Florida's Grand Dames

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Florida's sands, sun and laid-back lifestyle have attracted hoteliers for ages. These storied hotels of yesteryear, all still welcoming guests, take modern-day visitors on an Otis elevator ride back in time.

When it comes to resorts, age and beauty coexist happily. Intricate handcrafted architectural detail, rich history and nonstandard everything are central to the charm of Florida’s oldest resorts.

There are hundreds of historic hotels in the Sunshine State. Some were built at a time when guests arrived by carriage and skirts were never above the knee; others came during the age of the DC-3. As travel trends and fashions changed, so too did Florida’s hotels.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the inns were relatively small and wood frame. As America prospered, tycoons like Henry Flagler created great luxury palaces, built by men who were as bold as they were rich. Thankfully, many of these priceless live-in antiques are still around, though some now have modern necessities like electronic room keys and Wi-Fi.

If you look beyond the chandeliers, ornate frescoes and heart-pine floors of these historic hotels, you will find stories as colorful as their gardens.

Here are but a few of Florida’s great, early inns and resorts.

Through the Gilded Age

Ecotourism may be trendy, but nature has always been central to the appeal of one of the state’s oldest continuously operated hotels, the Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora, northwest of Orlando. Opened in 1883, when travel ads and handbills promoted the Sunshine State as “America’s last frontier,” the inn welcomed guests who arrived at this hotel by horse and stayed for weeks. They hunted game, fished and went searching for things that slither with a snake handler from nearby Silver Springs.

You can still sit on its veranda and enjoy a view of tranquil Lake Dora, or take a motorized boat tour from a local company of the Mount Dora canal, where you’ll see alligators, turtles and more birds than you can name. Its interior is Old-Florida romance, with floral fabrics, antiques and gourmet dining with a Dixie accent. Historic downtown Mount Dora is just around the corner, and the famed Renninger’s Antique and Art Center is a short drive away. (352-383-4101, www.lakeside-inn.com)

While the Lakeside Inn was luring adventurous nature lovers, tycoons Henry Flagler and Henry Plant were planning Florida’s largest resort empires and the railroad lines to reach them. Flagler envisioned making the state’s east coast a tourism mecca, and in the mid-1880s he began building and buying resorts including the Casa Monica Hotel in St. Augustine, which opened in 1888. The regal, castle-like hotel in northeast Florida has changed names and uses over the years (for a time it was the county courthouse), but it was refurbished and reopened as a four-star boutique hotel in 1999.

Velvet fabrics, handmade chandeliers and gilded furniture greet guests in the lobby. It’s easy to imagine living like a king (or sultan) in a suite high up in one of its Moorish towers. (904-827-1888, www.casamonica.com)

There’s an iconic resort lifestyle associated with The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach that has as much do with its rich heritage as it does with its magnificent design, premium amenities and revitalized surroundings. Another Flagler hotel, the 540-room Italian Renaissance resort has been a playground for discerning travelers for more than 100 years. The original Breakers opened in 1896 with halls so long that room service attendants were said to ride bicycles. It burned and was rebuilt twice, the final time in 1926 by Flagler’s heirs whose descendants today still retain ownership. The existing resort surpasses previous versions by remaining on a path of continuous enhancement (over $250 million invested over the past decade, and $20 million to be expended each year) to ensure it remains appealing to future generations. This historical site has a glamour that you can relive on one of the resort’s history tours or experience anew in dining, spa, sport (land and water) and shopping, . (561-655-6611, www.thebreakers.com)

Up north in Apalachicola, the wide porches of the Gibson Inn opened to visitors in 1907. Restored in 1985, the inn’s charms are evident from the outside, as its wraparound veranda carries even the most harried 21st-century traveler back to the Teddy Roosevelt era. (850-653-2191 or www.gibsoninn.com)

Industrialists including Henry du Pont and Henry Ford discovered remote Gasparilla Island near Charlotte Harbor on the state’s southwest Gulf Coast to be a great tarpon fishing destination. The luxurious Gasparilla Inn & Club opened in 1913 to accommodate those visitors. Complete with Pete Dye golf course, full-service marina, tennis courts and beach club/spa, the resort retains an Old-Florida feel. Jackets and dress shirts are still required for dinner in social season. (800-996-1913, www.the-gasparilla-inn.com)

A Stock Market Boom

The 1920s ushered in the golden years. Stocks were high, dresses were short and Florida grew some of its most regal hotels.

The decade kicked off with the opening of the lavish Casa Marina Resort, Waldorf Astoria Collection. Although Henry Flagler died in 1913, a year after his Overseas Railroad connected Key West to mainland Florida, his vision for tourism lived on through Florida East Coast Railroad, the railroad company he created. The company opened the Casa Marina in 1920, and it quickly became a popular haven for artists and writers including Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. A Key West icon, it also has the island’s largest private beach. (888-303-5717, www.casamarinaresort.com)

Although most of the era’s grand resorts were built along the coastline, The Terrace Hotel, which opened in 1924, capitalized on the Lakeland area’s growing agricultural dynasties and enticing real estate market. Opened before air-conditioning, the 10-story hotel was an anomaly in that it stayed open year ‘round. Guests sipped drinks in the downstairs lounge and peered through its French doors onto Lake Mirror. The downtown hotel later fell on hard times and wasn’t restored and reopened until 1998. Today it is a centerpiece of a vibrant downtown, surrounded by shops and restaurants. (863-688-0800, www.terracehotel.com)

