Me, the Pink Lady and the Elusive Shark's Tooth
It’s funny what the mind remembers. Most memories of my childhood are vague and translucent; an MTV-style quick edit of nanosecond tidbits rapidly intertwined with flashbulb moments of deep embarrassment and exhilarating, watershed events. But of all my childhood memories, I distinctly remember two promises I made to myself on the sands of St. Petersburg beach many years ago.
From as early as I can remember, family vacations were spent in St. Petersburg, Florida at The Rellim, a quaint hotel run by the Miller family (Rellim is Miller spelled backwards) down on the historic Pass-a-Grille peninsula which is connected via bridge to St. Pete.
It was heaven. All I needed was my swim suit, a pail and a shovel for collecting sea shells. These were halcyon days for sure, and I would get up every morning and comb miles of gulf sands for sand dollars, shells and sharks teeth. I had uncanny luck in finding perfect, white sand dollars but for all my endless searching and success of my young peers, I never could find a sharks tooth. Day after day, year after year, I searched and searched and watched countless others pick them right out of the sand…but not me. I vowed that I would not rest until I plucked one of those elusive teeth from the ocean.
Soon after, I made one other vow.
Around the time I turned 10 that I began to notice a mammoth, pink structure out of the corner of my eye as I kicked the shells beneath my feet. It had been there ever since we started going to St. Pete but only now had it penetrated my consciousness. It’s not like it was subtle—it’s perhaps one of the single-most distinctive beach buildings ever built!
It was the Don CeSar. Rising off the beach like a massive pink stucco petit fours, “The Don” had quite a storied history. Opened in 1928 at a then mind-boggling construction cost of $1.2 million, the resort quickly became the Gulf’s Taj Mahal for the glitterati of the day. Luminaries such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Clarence Darrow, Lou Gehrig and even Al Capone basked in the unrivaled opulence of the Don.
The property then went through a dizzying history which included becoming a make-shift war hospital for battle-fatigued WWII GI’s and a VA office. But it wasn’t until in 1973, just a few years before our family started coming to St. Pete, that it had reclaimed its status as an elite luxury resort.
This was the Don with which I became mesmerized—the grand, Pink Lady which humbled everything in its presence. I remember the first time my grandfather walked me through the lobby and the shops on the ground floor on our way to Uncle Andy’s Ice Cream Shop. It was like sneaking a peek into the first class cabin on the air plane from coach. The
ornate mahogany details, the luxurious fabrics on the furniture, the elegant chandeliers—this was nothing like the drab, humble Rellim. I left that day wondering what it must be like to stay in such a palace and promised myself that one day I would stay there.
Fast forward 30 years to today. As fate would have it, I won a little sales contest at work this summer and our CEO, who is based in Tampa, has a personal penchant for The Don CeSar! When the gift card was handed to me, replete with tiny photograph of the Pink Lady herself, I could hardly believe the serendipity. So my wife, our five-month-old and I boarded a plane and set out to cross off a monster item on my life’s “to do” list.
Arriving is like a dream. The flamingo pink stucco, punctuated by Moorish bell towers and imperial turrets commands the eye the second it comes into view. You point your car up a steep incline, almost like a roller coaster, to get to the motor lobby. Upon stopping, you are swarmed by attendants, seeing to your luggage and every need.
The lobby was just as I remembered it; a freeze frame of the roaring 20’s in the time just before the Depression with dizzying chandeliers, mahogany, marble and brass. But this time we are actually guests of hotel, not just spectators. The building and the staff all welcome us and we feel like royalty.
The rooms are beach-bungalow chic; white wooden furniture with tasteful pastel colored fabrics and granite counter bathrooms. The effect is as if you are in a private beach house except with every five-star amenity you can imagine (and many you can’t). When we bring our baby to the pool, without even asking, an attendant comes flying over and assembles a Pack-N-Play crib by our chair. Pampering like that almost makes you feel like Al Capone!
We take long walks on the perfect beaches, watch glorious sunsets over the water and kick through the Pass-A-Grille sea shells. And while I approach the beachcombing with the same intensity I did as a kid, I still come up fruitless in the shark’s tooth department. But no matter, I will save that quest for later. For now I am just happy that I got to return to a distant memory and truly got to know the Pink Lady.
If you go:
The Don Cesar Beach Resort, a Lowes Hotel is the oldest luxury hotel on the Florida coast. Even if you do not stay there, the property is still worth visiting and, yes, Uncle Andy’s Ice Cream Shop is still there!
Despite searching and talking to numerous locals, I was unable to locate the long, lost Rellim. Through the internet, I was able to track a member of the Miller family who informed me that the hotel had been sold and turned into “2 hideous concrete block
condos.” R.I.P. Rellim.