This Florida resort town is famous for many things, not least its hotels. Happily, the Big Three live up to their reputations.
Rich Franco

In a place where King Charles spaniels on Gucci leashes sip from chic sidewalk troughs known as dog bars, you can imagine how rarefied the hotels are. The island of Palm Beach offers 12 miles of seductive shoreline, more golf courses per capita than any county in the country, and an average annual temperature of 78 degrees. High season traditionally extends from December to April, but if you stay at any of the Big Three, as insiders call the following oceanfront resorts, Palm Beach is pretty swell any time of year.

The Breakers
The most illustrious hotel in Palm Beach (some say on the East Coast) is getting more than its usual share of local ink this year as it prepares to cross the finish line of a heroic, seven-year, $100 million renovation program. The last phase of work, claiming a full quarter of the budget, is perhaps the one that speaks most directly to guests' priorities, for it addresses the hotel's pools, outdoor lounging spaces, and poolside restaurants. (After all, you don't come to the Breakers — in an unrivaled heart-of-Palm Beach location — to sit in your room.)

With the opening this month of the jazzy new beach club and 20,000-square-foot spa, headachy confusion gives way to cool harmony, not to mention 50 percent more nodding-out space. Three new pools — including a four-lane, regulation lap pool — are the focus of as many zones, which will be crisply delineated by mature palms (with more than 3,000 trees representing 30 species, the Breakers is justly famous for its palms). Directly behind the central, main pool is the handsome Beach Club restaurant, whose swooping arcades, square towers, white stucco façade, and rounded terra-cotta roof tiles make dutiful reference to the splendid Italian Renaissance architecture of the adjacent 1926 hotel. The most strenuous decision you'll probably make during your stay is where to eat stone crab: in full sunlight; in the partially open, ocean-breeze-cooled dining room; or under the second-floor loggia, reached via a sweeping, extravagantly glamorous staircase. Of course, the only cabanas worth securing are the 10 freshly minted ones tucked away at the northern end of the complex.

My own stay at the Breakers began with a mood-crushing check-in clerk whose frosty ways, I hope, have since been melted by the Florida sun. Things brightened when the bellhop slipped on a smart pith helmet to deliver my bags, but I worry about the easy listening music on the radio when I entered my room. Located on a Flagler Club floor (a concierge level), the room itself had a bathroom clad in creamy Italian marble, walls the color of the inside of a seashell, an upholstered headboard with a shaped black frame picked out in gold, and empty glass bookshelves. The striped bed hangings were less than crisp, a reminder that even though the refurbishing of the hotel's 524 guest rooms and 48 suites was completed just four years ago, some are ready for attention. Still, for a potent mix of up-to-the-minute luxury and old-guard grandeur, only the Breakers will do.
1 S. County Rd.; 888/273-2537 or 561/655-6611, fax 561/655-3577; doubles from $240.

Four Seasons Resort
Unless you're a repeat customer with a good memory, there's no point in rushing your arrival at the Four Seasons. The sign out front is so small you will almost certainly miss it. I did. Three times.

As it turns out, Palm Beach has strong ideas about things like public signage. Annoyance quickly gave way to appreciation, however. This island puts a premium on discretion and propriety. Bravely, many of the best restaurants still require men to wear jackets; the most conservative require jackets and ties.

The architect of the Four Seasons clearly knew that if you create a sense of arrival — accomplished here with a splashing fountain and a porte cochère composed of three rhyming arches — people are predisposed to love the hotel. The scene is animated by a phalanx of scrambling young attendants whose bristling good health seems wasted on the mere parking of rental cars. With a marble floor polished to such a high sheen it looks wet, the beige lobby feels somehow cool and warm at the same time. Exotic floral compositions, framed pieces of antique velvet that might have been cut from a doge's cloak, benches with gilded ball-and-claw feet — all spell Four Seasons.

Whereas only a handful of rooms at the Breakers have private terraces, balconies are common-issue throughout the Four Seasons. Making up for the hard-to-love popcorn-plaster ceilings in the 13 suites and 197 guest rooms (standards are 65 to 100 square feet larger in the main building than in the north and south wings) are dreamy hollandaise-yellow walls, Chinese-inspired desks wrapped in straw and dipped in shiny white paint, and lavishly printed comforters patterned after the whole-cloth quilts popular in the South in the last century. And since the Four Seasons understands that one of a grand hotel's top missions should be giving people what they do not strictly need, there are five-inch televisions in the bathrooms.

