Iconic charm and old-world hospitality at the Chesterfield Hotel in Palm Beach have attracted the rich and famous for years.

By Lisa Codianne Fowler

The minute you cross the bridge to Palm Beach you know you've entered another world, one of European-styled mansions, spotless palm-lined streets, long sandy beaches, and Worth Avenue.

The rich and famous live and play in this exclusive island city that oozes wealth, privilege and high-octane glamour.

Nestled in the heart of it all is The Chesterfield Hotel, a seemingly unassuming hotel on Cocoanut Row. Until you step inside, or rather, outside. The hotel entrance is a canopied archway leading to an outdoor English tea garden. That's what my husband called it. It looked remarkably like Paris to me. Stone walls, flowering shrubs and Tivoli-lit trees formed a romantic backdrop for umbrella-topped tables for two. Classical music followed us through the courtyard entrance to the lobby inside, which was filled with antique couches and chairs grouped for conversation, fresh flowers and plush oriental rugs; the very essence of a classic English manor.

The Chesterfield, in fact, was a favorite of Margaret Thatcher, and also Catherine DeNeuve, Faye Dunaway, and author Barbara Taylor Bradford, among many others. Lorenzo Lamas' son Fernando honeymooned here, and we just missed Rod Stewart, who apparently found love with the barmaid from The Chesterfield's world-famous Leopard Lounge, a restaurant and lounge with live entertainment. It's one of the hottest nightspots in Palm Beach.

Leopard is the operative word. Chesterfield founder and South African native Bea Tollman personally designed the lounge, guest rooms, Churchill's Cigar Room (with cushy leather couches, original Churchill paintings, collection of humidors and computer, printer and fax), the cozy conference room, elegant lobby and stately library. Even the elevators are carpeted in leopard design. If you study the X-rated ceiling in the lounge you'll spot the creature among the abstract Rubenesque nudes painted by an Italian artist in Sistine Chapel-style.

It's an interesting, unexpected décor that actually works. Our small but cheerful king room combined pink and green floral wallpaper borders with pink wall molding, color-coordinated striped window treatments and a bedspread print of jungle flora, leopards and giraffes, with plenty of large leopard pillows strewn about.

There are 41 deluxe and superior guest rooms, as well as 11 luxurious suites. All have marble bathrooms with imported English soaps, shampoos and bath gels.

Afternoons at The Chesterfield bring traditional English high tea, served by reservation in the lobby, cigar room, library, poolside, in your room, in the garden courtyard or, in short, wherever you choose. We went from high tea to happy hour in the Leopard Lounge, and recommend both, but not on the same day. Generous portions of sweet to salty delicacies (finger sandwiches, English scones and French pastries at high tea; bruschetta, brie, crudités and sausages at happy hour) will tempt you to skip dinner. But missing dinner at The Chesterfield would constitute a culinary crime as well as a forgone opportunity for a glittering, romantic adventure.

We dressed to the nines and showed up about 9 p.m., joining dapper men in jackets and bejeweled ladies sporting the latest designer fashions. We shared escargot in puff pastry followed by bouillabaisse, skipping dessert for a few turns on the dance floor and a late-night walk down Worth Avenue, just two blocks from the hotel.

Within 24 hours of our arrival, we had become Palm Beach socialites, or at least, pretended we were. Strangers on the street played along, as did the Chesterfield staff. They treated us like royalty, as they do all of their guests. It's no wonder this tiny gem is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Large, sprawling resorts are wonderful, but for pure romance, there's nothing like the intimacy of this pampering, luxury boutique hotel, where everybody knows your name, whether or not it's made recent headlines.

When you go:

Chesterfield Hotel
363 Cocoanut Row, Palm Beach, FL 33480
Phone: (561) 659-5800