At 90, St. Pete's Don CeSar is aging gracefully

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The unmistakable facade of the Don CeSar, which opened in 1928.
The unmistakable facade of the Don CeSar, which opened in 1928. Photo Credit: Clifford Alejos

Since its opening in 1928, the Don CeSar hotel on St. Pete Beach has been a lot of things: a sanitarium, a military hospital, a government office building. But through its varied lives, there's one thing it has always been: pink. That, along with its Gatsbyesque opulence and yesteryears charm, remains among its calling cards as it celebrates it 90th anniversary this year.

On a recent visit to stay at the hotel during this landmark anniversary year, I was struck by how "The Don" stays true to its roots while remaining at the top of everyone's St. Pete Beach stay wishlist. While parts of the hotel are showing their age and are due for renovations, which are currently underway, other areas have maintained their grand dame birthright, with some unexpected surprises along the way.

Architect and land developer Thomas Rowe designed and built the Don CeSar as a tribute to the opera singer Lucinda, with whom he started a courtship after seeing her in a production of the opera "Maritana." The hotel's name, Don CeSar, comes from the name of the main character in that production.

In its heyday, the Don CeSar hosted the who's-who of the times: Lou Gehrig; F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald; lawyer Clarence Darrow; even Al Capone. Musicians have flocked to perform in its ballrooms: Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday are among those who have headlined at the Don CeSar.

When World War II began, and Rowe's death led to his wife's reluctant inheritance of the hotel, the property was sold to the U.S. government to be used as a hospital for soldiers recovering from "shell shock." After that, it served many government functions until the 1969, when it was abandoned by the Veteran's Administration and was slated for demolition. But the building was saved in 1971 by a Friends of the Don committee that raised the funds to save and restore the hotel. It reopened in 1973 and the very next was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Clients who appreciate history should make a beeline for the ground floor after check-in, where several exhibitions highlight the hotel's fabled past. They'll find newspaper clippings, photographs and other memorabilia commemorating important milestones. Also found on the ground floor are several boutiques with adorable gifts, essentials for beach time and souvenirs from the Don. I particularly liked the $50 hand-painted Christmas ornament, which would make an elegant keepsake.

Don't leave the Don CeSar without a trip or two to Uncle Andy's Ice Cream Parlor, a pretty sweet history lesson in itself. It's now located at what used to be the main entrance to the hotel. Several elements of the hotel's original facade can be found right outside the main entry, and the mosaic tile floors of the ice cream parlor were original to the main hotel lobby. Now, Uncle Andy's serves up just about every variety of homestyle ice cream you can imagine -- get the key lime pie flavor if it's available -- scooped into banana splits or brownie sundaes, alongside croissants and Starbucks coffee.

Dinner at Maritana Grille is impeccable and not to be missed. The four-Diamond restaurant is beloved in the area and rates among the top tables in St. Pete Beach, where dive bars and fish shacks apropos of beach life overshadow most fine dining. I dined alongside Caesar, the green moray eel that has resided in one of the tanks along the restaurant's western wall for a decade. He provided good company for dinner as I enjoyed my seared foie gras atop savory brioche bread pudding; pan-fried hogfish; and flaming, deconstructed tiramisu, set alight with high-octane, caramel-flavored moonshine. Every dish presented by chef de cuisine Emily Ferrari was not only gorgeous but delicious.

While the Don is getting up there, management is doing everything it can to keep things fresh. Its sister property, the Beach House Suites, just completed a renovation of all interior public spaces. Multigenerational clients will want to check out this accommodation option, as suites are few at the main hotel. Guests of the Beach House Suites have access to all the amenities at the Don CeSar as well as a shuttle for easy access to all of them.

The hotel will also play host to it first Suncoast Songwriters Weekend, which will take place Sept. 28 and 29. Four concerts and nine songwriters, including Carrie Rodriquez, Wild Ponies and Radney Foster, will headline the event, which is being billed as a "summer camp for Americana music."

As I reclined in my beach lounger under a regal green, gold and white branded umbrella, overlooking the sugar sands of the Gulf coast, I took note of who might be enjoying the sunshine along with me. Is the Don CeSar still just a haven for the well-heeled, as it was in days gone by? Quite the contrary.

In front of me, a group of middle-age girlfriends, festooned in pink, sipped glasses of rose (they had obviously themed their getaway) and cackled happily while strategizing which cocktail to ask the handsome beach server for the next time he came 'round. To my right, a collection of bridesmaids worked on evening out their shoulder tans for their strapless gowns; I'd later watch them walk down the aisle in a courtyard adjacent to the pool deck. Behind me, a young couple with a bright-eyed baby not more than 6months old enjoyed what must have been their first vacation as a family of three.

The Don CeSar is not only everlasting in its iconic rose-colored beauty but in its appeal to all. With rates starting at $199 per night in the summer, its accessibility is perhaps its second-most attractive feature.

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