Don CeSar – Love & Apparitions in Beautiful St Pete
By James Ross
There’s no mistaking the glamorous Don CeSar, a beautiful historic hotel in an unparalleled setting surrounded by swaying palms and the sugary sands of St Pete’s wonderful beach on the Gulf of Mexico. Instantly known as Florida’s Pink Castle when it opened back in 1928, this opulent resort has proudly stood as a beacon of style on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
If you love those grand old hotels, flush with history and full of stories, the Don CeSar in St Pete has everything: a fascinating history, a romantic love story, the rumour of ghosts, and a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous. The hotel’s celebrity guests have ranged from F Scott Fitzgerald, Clarence Darrow, Al Capone, Jerry Garcia, and Tom Petty, to every US President since Franklin D Roosevelt. In the 1940s, the whole New York Yankee baseball team took up residence during their annual spring camps.
It was born as a hotel during the Golden Age of Jazz in the roaring twenties, became an army hospital during the 1940s, and narrowly dodged the wrecking ball in the 1970s, before finally being restored to its former glory. Walking the magnificent halls of the majestic hotel I can almost imagine jazz music in the air, and Gatsby-like characters playing their part in a rarefied world of glamour and intrigue.
A building’s identity is not characterized solely by its architecture or construction, although this is certainly part of this hotel’s charm. The lofty ceilings and rich furnishings and the Don’s Mediterranean and Moorish architectural motifs are just a few of the alluring details of this 277-guestroom resort, and the hotel’s distinctive pink façade and lush tropical surroundings stand in inviting contrast set against the gulf’s aqua waters and blue skies.
The Don CeSar Love Story
The mastermind behind the Don CeSar was Thomas Rowe. When Rowe was a young man, he toured Europe, eager to see the world. On that worldly trip he met a beautiful raven-haired opera singer named Lucinda who was playing the lead on the London stage in a production of Maritana. Rowe fell in love – a love that would last his whole lifetime. He and Lucinda would meet secretively by a favourite fountain after her performances. After her final performance, the couple’s plan was to meet at their usual spot and run away together. Lucinda never came. Her parents had discovered their clandestine arrangement and whisked their daughter back to their home in Spain. Rowe would never see her again.
Heartbroken, Rowe travelled to the then remote St Petersburg Beach and built a tribute to his love, complete with a replica of their special fountain. He named the building the Don CeSar for the chivalrous hero in the opera Maritana. Eventually, he received word that Lucinda had passed away from an illness, but on her death bed she had written a message to Thomas: “Time is infinite. I wait for you by our fountain to share our timeless love.”
In 1940, Rowe passed away, but it is said that he never left his beloved Don CeSar. His apparition, dressed in his favourite white suit, has been spotted by many (though thankfully not by me), overseeing the hotel’s daily operations, smiling at incoming guests, and then disappearing. Joyfully, for those in favour of a haunting love-affair, Rowe’s ghost has also often been sighted in the company of a beautiful raven-haired woman, their hands lovingly clasped together.
Top Things to See and Do in St Pete
St Pete is a unique destination for more than just its hotel ghosts and romantic affairs. In fact, the city is charmingly eclectic, artsy, and bohemian, and St Pete’s diverse residents relish the fact that their city has two distinct sides to explore: the sugar sand beaches in the west, and a thriving downtown to the east that fronts a beautiful marina and is home to one of the most important art museums in the state.
The Salvador Dali Museum
Even though most of us visit the Sunshine State to celebrate the beaches, ocean, and sunshine, a visit to the Salvador Dali Museum is a must if you have an afternoon free in St Pete. The museum is a beautiful building, as artistically unique as the more than 2,000 works it houses by the Spanish master of surrealism, the largest collection of his works outside of Spain.
I sit in the museum’s coffee shop and marvel at the building’s architecture, the enormous glass bubble with over a thousand triangular pieces of glass and the concrete stairway that extends three stories high, looking like a strand of DNA. Dali was intrigued by DNA, and DNA molecules appeared in several of his paintings. You can stroll from the museum along pretty Beach Drive, with its banyan trees and a shaded park, lined with all manner of cafés, shops and bars.
The Urban Art Scene
In most cities, the alleys are the last place you’d expect to find world-class art. In St Pete, however, home-grown and internationally imported muralists have thoroughly staked their claim to the back walls of the urban buildings, raising the bar and completely redefining the very notion of street art. The St Pete Mural Tour takes you on a guided journey through the colourful streets, while a local artist guide describes the vibrant stories of the creators behind the murals. The walk takes your breath away as you come upon one mural masterpiece after another.
The Museum of Fine Arts
The first museum established in St Pete in 1965, the Museum of Fine Arts is home to a permanent collection of more than 20,000 objects spanning 5,000 years of human history. My visit coincides with the exhibit “Star Wars and the Power of Costume.” I am led on an intriguing journey into the Star Wars universe, as characters are brought to life through a dramatic presentation of more than 60 iconic outfits featured in the first seven films of the film series – from Queen Amidala’s lavish gowns to Darth Vader’s imposing black armour.
Where to Eat
Locale Market – This creation of celebrity Chef Michael Mina is a 20,000 sq ft marketplace featuring the freshest and finest artisanal foods in the area. On the first floor is a culinary hub with 11 kitchens, allowing guests to buy fresh products or freshly prepared meals. Upstairs is a sit-down restaurant, Farm Table Cucina. Try the enormous St Petersburger and wash it down with a craft beer (you’ll have more than 100 varieties to choose from).
Selene – Not far from the Don Cesar is the Selene, an upscale restaurant in St Pete Beach serving Mediterranean cuisine. (www.selenerestaurant.com)
Sea Porch Café – Enjoy fresh catch and local comfort food infused with coastal flavours while watching the sun sink into the Gulf of Mexico at the Don Cesar’s seaside dining spot.
Contributor James Ross is a travel writer and columnist, and author of the books Cottage Daze and Still in a Daze at the Cottage. He lives in Muskoka, Ontario, Canada.