“I saw it first! There it is!”My four-year-old daughter is beside herself with excitement and lording her success over her older brother. “I see the pink castle! I saw it before brother!” Sure enough, she’s right. We are on the causeway just after the main span of the Skyway Bridge headed north. There in the distance, out the windows on the left side of the car, are the pink turrets of the iconic Don CeSar. My daughter has only recently discovered unicorns and princesses, and our imminent arrival at what she and many others call “the pink castle” is almost more than she can bear. The approach is part of the package at the Don CeSar, one bridge after another bringing the hotel in and out of view. That first sighting from the Skyway causeway hints at future sightings—the next being sudden arrival of the shockingly distinctive shape straight ahead as we pass over the Pinellas Bayway. The Bayway bridge deposits us on St Pete Beach's famed Gulf Boulevard, and for a moment the hotel disappears due to a bend in the road, before it looms up, filling the sunny sky. We aren’t there yet. A final vaulting pedestrian and automobile bridge carries guests, in their cars, from the hotel parking lot over Gulf Boulevard, where the apex of the bridge ends at the entrance to the resort. Attendants appear, like royal footmen, and they open the painted beautiful doors and whisk our whole family past a pair of regal lion statues. Just getting to the Don CeSar is the vacation equivalent of starting a story with “Once upon a time.”

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The Don CeSar offers everything you might expect from a fine Florida beach resort and then sprinkles it with fairytale magic to enliven the visitor’s experience. The effect is especially potent for a visiting family with younger members. The rooms are lovely, almost dainty. Exploring, I meet Valerie, a retired hotel professional and Swiss citizen. She is on a whirlwind tour of Florida and has just relocated from the Ritz-Carlton: Naples and, before that, a luxury hotel on Miami Beach. Valerie was surprised to find the rooms smaller than those being newly built by the major brands. She quickly realized however that the uniqueness of the rooms and spaces was an asset. “The more I learn about the history of the hotel, the more I love it here,” she says. “It is special in a way that a new hotel cannot match.”

Valerie is right; the Don CeSar has an exceptional story that weaves in and out of history as if one were taking a holiday in a James Michener novel. Originally built by Mr. Thomas Rowe in the 1920s, the hotel was midway finished when the Florida land boom collapsed. Despite this setback, the hotel opened and was successful even through the Great Depression. World War II arrived, driving much of the tourism industry into insolvency, and the once glamorous institution passed into the hands of the U.S. Government.

The Army repurposed the hotel to be used as a sub-base hospital, and convalescent respite for airmen, shell-shocked and damaged. One can imagine the veterans returning from the hellscape of a bombed-out Europe, and letting the horrors of war wash away in the green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And then, the path of the hotel changed again. The veterans faded away like a transition in a Ken Burns documentary, only to be replaced by bureaucrats shuffling papers. The decorative flourishes now adorned a federal office building. It’s hard to imagine something more incongruous than dry government staff manning this majestic structure. Then, a lack of commitment to maintenance meant that the bureaucrats were replaced. In came pigeons and vagrants as the structure was eventually shuttered.

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The story might have had its end there—bulldozers were circling like buzzards—had it not been for a committee of local citizens that lobbied for preservation. Perhaps the most unlikely of saviors was June Hurley Young, a community fixture. Mrs. Young was also known for appearing on the Tampa edition of the TV show for children, Romper Room, as Ms. June. A writer as well, she agitated through newspaper articles and organized efforts to save the wilting castle. With a breathtaking last-minute “Hail Mary”, the indefatigable Ms. June and the committee were able to encourage a visionary developer, Mr. William Bowman, Jr., to save the structure. Developers get a bad rap, but Mr. Bowman swooped in with less than a week to spare and kissed this sleeping beauty back to life.

Since that awakening in 1971, the Don CeSar has been a stalwart champion on the beaches of Clearwater, and it’s a real “rags-to-riches” tale. Now, after a 10 million dollar renovation in 2017, on top of a 7 million dollar renovation in 2011, the Don CeSar is one of the freshest and most spectacular historic hotel properties in America.

The rich history is lost on my daughter, but the glamor and romance of the fanciful and colorful interior are not. She runs, laughing, down the hallways and past the reception desk. 

“Where is the king of the castle?” she squeals.

