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 Pink Palace on the Beach of St. Pete: 
The DonCeSar Beach Resort, St. Petersburg Beach, Florida

 

On the fifth floor of the Don CeSar Beach Resort where the walls are  painted strawberry-ice cream-pink, the King Charles Room is reserved for gala balls and Sunday brunches. But in the late 1920s and through the 30s, it was the Grand Ballroom, open every night for dining and dancing. Clarence Darrow, Lou Gehrig, even Al Capone were frequent guests. So were F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Elegantly dressed in formal attire, they would sail through the evenings, drinking champagne, dancing to songs like “The Way You Look Tonight,” and every so often, stepping out on the terrace to watch the moon rise over the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Ron MacDougall, Resort Host and Concierge - click to enlarge
Ron MacDougall, Resort Host and Concierge

“There are people who tell me they’ve seen the ghosts of the couple who epitomized the Jazz Age up here," says Ron MacDougall, Resort Host and Concierge at the historic St. Petersburg property. “What’s more, they are not the only spirits to have been spotted. I once escorted a group of clairvoyants through the hotel. They claimed to have found what they were looking for on the second, sixth, and seventh floors. But they insisted the strongest vibes were on the fifth floor. "

To date no spirit-sightings have been reported down on the first floor of the Don CeSar, the busy and bustling entrance level where people check in and out, dine at the Maritana Grille, look over the listings for events of the day, head out for a swim in one of the pools or to lounge beneath a cabana on the beach, or go shopping in the lower arcade, or get a massage in the Spa Oceana. Here the mood is up-tempo, pulsating and lively, what one would expect in a 21st-century tropical resort.

Except in the Lobby Bar, a high-ceilinged, wide and deep space off the entrance hall where the ambience is, as Ron put it, "something out of the Great Gatsby Era." Walls are painted the color of eggshells, ceiling fans spin lazily over a long mahogany bar, intimate conversation areas alongside a wall of windows are marked by potted palms and furnished with wicker settees, and doorways at the rear open to a maze of courts and gated, gardened walkways that descend to the pool complex and the pure white sands of St. Petersburg Beach beyond. In the center of a marble floor polished to a mirror-like sheen, stands a concert grand-sized piano. And on a starlit Florida evening, when the top is raised and a tuxedoed pianist is at the keyboard, it would come as no surprise to find Scott and Zelda dancing "Cheek to Cheek."

An appealing combination of setting and sensibility characterizes the nine-story pink stucco Mediterranean-style castle whose irregular lines, Moorish towers and turrets, Mudejar arches, and romantic bell towers all trimmed in white have made it a well-known, easily identifiable  landmark, spotted from miles away in the confluence of waterways, bridges and roads that cross the St. Petersburg area.

Arguably the premier resort on the Gulf of Mexico from the Florida Keys to the northeast corner of the Texas coast, it has more than seven miles of beachfront, an acclaimed seafood restaurant, an arcade of shops, an array of waterfront activities, access to golf and tennis courts, on-site entertainment, and a brand new spa. It also has a storied past. 

"There is so much history associated with 'The Don,'" Ron told us. It was a Sunday morning, and the de facto hotel historian, dressed to match the hotel in white jacket and pink tie, was showing us around. "It was the dream palace of Thomas Rowe who had made his fortune in Florida real estate," Ron said. "He bought 80 acres of land and built the hotel which he named after the lead character in his favorite opera 'Maritana.' It opened January 16, 1928 with dining and dancing in the Grand Ballroom and was an immediate and great success."

He continued, "The next year the Depression hit, and Rowe went bankrupt. But he worked it out by getting Jacob Ruppert to agree to house the New York  Yankees at the hotel while they were here for spring training. Sportswriters came down, celebrities came. That saved the Don."

We were walking towards the beach now dotted with bright blue cabanas. People had already staked out space on blue recliners along the two swimming pools, taking in the morning sun or seeking the shade under broad white umbrellas. Ron turned and looked back at the hotel fronted by a row of palms. "Rowe lived in the hotel," he said. "He died in his room in 1940. World War II began, and the Army bought the building and used it as a hospital for airmen; the penthouse became an operating theater. Once the war was over, the hotel became the property of the Veterans Administration. They stripped all the beautiful features and painted everything green.  After they moved out in 1969, the 'Pink Palace' stood vacant and abandoned. It was a ruined site, covered with graffiti, a candidate for demolition."

He continued, "But the community of St. Pete Beach would not let it die. Together with some former employees, they began a 'Save the Don' campaign and succeeded in finding a buyer who did just that. By 1973, restored and refreshed, it re-opened; the following year, it was admitted to the National Register of Historic American Places."

Since then, the Don CeSar has gone through several multi-million dollar renovations, the result being a hotel that bridges the demands of time, where the technological features, comforts, and facilities that define a modern luxury resort accommodate valuable architectural and design elements from a previous era. When modern needs clash with the goals of aesthetic preservation, creative decision making is required. Such was the case with Spa Oceana. Although there is a 1,600 square-foot Fitness Center on the ground level, in recent years, the need for a full service spa had become increasingly apparent. The question was where to put it? There was no room within the existing structure, and as a protected property, the exterior of the building could not be touched. The answer was found in building an entirely new pink and white stucco-clad structure alongside and almost, but not quite, touching a wing of the Pink Palace.

