I’m not sure when Florida replaced California as America’s pinata. Probably around the time that Florida Man became a thing. California was just weird. Florida is weird and dumb. There is nothing so stupid that Florida Man, or Florida Woman, won’t try. It doesn’t help that on a map “the state with the prettiest name” (thank you, Elizabeth Bishop) looks like both a pistol and a penis. It’s like the Sunshine State goes around with a “Kick me” sign stuck to its butt.
The moment that epitomized the place for me occurred the day I was standing in the check-out line at a St. Petersburg quickie mart behind a couple who wore more tattoos than clothes (yes, Florida Man wears Daisy Dukes, and often nothing else). They were engaged in an argument that started as hissed whispers and escalated in intensity and volume as we inched toward the cashier. Finally, the woman exploded. Springing away from her companion, she yelled, loud enough to be heard in the back of the store, “If you can’t act like a gentleman, just get the fuck away from me!”
So it takes us by surprise—even those of us who have lived in Florida, maybe especially us—when we discover that the state has its redeeming qualities. Of course, these redeeming qualities are often not where, or what, you might expect.
In this regard, I have always thought it wrong that the state bird is the Northern Mockingbird. If the people who make these decisions had been honest, they’d have gone with the brown pelican. To call the brown pelican goofy looking is the height of understatement. If you come upon one perched on a pier or a mangrove tree, it just looks dumb, like something cobbled together out of spare parts. Likewise, when it takes off and when it lands, it looks like a bird that never learned to fly. You could land in the water more gracefully than a pelican. But when they’re airborne, now that’s something else altogether. Every time I see a squadron of pelicans cruising low over the Gulf, it takes my breath away.
That’s my best metaphor for Florida: an ugly/beautiful thing that sometimes makes you gasp. Sometimes it’s just the way the light hits the water or the sound of palm trees in the wind in the middle of the night. Sometimes it’s more baroque: the open-air post office in downtown St. Pete is hands down the nation’s most beautiful place to mail a postcard or buy a stamp. Florida can drive you crazy, but there’s always something to love.
So it is with the newly refurbished Belleview Inn in Belleair, Florida, near Clearwater Beach. I’m not sure who coined the phrase “diamond in the rough,” but they could have been thinking of this hotel.
Pinellas County, which comprises St. Pete, Clearwater, and a host of smaller municipalities, is not an altogether classy place. A lot of its neighborhoods are nondescript at best (not so long ago Pinellas had more mobile homes per capita than any other county in the nation). A lot of its natural beauty has been destroyed by thoughtless development—coastal Florida’s dominant architectural forms are the high-rise condo and the strip mall. And it’s the unofficial lightning capital of the world—years ago one of St. Pete’s mayors was struck dead on the golf course in the middle of a game.
But as soon as you drive through the gates of the Belleview Inn, you forget all that (OK, maybe not the lightning part). This restored embodiment of Gilded Age grandness wraps you in carefully appointed luxury the moment you cross the broad porch and enter the expansive, light-filled 50’ X 65’ lobby that practically begs you to stop and hang out.
Railroad magnate Henry Plant’s Belleview Hotel was one of the earliest lures for Florida visitors (Henry Flagler was doing the same thing at the same time on the state’s Atlantic coast). Plant’s giant wedding cake of a building kicked off the state’s tourism industry in grand style—one of his railroad lines ran right up to the building. The Belleview then and now caters to the well-heeled (standard room rates start around $250 a night), and the restored version preserves not only a building but a way of life that might easily have vanished without the attentive care of the current owners. The Belleview may not look anything like the modern tourist accommodations along nearby beaches, but it’s where all that got started, and it’s still setting a high standard for hospitality. If you want a quiet, elegant hotel that balances a sense of the past with current standards of luxury, this is your place.
It was called the Belleview Hotel when it opened in 1897, which makes it one of Florida’s oldest existing hotels and certainly one of the grandest. In the decades that followed, it became the Belleview-Biltmore and kept adding wings and rooms until it ballooned to a whopping 820,000 square feet, giving credence to its claim as the largest occupied wooden structure in the world. It thrived under various owners throughout most of the last century, but by the aughts, it had fallen empty and was in danger of being demolished. In 2016, JMC Communities, a St. Petersburg development company stepped in and successfully restored it.
The restoration meant first demolishing a lot of the additions tacked on over the years, and then moving the slimmed down 38,000 square-foot building some 320 feet and anchoring it on a new foundation. The result is a hotel so meticulously restored that it might pass as a new building constructed in the Queen Anne style (although you can go up to the top floor and see an exposed section of the original supporting trusses just so you know the skeleton is still there).
The 35 rooms and suites are spacious and bright. My corner room had tall windows, hardwood floors, room enough for a king-size bed and a sitting room area, and comfortable furnishings: coffee maker, fridge but no minibar, big bathroom, great shower. The only thing that really puzzled me was the room’s fake fireplace. I mean, why?
Outside there’s a beautiful pool, two broad porches front and back that I wanted to take home with me, and two golf courses designed by Donald Ross (my golfing adviser tells me that’s a big deal).
The hotel has no restaurant or bar, and while those are serious deficiencies, there is a store off the lobby where you can purchase wine and beer and light fare. And every morning a picnic basket with a continental breakfast is delivered to your door. Also, though not located right on the Gulf, the hotel has a deal with a nearby sister property that has great restaurants, spa services, and beach access. Shuttle service is provided.
Vistas around the hotel aren’t great—it’s surrounded by condos and a country club—but that’s less of a problem than you might think. The peace and quiet and spaciousness of the Belleview are hard to come by anywhere and especially in Florida. If I wanted a hotel where I could hole up, unwind, and clear my head in a building that epitomizes the most luxurious—and now mostly long gone—era of America’s great hotels, I’d head for the Belleview, turn off my phone, and kick back.
Editor's note: This is the latest in our series on exciting new or restored hotels, The New Room with a View.