Rate: $349 per night
We recommend: Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald fought like cats and dogs here, so please take someone you get along with
Guests at The Don CeSar on Florida’s Gulf of Mexico are greeted with a glass of champagne and given a white wristband with a pink sketch of the hotel that’s supposed to be worn in the pool area. I put it on immediately and felt like I’d joined an exclusive club. A sunburned man in a bathrobe the size of a grizzly bear stopped by the front desk to pick up a newspaper and a glass of bubbly and gave me a knowing nod as if we were part of some secret society. The Pink Palace, I quickly discovered, is more a state of mind than a mere hotel. As the song goes (about a different vacation spot), you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
The Sunshine State has more luxury resorts than Portland has hipsters with junky bicycles and extensive vinyl collections. But many of these places are hollow temples of vacationland boredom. You’ll know them by their insipid breakfast buffets of sad, microwave-shriveled sausages and lukewarm, soupy eggs—soulless boxes with as much regional character as a copy of USA Today or a meal at Olive Garden. The Don CeSar, a grand old pink dame that opened in St. Pete Beach in 1928, harkens back to an earlier era of travel, when flying was fun, children behaved themselves in public, and you felt like a movie star checking a into glamorous hotel like the Pink Palace.
Modeled after the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach and named after a character in the founder’s favorite opera, the place has a distinctively American story of boom, bust, and revitalization that’s told at a (free) daily walking tour around the grounds and in pictorial displays around the hotel. The Don was the brainchild of Thomas Rowe, an Irish immigrant who was orphaned at 4 and later made his money in Florida real estate. The Don was an immediate Jazz Age sensation, attracting the likes of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who stayed for a spell and argued the whole time. Lou Gehrig, F.D.R., Al Capone, and scores of other luminaries also swung through.
Rooms were all en-suite—a rarity at the time— and the hotel offered a popular baseball Spring Training special of $8 a night with all the milk you could drink. Rowe was estranged from his wife for 30 years and lived alone in the penthouse of the hotel. He drafted a will leaving the Don to its employees, but he never signed it, and his estranged wife, who never liked the place, inherited it when Rowe had a heart attack in the lobby one day in 1940. She sold it to the government in 1942 for a paltry $450,000, about a third of the $1.2 million it cost to build.
The army turned the Don into a convalescent center for veterans and, later, a VA administration building. But the cost of operating the cavernous old place became too great, and the government abandoned it in 1969. It was a neighborhood eyesore until local preservationists saved it from the wrecking ball in 1973; 11,000 gallons of pink paint and a whole lot of renovations later, the Don reopened as a luxury resort and has been going strong ever since. In recent years, the hotel has come full circle, once again attracted the kind of celebrities that walked the halls in the Roaring ’20s. Some of these include The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Harrison Ford, and dozens of others.
You might be thinking, All the history and ambience and free champagne sound great, but what about the beach? The Pink Palace occupies a magnificent location on a stretch of beach so plush and luxurious that it feels almost fake. It’s a wonderful beach for swimming; the Gulf waters are typically calm, and the soft sand and shallow waters make it an ideal beach for children of all ages.
My sons loved the Don as much as I did. When my older son, Leo, who is 12, first explored the grounds, which include two large pools, a Jacuzzi, foosball, billiards, and ping pong right next to the beach, he said, “Dad, thank you so much for taking us to this place!” The $40-per-day resort fee includes half-day passes at the kids club, which has fun activities like scavenger hunts on the beach; comfortable beach chairs and umbrellas; and parking, Wi-Fi, and newspapers delivered at your preferred times.
The hotel provides snazzy cruiser bikes for free. Take an early morning spin around the surrounding Pass-a-Grille neighborhood, which is full of charming homes that date to the early 20th century, when tourism first took off in the area. The name comes from the French Passe aux Grilleurs—passageway of the grillers—because fisherman cooked their catches at this waterway, where Boca Ciega Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico. The Don is located on a very narrow peninsula that’s ideal for watching both sunrise and sunset from opposite sides of a two-block spit of land. You might see dolphins playing in the Gulf waters, and the sunsets from the beach are pure magic.
There are nice little touches all over the place—like free ice water and sunscreen at the pool, and plenty of tables and comfy sofas in the pool area for lounging or getting a little work done. The guest rooms are very nicely remodeled but aren’t huge, given the historic nature of the property. You’ll want to steal the excellent-quality in-room toiletries, but alas, they are in large eco-friendly bottles rather than itchy-fingers-friendly small ones. The beds and linens are heavenly, but try not to sleep in, because aside from the beach, you’ve also got the beautiful and interesting city of St. Petersburg 15 minutes away, plus Busch Gardens (a must for families) only 45 minutes away.
The Don is the sort of place where you might come to relax or escape the winter doldrums. You can walk for miles up and down the beach, and there’s a calming effect to hearing the gentle waves lapping at your feet. If you’re still stressed out after a visit to the Don, then I would hate to be paying your therapy bills.
ACE THIS TRIP
Request: A room with a Gulf view. And wherever you stay, check out the view from the North Terrace on the fifth floor.
Splurge: For one of the insanely cushy, front-row sunbeds on the beach.
Tip: Make sure you linger after the sun sets, because the colors keep getting better.