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Gulf Coast history is on display at reborn Belleview Inn

The new entrance to the Belleview Inn, 300 feet from its original location. Photo Credit: Clifford Alejos
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Henry Plant, one of Florida's first hospitality pioneers, purchased and developed the Belleview Biltmore Hotel in 1897, just outside what would become the city of Clearwater. Plant cut down 500-year-old pine trees from his own land and built a sprawling resort as well as a golf course, the first in Florida, along his rail line.

Visitors came from all over the country to play a round, swim in the gulf waters and dance in a lavish ballroom lined with more than 80 stained-glass panes by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Plant even commissioned a waltz to be written especially for the hotel, played each night for revelers. The hotel grew to more than 300 rooms and was dubbed the "White Queen of the Gulf."

From looking at photographs and paintings of the historical hotel, one can imagine the incredible luxury that was enjoyed by those guests. Through the years, the Belleview Biltmore Hotel changed hands many times and played hosts to dozens of celebrities and dignitaries throughout the 20th century, including Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, Dick Clark, Billy Joel, Margaret Thatcher, and Presidents Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush.

But the hotel closed in 2009, with plans to renovate, shortly after I paid it a visit for a weekend getaway with my then-boyfriend, now my husband. We marveled at its vastness, and its still-opulent details. The hand-carved wood mouldings and cast-brass door handles. The Tiffany Ballroom was closed to the public, but we peeked in to take a few snaps of the famous stained glass, even though buckets were placed under many to catch leaks.

The renovation never materialized, and the hotel fell into such disrepair that it was slated for demolition. But in 2015, JMC Communities of St. Petersburg purchased the property. With an eye turned toward the historical nature of the buildings, they determined that most of the hotel was unsalvageable as a structure, outside of the main lobby and surrounding 35 guestrooms.

What took place between 2015 and December 2018, when those 35 rooms, plus the hotel's original lobby reopened as the Belleview Inn, was an engineering and architectural feat. Outside of salvaging as much of the building as possible, JMC Communities hoisted up the remaining structure and moved it 300 feet on hydraulic lifts, then, incredibly, turned the hotel's edifice 90 degrees to where it sits today.

Guests can now learn about the hotel's history and the process JMC Communities took to restore as much of the hotel's original opulence as possible during the hour-long History Tour, which takes place at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day, starting at the front desk. I highly recommend it.

There's plenty of the original hotel left for guests to enjoy. Each of the guestrooms features an original door from the 1897 construction, and the stunning floors are original throughout. Some of the original custom mouldings were restored, and the grand staircase is a prime spot for stunning bridal portraits or family photos. On the fourth floor, a section is cut out of the wall and covered with a glass pane to show the original transverse beams forming the structural skeleton -- extremely strong bones for this 122-year-old grande dame.

The Tiffany ballroom is now an event space off the lobby and is significantly smaller. Not all of the Tiffany glass was salvageable, so a local glass artisan was commissioned to remove the old panes and restore and repair 23 of the best ones. Those now they line the ceiling of the new Tiffany Room, and they are as stunning as ever. Across the hallway, the History Room is trimmed in mahogany and leather and is filled with artifacts from the hotel's history.

The guestrooms, which start at $179 per night, are gigantic and beautifully appointed. The decor throughout the hotel is modern and elegant, and the player piano under the sea-glass chandelier in the lobby plays Chopin and Debussy compositions. Throughout the hotel, historical photographs, blueprints and commissioned original paintings of the Belleview Biltmore's original glory hang as the sole art pieces.

There's a swimming pool outside, and guests can use the hotel's complimentary bicycles to pedal around the area, currently under construction as Belleview Place with luxury condos and townhouses for sale. Clearwater Beach is just across the causeway (on busy weekends, it can take 45 minutes to get across), and guests of the Belleview Inn can valet park at the hotel's sister property, Sandpearl Beach Resort, directly on the gulf.

Since the Belleview Inn doesn't have an on-site restaurant -- a small provisions shop called Maisie's sells snacks, coffee and charcuterie -- the Sandpearl's full-service restaurants are excellent. Make time for a five-star dinner at Caretta's. The restaurant features an award-winning wine list and a full menu of steaks, local seafood and inventive sushi rolls. The Surf 'n Turf roll is the most exciting, melding local lobster, seared beef tenderloin, asparagus, enoki mushrooms, truffle oil, eel sauce and savory fried onion.

While the Belleview Inn is just a fraction of the formerly enormous footprint, we could instantly sense a reverence for the hotel's historical implications. Henry Plant was instrumental in rebuilding the war-torn antebellum South, and with his contemporary, rail and hotel mogul Henry Flagler, created some of Florida's most beautiful and important properties. The Belleview Inn is the only hotel by Henry Plant still operating for its intended purpose, making a visit a must for anyone enamored by bygone beauty.

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