Last year the resort trained its sights on its alfresco assets. Just off the pool, the crazy-paved Atlantic Bar & Grill had been hiding its light under a bushel. Now the view to the sea has been opened up, there are twice as many seats, and sea grapes wear twinkling pin-light bracelets. Whoever thought of putting a bar at the bottom of the staircase leading to the beach should get a raise.

It sounds treasonous, but I actually preferred my simple, honest meal at the Grill to one at the Restaurant, the hotel's much-hyped dining room. Chef Hubert Des Marais's lily-gilding seems only to point up the fact that he ultimately has nothing much to say (his signature dish is a "crab stack" of Indian River blue crab, fried plantains, avocado — and caviar). On the other hand, as I climbed into my car after checkout, a parking attendant surprised me with a bottle of spring water — now that hit the spot.
2800 S. Ocean Blvd.; 800/432-2335 or 561/582-2800, fax 561/547-1374; doubles from $350.

The Ritz-Carlton
Though Merriam-Webster's indicates that the r in ritzy should not be capitalized, it's worth remembering that the root of the word is Ritz, as in Ritz hotels, which the dictionary says are "noted for their opulence."

One could do worse than to study the Palm Beach outpost of the Ritz-Carlton as a model of wealth and abundance. The hotel's decoration conspires to make guests feel they have the cultivation and social standing of Boston Brahmins. The well-ordered public spaces have mahogany wheel-back chairs, Persian carpets, Chippendale-style breakfronts, and elegantly arching orchids in blue-and-white porcelain cachepots. Stir in an original Gainsborough and a pair of 19th-century cloisonné incense burners and you have something very rich indeed. The hotel even offers a curator-commentated tour of its art collection, followed by proper afternoon tea with all the trimmings.

Naturally, not everyone can be persuaded to leave his chaise longue — especially if it claims a choice spot on the trim, grassy bank between beach and pool. Why the bank is so desirable a perch was finally made clear by a staff member: "Many Ritz-Carlton guests like to look at the water. And they like to hear the water. But they don't like the messiness of sand."

The 214 guest rooms and 56 suites are integral to the sumptuous, dignified atmosphere. Clear glass bedside lamps are etched with a Greek key pattern, gold frames ennoble sailing and botanical prints, and walls and ceilings are painted the most sophisticated shades of gray this side of a Wall Street boardroom. And what a delight to find not just the usual ho-hum nibbles but an assortment of useful goodies, like lip balm, breath freshener, aspirin, playing cards, and a disposable camera. A travel mug came in handy on a sunrise drive to Boca Raton.

The Ritz-Carlton likes to boast that it is the only hotel in Palm Beach where you walk through the front door and see the ocean; but no view could make up for the uniformly brown lettuce in a Cobb salad I ordered from room service. And, as a result of being shelved directly below the mini-bar's whirring motor, a bottle of Côtes-du-Rhône was too hot to handle, let alone drink.

Tired vegetables, wrongly stored wine — both are aberrations in an establishment where the crackerjack staff wears white jersey gloves, where the hall ashtrays are filled with sand that resembles caviar, and where people are employed to clean, one by one, the thousands of crystal beads on the hotel's many chandeliers. Stepping off the elevator, I asked a cleaner how long it would take to finish the chandelier he was working on.

"Oh, I'll be here all day," he said cheerfully.

Pretty ritzy.
100 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan; 800/241-3333 or 561/533-6000, fax 561/540-4949; doubles from $375.

ever wanted to spend the season in palm beach?
The Brazilian Court feels less like a hotel than a knowingly appointed private house. Think corkscrew topiaries, Lichtenstein lithographs, and more traditional, overstuffed upholstery than a Whitney estate decorated by Sister Parish. On a street so quiet you can hear the leaves drop, it's old Palm Beach at its most refined.
301 Australian Ave.; 800/552-0335 or 561/655-7740, fax 561/655-0801; doubles from $275.