Although Spa Oceana opened in March 2008, from the outside, it looks like it was always there. Within, however, all is sleek, even minimalist, cool and contemporary with sixteen treatment rooms that face the dunes or beachfront and eternally blue waters of the Gulf -- a guarantee of instant serenity. There is a glamorous rooftop terrace with cabanas, lounging space, and endless vistas, comfortable lounges, locker and shower spaces, baths, steam rooms, even special rooms for couples engaging in dual massages, and a team of enthusiastic professionals practiced in providing the great range of massages, beauty treatments, body wraps, and styling services that have made Spa Oceana a highlight of the resort as well as a draw for local residents.

Pedicure Salon, Spa Oceana - click to enlarge
Pedicure Salon, Spa Oceana
Roof Terrace of Spa Oceana at dusk - click to enlarge
Roof Terrace of Spa Oceana at dusk
 

"The spa is a big attraction for people in a wedding party. They're down at the hotel for the weekend, as a rule, and part of the package often includes an afternoon of treatments, " said Cindy Lew. Tall and slender with long dark hair and a winning smile, Cindy, who had recently come on as director of marketing, had joined us for lunch at the aptly named Sea Porch Café where sitting in oversized wicker chairs upholstered in bold floral chintz and surrounded by large windows looking out to the pool area, we kept forgetting we were actually in an indoor space on the ground level of the hotel.

 

The confusion is part of the charm. "Last Valentine's Day we had seven weddings going on simultaneously," Cindy told us. "But it's such a big hotel, there are so many different places for ceremonies and receptions,  indoors and outdoors, one leading to another, you can have one event going on in one place and never know other events are going on someplace else. There are three full time wedding planners -- all notarized so they can perform the ceremonies themselves. And nearly all of the 400 wedding ceremonies held here each year are at sunset."

 

Cindy Lewis, Director of Marketing - click to enlarge
Cindy Lew, Director of Marketing
 The aptly named Sea Porch Café - click to enlarge
  The aptly named Sea Porch Café

The indoor-outdoor melding intensifies in the Maritana Grille, a well-known destination restaurant where the clientele is local as much as transient, Here the world is a study in blue. Walls are painted a shade of aqua marine, ceiling-high pillars are paneled with blue mirrors, and one gets the sense of being on a submarine level of an ocean liner. A sizeable aquarium cuts through the length of a long wall revealing a concourse on the other side. Diners become visible to strollers and vice versa, but they pay each other no mind being too entranced by jewel-like, salt-water tropical fish swimming around coral and plants of the deep while a three-foot-long eel, the color of fresh grass, slithers lazily across a rocky bottom.

All of which merge into a setting that befits a sophisticated, high-end dining room devoted to the culinary gifts of the sea all of which, save lobster, come from the waters around Florida. For us, dinner began appropriately with a delicate pan-seared sea scallop served over an Asian-style slaw of cabbage, shitake mushrooms and carrots in a sauce of sweet and soy reduction. We moved on to dry land for starters: a refreshing English pea soup with crudities made of fingerling potatoes and a cheese terrine where two medallions of herbed goat cheese, wrapped in a potato and heated, were  placed on a bed of micro-greens drizzled with a truffled vinaigrette. But for the main event, we returned to the Maritana theme with Maine lobster that came with three different pasta shells in a mixture of basil, herbs, leeks, micro greens and tomatoes -- an interesting and flavorful combo, and the signature (and excellent) dish of the Don's signature dining room: horseradish-crusted salmon served over lobster butter.

"It's been on the menu for fifteen years," our server said. "Whenever they've tried to take it off, customers demand its return."

Our last night at the Don found us up on the fifth floor with Ron once again. The sun had set but the sky was still light, and standing out on the terrace of the King Charles Room, he pointed out the lay of the land. "The region is protected," he said. "No high rise building is possible so there's always the open view of the beach."

We looked up to the north, down to the south. Streets in the distance were lined with small houses or condos, all part of the original 80 acres that Rowe had purchased more than 80 years ago. "Each street still bears the name he gave it, all for characters in the opera."

Outside the King Charles Room, Ron gestured towards a sizeable fountain centered in the foyer. Somehow we hadn't noticed it before. "Here's one last ghost story before you leave," he said. "When Thomas Rowe was a young man and studying in London, he met and fell in love with a young woman named Lucinda. Her parents objected to him so the couple would secretly meet at a fountain. Then one day Lucinda failed to appear. Her parents had found out about their liason and spirited her away.       

"From what I've been told, this fountain is an exact replica of the one in London. In life, the couple never met again. But every so often, someone will claim they've been seen together beside the fountain in the Don CeSar."

Moving towards the elevator, we turned back for a last look. For a moment it seemed . . . 

"I think everyone should experience this place," Ron added as the elevator door opened and we stepped inside. "We should value things that we have, hold on to them."

Don CeSar Beach Resort
A Loews Hotel
3400 Gulf Boulevard
St. Pete Beach, FL 33706

Phone: 727-360-1881
Web: http://wwwloewshotels.com

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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