More Absolutely Florida

The Don CeSar -
called simply "the Don" by those in the know -
looks like something out of a fairy tale:
a big, ornate, candy-pink castle
that rises from the sugary sands of St. Pete Beach.

by G.K. Sharman

I have to tell you, this is one of the toughest stories I've ever had to write. Here I am sitting in my office, trying really hard to impart some information and insight about a colorful Florida landmark, The Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa.

Instead of working, though, I find myself drifting back to my visit there. Feeling powdery sand between my toes and bathtub-temp Gulf waves lapping at my ankles. Watching an orange sun slip past a flat green horizon. Stuffing myself silly on everything from a simple omelet to sushi to chocolate mousse. Enjoying the attentive care of the well-trained staff. Sighing as the hands of a skilled masseuse knead the stress out of my poor, overworked shoulders.

But I have to do this. It's my job. So I'll try to stay on track and tell you the facts about the resort and describe some of the amenities and ambiance. But if I wander off on a tangent, please bear with me. Or join me.
The Don Cesar Beach Resort and Spa

1400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach
Reservations: 800-282-1116

History and Ghosts
The four-star resort opened in 1928. It was the culmination of a dream for the man who built it and owned it until his death, and it has had something of a charmed existence. You don't have to know any of this, of course, to enjoy a stay at the venerable hotel. But a little background never hurts.

The pink palace was the brainchild of Thomas Rowe, real estate broker whose heart condition and asthma sent him south from Virginia for better weather. But he couldn't stop developing property. He dreamed of a great hotel by the Gulf. A determined romantic of Irish heritage, he finally got what he wanted - after three hard years of construction and a nearly 300 percent budget overage. He named his beloved hotel after his favorite light opera, Maritana. Don CeSar was the opera's hero, who miraculously survives death when the firing squad's guns misfire.

Now listed on the National Register, The Don is the only historic resort from the Florida keys to the tip of Texas. Guides give regular tours of the building.

The rich, famous and notorious of the '20s flocked to this new playground, which, at the time, sat on itsown nearly empty expanse of beach. Early guest books would read like a Who's Who of the era: Lou Gehrig stayed there, as did Clarence Darrow and even Al Capone. F. S
The Grand Ballroom, a dancing hot spot for the jazz-age elite, is still the place to hold a good party. Yes, for the serious-minded, it accommodates meetings too.
cott Fitzgerald was a frequent guest. He loved the place so much, he referred to it in many of his novels and once called it "a hotel in an island wilderness." He also considered it a good place to send Zelda, his frequently sloshed wife, to dry out.

Thomas Rowe died, World War II started and his wife couldn't keep the place going. During the war, the grand hotel became a convalescent center for soldiers. Later, it was used as Veterans Administration headquarters. The New York Yankees used it for a while as a Spring Training base. Finally, considered old, out of style and unusable, it was abandoned.

By the early 1960s and '70s, the place was practically an eyesore. Empty and boarded up, it was a place the local kids went to scrawl graffiti. In 1973, a local preservation group barely managed to save it from the wrecking ball.

The past is still a presence at The Don, and not just in the furnishin
A relaxing dip in the whirlpool is one of many pleasures in the spa and fitness center.
gs and ambiance. Rowe, for instance, can't quite seem to leave the place.

Many of the staff have seen him - his spirit, anyway - dressed in his trademark white suit and hat. He wanders the halls, especially during renovations. A spruce-up is in the works, so he may be due for another appearance any time now. Apparently he likes to keep tabs on the place, making sure that it looks good and that employees are taking proper care of the guests. He shows up in the bar sometimes too.

Some staffers will talk about it, some won't. If you find someone who'll talk, ask about the ghostly nurse, too, and the story about the bridal magazine photo shoot.

Creature comforts
Now for some nuts and bolts, or rather, bricks and mortar. The Don consists of more than 270 rooms. It's painted an exclusive shade of pink, 12,000 gallons of which are needed to cover the exterior. The job takes nine months.

The Grand Ballroom is a site for meetings and parties, while eight conference rooms, five outdoor waterside locations and seven boardrooms can be used for meetings. The fifth-floor conference
Rooms at the Don -- already comfy and luxurious -- will be getting a makeover soon.
level provides more than 15,000 square feet of function space, plus great views of the water.

Barely half a mile down the beach sits the Don's sister property, the Beach House Suites. It features one- and two-bedroom suites, each with a private balcony and a view of the Gulf, and a couple of conference rooms. All rooms have fully equipped kitchens. There's no restaurant on site, but there is a small market downstairs as well as a grocery delivery service.

