1967. He taught me about the Swanky Frankie, a cheese dog completely wrapped in bacon—a poolside favorite in pre-heart-health days—that the courageous still order off the menu. A little farther down the pool was a group of Middle Eastern women in veils, watching the younger members of their party sunbathe. The Sopranos were having lunch in one cabana, and in another a group of young guys were talking about their reality TV show. In yet another an infant shared a chaise with a BlackBerry.

Everybody is on a cell phone at all times. Cell phones have virtually ended one of the great traditions of the Beverly Hills Hotel pool: being publicly and insistently paged, even when you're not there, to keep your name in circulation. (Sylvia Miles?You know, she'd be perfect for the part of...) But cell phones have also created new opportunities to get yourself noticed. People generally fall into two categories: The Pacers never sit down, and use hand gestures to make themselves the center of attention; the Sprawlers lie on their backs spread-eagle and let their booming voices do the work. Eavesdropping on their conversations can easily occupy an entire afternoon.

"Okay, I'm willing to go to seven million on the house."

"Yeah, I'm thinking about the Bentley."

"Has there been a movie this season that hasn't been too long?"

"Look, I can't talk now. I'm in the car." (No, he was applying sunblock to his shoulders.)

All of this compulsive dialing makes no sense, since in this part of Beverly Hills most cell phones don't work, or at least not for long. Svend enlightened me: "Just because somebody is on the phone doesn't mean there's anybody on the other end. People say things because they want to be heard saying them."

At the end of just one day in a cabana, it's amazing how many new things you have learned. For example: A pool boy can create shade anytime, anywhere. He can pocket a 20 without skipping a beat, like a pickpocket working in reverse. A surprising number of people in this world swim wearing sunglasses. There's a certain type of person who comes to the pool in late afternoon carrying serious shopping bags, then arranges them at the foot of his or her chaise longue for everybody to envy.

And for each question that has no answer—What makes a 65-year-old man think he can still pull off a racing Speedo?—you will take home a revelation: The woman smoking the cigar was the girl's mother.

STEPHEN DRUCKER is a contributing writer at Architectural Digest.

Officially, hotel staff members say tipping is at your discretion. But a cabana is a good place to practice the grand gesture. Unofficially, the word is $20 a day per cabana to the head pool boy, or pool manager, who shares tips with his assistants. If you're messy and demanding, more is due. Svend at the Beverly Hills Hotel believes in tipping at the end of a stay.

Varies with the local climate, but in Beverly Hills, never before 10 A.M. Between 10:30 and 11 is respectable; noon, if you want to make an entrance. Don't leave too early—sometimes there's a surge of new blood between 3 and 4 P.M. Weekends are busier than weekdays; summer and Oscar time are busiest of all; Mondays and Tuesdays are quietest. Lunchtime on a summer weekend is particularly fascinating.

A cabana pro wants a view, not privacy. The most sought-after cabanas have pool frontage, close to the center. People tend to dip and linger at the shallow end of a pool (actual swimming ruins your hair), so a cabana there has certain natural social advantages—but during summer and school vacations, you'd better like children.

The following resorts have some of the most coveted cabanas in the country—with everything from fully stocked mini-bars and butler service to flat-screen TV's and wireless high-speed Internet access.

Bacara Resort & Spa
SANTA BARBARA; 877/422-4245 OR 805/968-0100;; DOUBLES FROM $425; CABANAS FROM $95 PER DAY.

Beverly Hills Hotel
800/283-8885 OR 310/276-2251;; DOUBLES FROM $410; CABANAS FROM $175 PER DAY.

Boca Raton Resort & Club
BOCA RATON, FLORIDA; 800/327-0101 OR 561/447-3000;; DOUBLES FROM $190; CABANAS FROM $110 PER DAY.

The Breakers
PALM BEACH; 888/273-2537 OR 561/655-6611;; DOUBLES FROM $259; CABANAS FROM $85 PER DAY.

The Delano
MIAMI BEACH; 800/555-5000 OR 305/672-2000;; DOUBLES FROM $265; CABANAS FROM $300 PER DAY.

Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills
800/332-3442 OR 310/273-2222;; DOUBLES FROM $395; CABANAS FROM $75 PER DAY.

Lodge at Rancho Mirage

Lodge at Torrey Pines

Mandalay Bay
LAS VEGAS; 877/632-7800 OR 702/632-7777;; DOUBLES FROM $179; CABANAS FROM $150 PER DAY.

The Mirage
LAS VEGAS; 800/374-9000 OR 702/791-7111;; DOUBLES FROM $109; CABANAS FROM $200 PER DAY.

The Palms
LAS VEGAS; 866/725-6773 OR 702/942-7777;; DOUBLES FROM $89; CABANAS FROM $125 PER DAY.

Paris Las Vegas
888/266-5687 OR 702/946-7000;; DOUBLES FROM $129; CABANAS FROM $85 PER DAY.

Peninsula Beverly Hills
800/462-7899 OR 310/551-2888;; DOUBLES FROM $425; CABANAS FROM $200 PER DAY.

The Phoenician
SCOTTSDALE; 800/888-8234 OR 480/941-8200;; DOUBLES FROM $295; CABANAS FROM $85 PER DAY.

Ritz-Carlton, South Beach
800/241-3333 OR 786/276-4000;; DOUBLES FROM $199; CABANAS FROM $500 PER DAY.

St. Regis Los Angeles
877/787-3447 OR 310/277-6111;; DOUBLES FROM $379; CABANAS AT NO CHARGE.

St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa
DANA POINT, CALIFORNIA; 800/722-1543 OR 949/234-3200;; DOUBLES FROM $450; CABANAS FROM $150 PER DAY.

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