Grand Hotels

The Don CeSar Recalls a Romantic Era

The "Pink Palace" is a wedding cake of a resort hotel that has towered over St. Petersburg Beach since 1928.

By Ilene Denton May 27, 2019 Published in the June 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Restored and painted its original pink, the Don CeSar overlooks St. Pete Beach. 

Quick: What do Mickey Mantle, Henry Kissinger, Harrison Ford and Mike and Frank from American Pickers have in common?

Like a Who’s Who of politicians, statesmen, actors, musicians and celebrities before and after, they’ve all set their suitcases down at the Don CeSar, that great pink wedding cake of a resort hotel that has towered over St. Petersburg Beach since 1928.

A fizzy Jazz Age confection that celebrated its 90th anniversary last year, the “Pink Palace” is a quick, easy getaway for Sarasotans; we waved at the Sunshine Skyway from our seventh-floor room looking south. The hotel is remarkably well kept, clean, bright and attractively furnished in beachy blues and greens. All 91-year-olds should look this good.

Early tourists on the steps of the Don CeSar, circa 1928.

The Don, as it’s affectionately called, was built by Boston real estate developer Thomas Rowe. He named his grand hotel after a character in his favorite opera, an obscure work by William Vincent Wallace called Maritana. (Maritana is also the name of the Don CeSar’s excellent fine-dining restaurant, but more on that later.) Rowe’s architect, Henry Dupont, threw in both Mediterranean and Moorish flourishes—arches, spires, curlicues, turrets, a clock tower, “whatever Thomas Rowe liked, a little bit of everything,” our history tour guide, Christina, told us. You can take the short history tour every afternoon at 2 p.m.

1928 was not the most auspicious year to open a grand resort, of course, with the Great Depression looming, but Rowe shrewdly struck a deal with the New York Yankees to make the Don CeSar their spring training home. (“He assured the owners that their players would have milk and steak every day,” our history tour guide told us.) Its national reputation was secured.

St. Pete Beach was a wilderness then, with no road or bridges to the mainland. Now, of course, it’s a thriving vacation community with souvenir shops and restaurants lining busy Gulf Boulevard. The Don CeSar is a serene and beautiful oasis from all that hubbub, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. Beyond the beach, two huge swimming pools and Spa Oceana there’s a full calendar of activities—everything from beach yoga to Zumba. On Friday and Saturday late afternoons, to summon the sunset, a poolside guitarist plays hits by the likes of Van Morrison and Johnny Cash; afterwards people move to the nearby beachside Rowe Bar for raw oysters and champagne.

One of the resort’s huge swimming pools.

For families with children 4 to 12, Camp CeSar provides half-day and full-day supervised activities, and evening programs like Star Gazers and Jam Night karaoke parties. Three ping-pong tables, a giant chess board and corn hole platforms are there for the playing, no matter your age.

The food is excellent—fish tacos and lobster rolls al fresco for lunch at the Rowe Bar; and for a dress-up dinner, imaginatively prepared New American seafood dishes in the sophisticated Maritana Grille. (Watching my husband devour a plate of stone crab claws was a theatrical event.) There are also frozen drinks and burgers to be had at the poolside Beachcomber Bar & Grill, a lovely breakfast buffet in the Sea Porch restaurant, and Uncle Andy’s self-explanatory ice cream parlor. 

The Don is a popular wedding spot, so popular that there were two the weekend we stayed. A small sunset wedding in a lovely garden near the pool (pink flowers, naturally) sent a gaggle of bathing-suited middle-school girls over to the fence to gawk.

It’s that kind of evocative romance that’s served the Pink Palace well as a creative muse. It’s been the backdrop for films like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, starring Robert DeNiro, and Health, directed by Robert Altman and starring Carol Burnett. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a frequent guest and wrote parts of his novels here.

The Don has weathered Mother Nature, economic ups and downs, and even war. (During World War II the hotel was purchased by the U.S. Army and served as a convalescent hospital for military airmen, and afterwards as administrative offices for the Veterans Administration, until it was vacated and left to ruin in 1969.) A national hotelier purchased the building in 1972 and supervised a dramatic year-long restoration back to its original hotel roots—including untold coats of bright, bubble-gum pink paint. The Don was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

Next year, the Don CeSar will undergo yet another facelift, with refreshed lobby and guest rooms. The grand old gal endures.

The Don CeSar  | 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Petersburg Beach, (727) 360-1881, | Rooms from $365; ask about Florida resident specials.| Drive time from downtown Sarasota: 50 minutes

Things to Do

Take a Spin

Hotel guests can check out a bicycle and helmet from the concierge station—first come, first served—and, with a handy neighborhood map that’s also provided, take a spin down to charming Pass-a-Grille public beach and pier, or around the Vina del Mar neighborhood of canal-front homes. One interesting stop along the way is the Gulf Coast Historical Museum in the Pass-a-Grille National Historic District; besides a nifty postcard collection and World War II exhibit, it displays several old Don CeSar artifacts.

Enjoy the Arts

Downtown St. Pete has become a mecca for art lovers, and it’s a quick drive from the hotel. Check out the Museum of Fine Arts (the weekend we visited, we caught an exhibit of paintings by Sarasota’s own Syd Solomon); the Salvador Dali Museum, with more than 2,100 works by the famed Surrealist artist; and the Chihuly Collection, a beautifully presented sampling of works by famed glass artist Dale Chihuly.,,

Eat Some Florida Seafood

Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish in nearby Pasadena is a piece of St. Pete history dating all the way back to 1951. Sit at one of its outdoor picnic tables and indulge in its famous smoked fish platter, with German potato salad and coleslaw.

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