By royal decree, the sun sets with the agate flamboyance of a thousand in-flight flamingos, and we enjoy it from the beachside sofa seating at The Sea Porch Restaurant. Grown-ups are happily warmed by custom cocktails including the 1944 Mai Tai, made with spiced rum from a local distillery and almond syrup, among other ingredients. The fine-dining kitchen of The Rowe House serves us outside, and everything is delicious perfection. The whole family enjoyed the Smoked Fish Spread so much that we ordered a second helping. I am sure that the Shrimp and Crab Chowder (New England-style) was good. The proof being that my voracious seven-year-old wolfed down the whole, generously portioned bowl before anyone else got to taste it. You can order any combination of both East Coast or West Coast Oysters, both are excellent, as are all the classic entrees including a delectable Bone-In Ribeye.

Despite the late hour, the Ultimate Chocolate Cake, which comes served in a mason jar, was a necessary indulgence. Decadent, but with a balanced sweetness, it rated eight thumbs-up from our family of four. There was no hidden “pea” under our mattresses, and the whole family slept soundly. Perhaps this is a benefit of the oh-so-solid construction techniques of a long-gone era, but not a single sound from our neighbors interrupted the night.

Morning brings sun, new adventures and breakfast! A welcome recently adopted staple at many Florida resorts is the gourmet evolution of Shrimp and Grits. The dish is perfected here with the addition of sausage, bacon and cheddar. Look for it under the name Dirty Grits. The kids are delighted with both the Cinnamon Monkey Bread in Toffee Sauce and the Sticky Buns with Marscapone (we ordered both!) and, a little bit more practically, both the Steel-Cut Oatmeal and the Healthy Choice Egg White Omelet with Asparagus balanced things out a bit. Adults will not go wrong with The Don’s Benedict, a signature item with jumbo lump crabmeat, heirloom tomatoes, and arugula.

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At breakfast, I make the acquaintance of another fellow guest, Liv Love, who turns out to be a YouTube celebrity with a life-celebrating channel under the moniker,@unbelievablyhuman. Love, both in person and online, is a happy, laughing tidal wave of energy. “I start every video with ‘Hi Lovers!’” she tells me. “I’m filled with wonder and wanderlust, and we love the Don. This is a perfect place to celebrate life!” I make a note so that when Love’s Don CeSar video goes live, I can find it.

The Clearwater Beach area offers opportunities for enjoyment for the whole family. Without traveling very far afield, there are multiple mini-golf courses nearby. A nice modern one run by the Smuggler’s Cove brand is just up the island, and almost right next door to the hotel is the wildly kitsch throwback called Polynesian Putter Mini-Golf. Step back in time to 1966 when the course was built, and take a postcard-worthy photo next to the preposterously wacky giant sculpted snake that stretches back and forth between the palm trees.

Back at the castle, parents and kids find paradise tailored to our different cravings. Excitement and distractions abound for young ones with the enthusiastic staff at the Camp CeSar Adventure Camp. Kids are welcome from 9am to noon (included in your room rates!) and optionally for lunch through to 4pm. On Fridays and Saturdays there is even a Kids Night Out from 6–10pm.

While the kids are enjoying movies, art projects, board games and ping pong, parents sneak away for peace, quiet and pampering. Lounging by either of the large pools or on the beach is spectacular, with alert staff ready to provide a beer, a daiquiri or a beach towel as you need them.

If you’ve planned ahead though, that respite from parenting will be spent at the Spa Oceana at the Don CeSar, enjoying a romantic couples massage complete with a luxurious soak in a two-person tub. Massage treatment options range from gentle to rewardingly brutal. The spa facilities offer his and hers steam rooms, his and hers hot tubs, and a private rooftop patio that you will visit after your treatment. Standing on the open deck of the spa-tower, wrapped in the warm coziness of a spa robe, and looking out over the entire property, with a view to the horizon and the busy pools and beach below, one thought comes to mind, “It’s good to be the king.”

Reunited with our kids, we explore food choices off-premises. Our pick is a tiny hole-in-the-wall named the Barracuda Deli Cafe, just north of the Don CeSar. A sign in the window proclaims that they offer “St. Pete’s Best Cuban” sandwich, and, despite the disbelief that such grandiose claims engender, it was, in fact, the best pressed Cuban I have ever had. Perfectly crunchy, crusty and buttery all at once, one eight-inch sandwich per person is more than enough for nearly any appetite. Order a classic Rice and Beans “Barracuda” Bowl with your choice of meats for the young ones.