Suite guests - which include families, groups, companies and even small conventions - are entitled to use any of the amenities at The Don. Those who prefer not to get their feet sandy walking to the pink palace can hop in the van that provides complimentary transportation between the two buildings.

Rooms and hallways at The Don are in the process of getting an $18 million facelift - that's about $55,000 a room, for those of you doing the math. The new look features furnishings with a brighter, tropical feel; updated wallpaper; two-line phones and high-speed internet hook-ups; and 80-channel TVs. New carpet, soft peach-toned lighting and air conditioning are planned for the
The Maritana is the resort's gourmet (but not stuffy) restaurant where you can dine surrounded by aquariums full of Florida sealife.
hallways. The hotel will be open during the renovations, which are expected to be completed in 2001.

All that may be very interesting, but what about the important stuff - the food. The Maritana Grille is the resort's award-winning signature restaurant. Zagat calls it "extraordinary"; AAA gives it four diamonds. Diners are surrounded by saltwater aquariums full of indigenous Florida fish. Dinner is Floribbean cuisine, fresh and festive. (Order the grouper with habanero sauce; trust me on this. And finish the meal with chocolate mousse.) The best seat in the house is at the chef's table, where you can dine back in the kitchen with Executive Chef Eric Neri and his cooking staff. Neri sees it as a chance to strut his stuff, preparing a special menu (vegetarian, vegan and other special diets on request) and pouring some of the restaurant's finest wines.

For more casual fare, there's the Sea Porch Café, a white wicker sort of place specializing in fresh seafood and made-to-order omelets on the breakfast buffet, and the Beachcomber Grill, for burgers by the beach or pool. Sunday brunch is served in the King Charles Ballroom, which combined
more than 180 gourmet selections, including made-to-order crepes and smoked salmon, with a panoramic view of the Gulf.

Here's the other important thing you need to know: the spa is on the bottom level and a massage or treatment is mandatory. Well, not really, but they feel great. The spa offers several varieties of massage, seaweed body wraps, exfoliating scrubs and thalassotherapy treatments (which use products from the sea). You can also work out in the exercise room, get a fitness assessment, personal training and nutritional consultation

More than 300 couples a year find the Don the perfect place for that ultimate storybook wedding.
I do! I do!
The Don is such an elegant, romantic setting, it's no wonder that more than 300 couples a year choose it as the place to tie the knot. It even kind of looks like a big pink wedding cake. Ceremonies range from intimate gatherings to 1,000-guest extravaganzas, from formal affairs featuring white ties and tuxes and a bridal train that sweeps dramatically down the regal staircase, to casual vows exchanged while ankle-deep in the Gulf.

Happy couples can do their own thing or let The Don take care of details such as videographers, bands, flowers and cakes. There's even a notary on staff who presides over many of the smaller nuptials. They'll help you get the marriage license or arrange a hot-air balloon ride at sunset. And tell your family and friends that the gift you want is a massage and an herbal wrap in the resort's spa to ease the pre-wedding jitters.

A few favorite tales from recent years: a Scottish wedding with bagpipes, kilts and woolly socks; a Tex-Mex fiesta featuring steak and line dancing; a traditional Persian Muslin ceremony; butterfly releases at receptions; and barefoot weddings in the sand.

Local brides and grooms also choose the hotel for receptions. After the festivities - wink, wink! - The Don serves as an idyllic spot for a honeymoon...or an anniversary...or any sort of romantic getaway.

Other activities
You could spend your entire vacation at The Don (or the Beach House Suites) and never leave the resort, except maybe to stroll on the beach. Or you could go deep-sea fishing, play golf at the Isla del Sol course or take a dolphin-watch or sunset sail.

Another possibility: downtown St. Pete. Check out the pier, a local landmark with boat docks, fishing areas and souvenir shops; the St. Pete museum of History; Sunken Gardens, a collection of more than 50,000 tropical plants; the Florida Holocaust Museum; and Florida International Museum, which hosts traveling and international exhibitions. A little farther along is the Salvador Dali Museum, which contains the world's most extensive private collection of works by the Spanish master. For more about St. Peteersburg and nearby Tampa, click here.

No matter where you go, be sure to return to the hotel in time for a stroll along the beach before dinner. Enjoy the slower pace. Feel the sun on your shoulder and the sand between your toes.

Ah, I feel another daydream coming on.