Inhale… arms overhead, exhale… forward bend… right leg back to lunge, left leg back to plank pose…
The sun dips back and forth behind the clouds, Dave’s voice blending with the sound of the waves as he guides us through each series. The beach of the Gulf coast makes for an ideal yoga setting, though I must confess my downward dog got a little wonky at times as the white sugar sand shifted beneath me. But then again, yoga at 9am on a Sunday morning inherently presents its own set of challenges (the primary one being that it occurs immediately following a Saturday night).
As an east coast-dwelling Floridian, I rarely find myself venturing to the “other side.” We have Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Beach here in the south, Daytona Beach and St. Augustine farther north. If I need a beach, there’s one less than 10 minutes from my house. The ocean is always east. That’s how I grew up, and that’s the guiding beacon for all of my navigational calculations.
So when an international friend contacted me to say she’d be in Tampa for week, and asked if I would like to catch up over the weekend, I paused. Initial hesitation aside, I was excited by the prospect of a staycation, and of seeing a friend who I’d last seen more than three years ago, in Australia. A four-hour drive through the Everglades later, the beach is to the west, my sense of direction totally skewed, and my mind in official holiday mode.
The Loews Don CeSar Hotel on St. Pete Beach is the Gulf Coast’s most iconic hotel. The legendary Pink Palace, also affectionately referred to as “The Don,” first opened its doors to the Roaring Twenties high society in 1928. Its guest list included notable (and notorious) names of the time, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, Lou Gehrig and Al Capone. I have a thing for historic buildings – the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, the Blackstone Renaissance Hotel in Chicago, Winterthur in Wilmington, Delaware. I’ve read all their stories, and walked fascinated through their halls. So given The Don’s glittering past, and since it was named 2015 Best Historic Hotel by Historic Hotels of America, I simply had to see it for myself.
The clouds clear by the time I say my last namaste. The beach in front of the hotel is starting to come alive, the chairs under the blue umbrellas and canopies becoming populated with families and other guests. As I roll my towel and gather my things, I overhear a man in a big floppy hat tell our yoga instructor how him and his wife have been coming to the resort every year for the last 10 years, without fail. “Excellent form,” he says to me in a Midwestern drawl, “best in the class!” I love how relaxed and friendly he is, compliment aside.
I have an hour to kill before brunch reservations, which I spend poolside, resolutely resisting the cocktail menu as I know mimosas are in my near future. A vitamin c boost sounds perfect after my morning sweat, and the only way I drink orange juice is with a healthy dose of champagne. Dave is in the pool (he apparently teaches the Aqua Fitness class as well), so I chat with him as I wait. He’s a local to St. Pete Beach, born and raised, and has seen the area grow as its popularity becomes more widespread. “It’s changed a lot in the years, in the best ways,” he says.
I am in a state of full relaxation by the time the table is ready. By a stroke of luck, our visit coincides with Father’s Day, and the hotel is hosting a special “Blues, Brews, and BBQ” brunch to celebrate all the dads. The food spread covers three different rooms, and our server Kayleen is a star at keeping the bubbles topped up as we fill our plates repeatedly and enjoy the sounds of the live band. My friend, an Australia native, is particularly impressed with the beverage tradition. Aussies throw down a good brunch game, but they have yet to discover the deliciousness of bottomless mimosas. To a South Floridian, it’s not a true Sunday Funday without this particular indulgence.
We wash away the after effects of brunch with a dip in the Gulf of Mexico. Silly us forgot to grab towels, but a kindly local lends us a spare one of his, asking only that we drape it over his chair if we left and he wasn’t at his spot. That act highlighted what perhaps made the greatest impression on me. Aside from the striking architecture and beautifully detailed design, it’s the sense of welcoming. Across social media, you’ll see the Loews Don CeSar engaging, listening and leaving heartfelt comments to their loyal fans. You’ll see them thanking guests for being a part of the family, and that dedication to hospitality echoes loud and clear once on property grounds. The whole atmosphere of St. Pete Beach, from locals to regular visitors to first timers, is one of joyful inclusion.
There was a moment that day when it all hit home. We were floating in the water, soaking up the sun and reflecting on the quirks of life that bring two friends, from two places on opposite sides of the world, to one seemingly random spot on the west coast of Florida. “No one said it would be easy,” I said jokingly, because it undeniably was. And I can easily see myself repeating this trek to the other side many times in my future.
What You Need to Know:
Loews Don CeSar Hotel
Where: St. Pete Beach, 35 minutes from the Tampa International Airport, and 15 minutes from the historic Downtown St. Petersburg
Rooms: 277 rooms, including 36 suites
Highlights: two heated pools, full service spa, award-winning seafood restaurant Maritana Grille, brunch served each Sunday at the Sea Porch restaurant