In 1897, on a beachy enclave in Clearwater, Florida, railroad tycoon Henry Plant finished construction on a glorious new hotel. Throughout the next 100-plus years, Plant’s magnificent resort would house a bicycle track for horse racing, two museums for stuffed fish and animals, and its own fire department, post office and police force. A waltz would be named after it. Countless additions and renovations would be undertaken. Olympic swimming trials would take place in its hand-tiled pool.
It would host Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, as well as the Studebakers, the DuPonts and the Vanderbilts, in the early 1900s; servicemen during World War II; the Duke of Windsor in the ‘40s; and Hulk Hogan and Margaret Thatcher in the ‘90s.
The hotel? None other than the Belleview Biltmore. Though the horse track, fire department, stuffed fish and a few other amenities are no longer, the “White Queen of the Gulf” still stands.
The Biltmore’s status as a hub of history in Clearwater is secured with a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, but this building is far from outdated. The full-service resort includes the Belleview Biltmore Spa, the Belleview Biltmore Beach Club on Sand Key, a tennis club and an 18-hole PGA Donald Ross-designed golf course that began life as a nine-hole golf course designed and constructed by Launcelot Cressy Servos. Babe Ruth was a regular and photos in the hotel show Ruth with his golf buddies in the 1930s, including the legendary Gene Sarazen.
Staying at the Belleview Biltmore was a treat. I was given a Sun Parlor Room, which features a separate parlor with a wall of windows overlooking the gardens. Period details such as high ceilings, hardwood floors and transom French doors leading into the bedroom from the parlor and hall added historic touches to the spacious suite, which included a full, modern bathroom.
The only drawback to the room was that someone in the hotel was apparently allowing their kids to run wild in the hallway above my room. This went on for a good few minutes before it thankfully stopped and all was peaceful again. Really, a girl needs her beauty sleep! (Normally, I wouldn't mention this, but this detail becomes important later . . . )
Grandeur and relaxation are the bywords at the Belleview Biltmore. On the day I’d booked a spa appointment, I slipped into the spa robe I found in my room and made my way out to the verandah nearest my room with a cup of complimentary coffee (available to guests each morning at Maisie’s Ice Cream Parlor).
With my coffee and a book, I stole a half hour to relax in a rocking chair and enjoy the garden views before taking a short stroll to the spa complex. Here, a wall of ten French doors led into a large enclosure housing the art-deco tiled indoor pool, complete with elegant columns, potted palms and lounge chairs. There was also a fully equipped exercise room and full service salon on-site.
After a fabulous massage and a relaxing swim in the pool, I dined at the Cabana Grill the property’s private beach club located about 10 minutes away on Sand Key. With a wall of windows giving views to the beach and the Gulf of Mexico beyond, it’s the ultimate location for a romantic, candlelit dinner. The Cabana offers a fusion of seafood, steaks, French and American cuisine. Their prime rib is out of this world. There’s also live entertainment on the weekends and a daily happy hour.
Sated and ready for some action, I returned to the hotel to experience their Investigative Ghost Tour, which takes place every Saturday night at 8:00 and 10:15 p.m., and is conducted by the staff at Orlando Ghost Tours.
Talk about a unique nightlife experience! It seems that ghostly encounters are interlaced with the history of the Belleview Biltmore and the tour is designed to help visitors explore a side of the property of which few are aware. This is a working ghost tour, meaning that participants are given a working education in parapsychology, the science pertaining to the investigation of paranormal phenomena, as they walk through the grounds.
A dozen of us would-be ghost hunters met the tour leaders in the lobby before making our way out onto a secluded side porch. We were told of past sightings at the property and of several ghost stories, including one about the ghost of Maisie Plant, Henry Plant's daughter-in-law, who is said to haunt the Biltmore’s halls looking for her $1.2 million Cartier pearls.
Then there’s the tale of a grief-stricken bride and – get this – the story about the many spirits of children that haunt the property who can be heard by some guests running up and down the hallways. I kid you not! The hairs on the back of my neck went up on hearing this. Forget about goose bumps; I got full-blown ostrich bumps.
When I shared my experiences at having heard the kids running up and down the hallways the night before, I was chosen as one of the “lucky ones” to hold a device that measures phantasmal activity. It’s sort of a magnetic ghost detector with meter levels and lights that flash when they pick up spectral action.
Between you and me, I wasn’t feeling so lucky as we headed off to the “active” parts of the hotel, including the notorious areas on the fourth floor that are undergoing renovation and where ethereal sprits are said to lurk.
Here, our guide unlocked a door separating this disused portion of the floor from guest rooms still in use. The door creaked open and an eerie hush fell over us all as we explored rooms. Wall and floor boards were pried away in places. Cast-off furniture, suitcases and other bric-a-brac of bygone eras cast menacing shadows as we made our way through the rabbit warren of dark rooms via the light of flashlight beams.
No one spoke except to ask their neighbors, “Do you feel anything?” Thank goodness the universal answer was “no” or I would have had to book into the hotel’s salon next day for a dye job. No kidding, this was spooky with a capital S.
The last stop on the tour was the guest room next to mine, where the ghost of a little boy has often reportedly been seen sitting on the bed. This room joined mine through a connecting door (which, once back in my room, I wasted no time in making sure was locked). Luckily, I slept that night and neither saw nor heard a thing.
With all of its period charm and inherent character, it’s difficult to conceive that the Belleview Biltmore was once threatened with demolition. The "White Queen of the Gulf" first faced extinction in November 2004, prompting supporters to rally to save the 111-year-old landmark through media relations, petitions, legal maneuvering and political wrangling. In 2005, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the Belleview as one of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places and guaranteed its survival.
The Belleview Biltmore will be closing on May 31, 2009 for a complete remodel, which is expected to take three years to complete. I have been assured that the lead architect was chosen for his experience in sympathetically restoring historic properties. The Belleview Biltmore will retain many of its charming features including the many porches, period windows and doors, and quirky features such as the telephone booths that look more like small rooms. The large lobby will be brought back to its wood-paneled, 19th century splendor.