By Virginia Anderson
October 19, 2003
ST. PETE BEACH
Although the hotel had been renovated and gussied up, it had a whiff of desperation. My friend and I had the place to ourselves.
But, oh my. What a difference a quarter of a century can make. The hotel, celebrating its 75th birthday this year, has aged beautifully.
Now its restaurant, the Maritana Grille, rates four diamonds. It serves appetizers such as leeks with coral butter and white truffle oil and entrees such as shrimp and vegetable fricassee and lobster butter, a world away from the plain-Jane Steak Diane and Caesar salad dinner I had there in my youth.
"The Don," as it is lovingly called by locals, loyalists and employees, now feels like "The Great Escape."
The pink castle on the beach -- it has fashioned its own shade to polish its stucco -- is fun, relaxing, indulgent and beautiful. It has seven restaurants, a luxurious spa and gym, boutiques, hair salon, sailing, yoga on the beach, a poolside bar between two gorgeous beachside pools and exquisite room service (prompt, with servers unfailingly attentive, handsome and self-deprecating).
The hotel has 277 rooms, two penthouses and 40 suites under one Spanish-tiled roof and, in a separate facility a half-mile away, 70 one-bedroom condominiums. A shuttle ferries guests to and from the condos, which appeal particularly to those with children.
During this recent visit, an exhausted friend and I treated ourselves, and collapsed, relaxed, swam, worked out, ate great food and shopped.
The Don CeSar was built as a dream of developer Thomas Rowe in 1928, a year before the stock-market crash. Rowe plowed $1.5 million into his dream.
Even with the crash, the Don survived until the '40s, when, alas, its famous pink facade (author Tom Robbins has described it as if it were mutated "from a radioactive conch patch") was painted green after the federal government bought it for $440,000.
The hotel briefly was a convalescent center (legend has it that ghosts from that era roam the Don at night). In 1945, the Don became a bureaucratic headquarters for the Veterans Administration.
After 24 years, the Don was grim and green and heading toward demolition. In need of $3 million in renovations, it was cast off by the government and boarded up. In 1972, the Don found salvation in developer William Bowman, who bought it for $460,000. He then put $6 million into renovations.
But by 1975, the Don had serious financial problems. The Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. acquired it in 1976, and its future was uncertain. No wonder the place seemed depressed during my first visit.
But I liked it even then, with its campy pink personality and rooms that alternately evoked Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby and Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane awaiting one of Tony Curtis' ship-to-shore phone calls in Some Like it Hot.
Only the service wasn't so hot, and neither was the food. I'm not sure what the place did between December 1976 and 1978, but it must have done something right. By 1978, the resort was making money again. And yet another renovation -- this one at a cost of $23 million -- was completed in summer 2002.
Vacation from real world
During this post-renovation trip, I loved it. The hotel's decor is more hip, its service far more solicitous, and the food inventive. This is all in addition, of course, to the views that are still beautiful and the Gulf that is still the Gulf.
And that spa! My friend and I laughed that there was enough buffing, polishing and massaging in that place to get us ready to meet the Wizard of Oz.
It must say something good about a place when it leaves you thinking of great movies at each new experience. Perhaps it was that wait staff. Were they acting, or do they really like working there? Whichever, the good service was in itself a vacation from the real world.
Our room, a double, was Gulf-view, not Gulf-front, but we could see and hear the Gulf. The butter-colored walls turned a Tuscan gold, taking on the shades of the Don pink, when we opened the curtains during daylight hours. With billowing white cotton draperies, the effect was perfect for mellow lounging.
The room had the typical appointments you would expect when paying a quarter of a thousand dollars for a night -- granite-topped vanity, computer hook-up, sheets with a thread count in excess of 300. On my second day there, a nap in that comfortable room trumped sitting beachside.
The hotel is a popular wedding site, sometimes with as many as four a day, and wedding parties in tuxes against the backdrop of all the pool- and beach-goers enhanced the Don's style for me -- always comfortable, even in a formal context, with lots of irony.
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