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Later, back at the pool deck, we chatted with a mature lady who told me that the Don CeSar was a lifelong special place for her. She’d been coming since she was a child, and now as an adult, the trip was a bittersweet celebration of memories of her father, who had since passed. “It’s magical,” she told me, “I’m a little girl again here.” I wanted to ask more, but my own little girl interrupted us. With the innocence of youth, she pointed brazenly at a rotund man with a bushy black beard soaking his feet in the water. “Daddy, is he the king of this castle?” she asked. I had to admit he looked a lot like the fellow who had played the part of the “King of the Realm” the last time we attended a medieval faire, except this “Highness” was only wearing a pair of swim shorts.

“Yes, honey,” I replied, “I’m sure he’s the King of the Don CeSar, but don’t let anyone else know. He’s pretending to be a normal guest, hanging out by the pool.” “Oh!” she replied, eyes huge. The pools are large and not too deep, which makes them a playground for kids maybe six-years-old and up. A minor quibble for winter travel is that the pools are not heated. Perhaps this is only a concern for road-tripping Floridians, spoiled as we are by our bathtub-warm Gulf waters almost year-round. Our fellow swimmers included gaggles of both German and Midwesterner tourists, all of whom described the water as “perfect.” We native Floridians though spent our time in the large, comfortable scallop-shaped hot tub where we made more friends.

Antonio, a two-time Olympic athlete and personal sports coach from the Tampa area, only had eyes for the young lady with him, but he was patiently accommodating while my daughter demonstrated her ballet moves, and described our adventure of riding the elevator up to the ballrooms at the top of the hotel. Well worth doing, by the way, the views are amazing.

Before we headed off to the beach, His Majesty, now sprawled out on a lounge chair, was honored with a very regal curtsey. He smiled and waved, not sure what it was all about, but happy to entertain. Again and again, our comfortable camaraderie with other guests proved the Don CeSar to be a lovely place that attracts lovely people.

The beach out front offers soft sand and a gentle slope into the water with a nice long stretch of kid-friendly shallows. Our visit delivered animal-related adventures far beyond any expectations. A bald eagle flew over the towers turrets and headed inland. A fishing pelican crashed into the Gulf a dozen feet from my son. A dolphin mother and her calf swam by just offshore.

The whole family searched for seashells and discovered that the gorgeous orange conch shells in the breaking waves were still occupied. Florida Fighting Conch, each about the size of a plum, were easily plucked out of the surf. We collected a dozen of them in a puddle on the beach and watched them crawl about before returning them gently to the waters. One apparent “conch,” half-buried, gave me a terrific surprise. I stuck a finger under him to dislodge him from the wet sand. What came up was a full grown Speckled Swimming Crab, about seven inches across, flashing his claws wildly in the air while our startled family beat a noisy and hasty retreat. He was no danger to us, but the kids are still telling anyone who will listen about the “giant crab that scared daddy.” With each retelling the crab gets bigger, daddy’s terrified shriek gets more embarrassing and the kids laugh themselves to tears, which makes it a perfect vacation memory.

After the mutual shock wore off, the crustacean seemed patient with our curiosity, and for a while, we observed as he stood guard over a few spare inches of sloshing sand. Eventually, the colorful armored sea creature decided we were too meddlesome and headed for deeper waters. The kids mimicked his silly sideways movements and how he used his rear leg paddles to swim. The last we saw we was crankily waving his claws at us, the ocean equivalent of “get off my lawn.”

Checkout was easy, of course, but we learned a great tip. You can ask for an extended parking pass, perfect if you want to get a few extra hours in enjoying the beach and public areas. We had had enough sun, but there was one more treasure to be discovered. We packed and parked our car in the lot, and then crossed on foot, over the bridge to the front of the hotel. A flight of stairs lead us down to the floor level of the “pink castle” where, instead of a dungeon, we found Uncle Andy’s Ice Cream Parlor.

Waffle cones and heaping scoops of ice cream made on premises from local ingredients meant we left on a very happy, high note. The car was quiet and content as we finally headed home. The pink spires grew smaller in the rearview, but for a long time I could still see them beckoning. They promised that anytime we need a refill on our “happily ever after” we would know exactly where to find it.