On the east coast, Flagler continued to leave his mark, even if it was through a challenge to his rivals. Millionaire and consummate Kentucky gambler Cornel E.R. Bradley, nicknamed “Mr. Lucky,” first ran afoul of Flagler when he opened his casino, the Beach Club, prompting Flagler to write to Palm Beach city officials that there wasn’t enough room there for both of them. Bradley opened a posh hotel, now The Bradley Park Hotel, in 1924 to accommodate his gambling patrons. The Mediterranean revival resort, just two blocks from the beach, is a local historic landmark. (561-832-7050, www.bradleyparkhotel.com)

Before Hollywood, there was Jacksonville. Struggling to become the nucleus of the budding film industry, the city attracted such film stars as Jean Harlow and Charlie Chaplin, who stayed at the opulent Casa Marina Hotel & Restaurant. The beachfront resort built in 1925 is the only Jacksonville area hotel remaining from that star-struck era. Guests can see reflections of the carefully restored inn’s illustrious past in its cherry wood floors and Spanish-Mediterranean revival architectural details. (904-270-0025, www.casamarinahotel.com)

Like a scene from “The Great Gatsby,” the bubbly flowed and the ballroom floor was filled with women in flapper dresses and men in black tie when what is now the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club opened on the banks of Tampa Bay in 1925. By the mid 1970s, the elegance had given way to cobwebs and chipped paint. But in 1992, the Mediterranean-style resort reopened, restored to its impressive original state. You can learn about its history and remarkable restoration in a hallway off its main lobby that is filled with historic photos. (727-894-1000, www.vinoyrenaissanceresort.com)

The Roaring Twenties

The year 1926 was an expansive one along Florida’s coastlines, as evidenced by six luxury resorts. The most glamorous, the Historic Biltmore Hotel of Coral Gables, opened that year to movie stars, royalty and the richest Americans. Crowds later flocked to watch synchronized swimmers, see boy wonder Jackie Ott dive from an 85-foot platform and watch Johnny Weissmuller, who later played Tarzan, set a world swimming record. Built by Biltmore hotel magnate John McEntee Bowman (who at one point also owned the Belleview Biltmore), the resort cost $10 million to construct. Decades later, after being abandoned, it cost the city $55 million to restore it. Today, guests unwind in its historic ambiance as well as in its modern, world-class spa. (305-445-1926, www.biltmorehotel.com)

There were enough well-heeled northern travelers to encourage development of other resorts in Southeast Florida during those heady economic times. Still operating today, the Colony Hotel & Cabana Club in Delray Beach, the Boca Raton Resort & Club in Boca Raton, and the Brazilian Court and Chesterfield Hotel in Palm Beach were among them.

Painted its original bright-yellow hue, with matching striped awnings, the Colony Hotel & Cabana Club is a flower of Mediterranean revival architecture. Guests still ride its original elevator and walk beneath its original iron chandeliers. (561-276-4123, www.thecolonyhotel.com).

Just south in Boca Raton, intricate mosaics, hidden gardens and ornate cedar-beamed ceilings remain at the former Cloister Inn, which is now part of the expansive Boca Raton Resort & Club. (561-447-3000, www.bocaresort.com)

The Brazilian Court and the Chesterfield appeal to those who prefer to stay and play just off Palm Beach’s swanky Worth Avenue. The two-story B.C., as it’s informally known, was once the discreet home-away-from-home for high society. Today it’s the place to see and be seen. (561-655-7740, www.thebraziliancourt.com)

The Chesterfield, which opened as the Lido-Venice, retains its original architectural character while attracting new faces to its award-winning restaurant, a renowned meeting place for the rich and wannabes alike. (561-659-5800, www.chesterfieldpb.com)

Farther inland, near the banks of Lake Okeechobee, the men who made their wealth from Florida’s sugar industry opened a resort to accommodate them and their visiting business counterparts. The Clewiston Inn, built in 1926 by the U.S. Sugar Corporation (then called Southern Sugar), was destroyed by fire, but immediately rebuilt in1938 to its original classical revival style. You can see photographs of the early sugar barons, their workers and the house big band that played for them on the hotel’s hallway walls. (863-983-8151, www.clewistoninn.com)

The End of an Era

Florida’s real estate market was depressed by 1928, but Black Monday was still a year off. The Don CeSar a Loews Hotel on St. Pete Beach and the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club near Jacksonville barely beat the stock market crash, but they soon faced the pain caused by it.

The Don CeSar, modeled after the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki Beach, was troubled from the beginning, as its construction costs ran 300 percent over budget. It thrived for a few years, hosting F. Scott Fitzgerald, Al Capone and Lou Gehrig, among other notables, before its owner died and the property eventually fell into the hands of the U.S. Army. The Army turned it into a convalescent home for war-weary airmen. Later, the Veterans Administration bought it and used it for office space before abandoning it.

The empty building was a canvas for graffiti artists until preservationists stepped in with a buyer who reinstated the Pink Lady’s reign over the Gulf. The likes of rock stars including Madonna, Steven Tyler and Prince now find her to be a gracious host. (727-360-1881, www.loewshotels.com/doncesar)

The golf club and polo field that started as a respite for National Lead Company employees grew into the resort Ponte Vedra Inn & Club by 1928. Built amid an affluent community of pastel-colored homes, the inn, with clay tennis courts and pro-rated golf course, became a quiet sporting place for America’s well-heeled. In 1987, it became a destination for those who like to relax under rejuvenating mud and the hands of practiced massage therapist. (904-285-1111, www.pontevedra.com)

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