By Mike Cohen
ST. PETE BEACH – Just over a year ago my family and I made our first visit ever to St. Pete Beach, Florida and stayed at the extraordinary and historic Don CeSar (www.doncesar.com). It was a Loews property at the time. Soon after Host Hotels & Resorts purchased it and engaged Davidson Hotels & Resorts to manage the main locale and the Beach House Suites down the street.
The new management is in place just in time to mark this historic hotel’s 90th anniversary.
The Don CeSar opened at the height of the Great Gatsby era in 1928. Known as Florida’s iconic “Pink Palace,” The Don CeSar is reminiscent of a Mediterranean-style castle set upon the white sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico in St. Pete Beach. A AAA Four Diamond property, National Historic Landmark and member of the Historic Hotels of America, The Don CeSar features 277 luxurious guest rooms including 36 suites, six restaurants and lounges, two deluxe heated pools, more than 38,000 sq. ft. of event space, the 11,000 sq. ft. Spa Oceana, fitness center, Camp CeSar Kids Camp, The Shoppes of The Don, and access to beach rentals and water sports.
We were very fortunate to be invited back for a lavish day on the beach and let me say for certain that the Don has not lost any of its charm!
Last year we were actually based at the Beach House Suites, taking the very short commute back and forth to the much larger Don CeSar. Guests at the former can take advantage of the full resort privileges at the Don CeSar, where room charging options are available at Spa Oceana, shops, and restaurants, including the award-winning, Four-Diamond, Maritana Grille and the Rowe Bar.
The poolside concierge provides everything from cucumber hydration to tropical smoothies.
For those who are physically disabled, the pools and whirlpools at both complexes have special lifts.
The Don CeSar Hotel partners with the award-winning Boucher Brothers Management to pamper guests during their day on the beautiful St. Pete Beach. Take a walk from the pool deck and have some fun on the Gulf of Mexico, seeing the beautiful pink castle from a different view while cruising on wave runners or exploring on ocean kayaks. We got to spend our day lounging in private daybeds and chilling out on a chaise for a luxurious take on fun in the sun. Jimmy from the Boucher Brothers team could not have been nicer in setting is up like kings. He in fact came back several times over our seven hour stay to adjust the umbrellas and make sure everything was okay.
Lunch and drinks were available right at our chairs via the Beachcomber. Here you can enjoy frozen drinks, mojitos, fresh seafood, salads, burgers and other traditional dishes such as the NY Strip Steak Salad with mesclun, grilled pineapple, tomato, jicama, crispy tortilla and sweet onion vinaigrette, Gulf Fish Tacos with soft corn tortillas, lettuce, salsa, queso fresco, chipotle crema and jicama citrus slaw, and the Foot-Long Dog with pork carnitas, jalapenos, and bread & butter palm of hearts. It is open daily from 11 a.m. to Sundown. We started off with some drinks, an Iguana Smash, a Blueberry blast and a Pina Coloda followed by our lunch selections of tortilla chips, fish tacos, a Beacomber burger and chicken quesadilla. The orders turned around quite quickly and were delivered in large plastic containers, with serving plates and cutlery inside. I have never felt so comfortable dining on a beach chair before.
In terms of beach rentals, run by the Boucher brothers and its BouYah Watersports Division (www.bouYahWaterSports.com). There are full and half day rates for chaise lounges, sand chairs, umbrellas, cabanas and luxury queen and king beds.
We also took advantage of the jetski rentals. It is $120 per hour or $60 for a half hour after lunch time. You will save some money if you book it in the morning. The staff will sit you down in the jetski in the water, provide a series of guidelines and then allow you to start the motor and go on your merry way. This was a real “rush” for my family. The one hour went by very quickly.
BouYah also rents out banana boats, kayaks and paddle boards.
You can book your choice experience right at the hotel or call in advance and ask to be connected to someone from the Boucher Brothers team.
As for things to do at the hotel, don’t miss a trip to Uncle Andy’s Ice Cream Parlor for some homemade ice cream. Go shelling on the white powder beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Take part in hourly games and activities for children of all ages, including sand-castle building, treasure hunts and obstacle courses. Check out the indigenous fish in the aquarium off lobby.
Kids from aged four to 12 can spend the day exploring the beaches and garden surroundings of the Don. Exciting and kid-friendly activities include beach crafts, seashell hunting, and castle contests, pool games and special Kids Night Out events. You must provide 24-hour advance reservations by calling 727-360-1881 x2233.
For teens the hotel offers a combination of entertaining, fun and educational activities to occupy your hard-to-please teens and tweens who receive music download cards, a list of nearby tourist attractions, activities and shopping geared to teens and access to a lending library of Gameboys, DVD players, board games, and more.
St. Petersburg is Florida’s fourth largest city, with 61 square miles. The St. Pete, Tampa and Clearwater areas have a combined Jewish population of about 60,000. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the first-known Jews were Mr. and Mrs. Henry Schutz, who arrived from Germany in 1901 and opened a dry goods store, the only Jewish merchants for seven years. Their store on Central Avenue, which had a basket on a pulley to carry money to a balcony to make change, later served as a temporary home for St. Petersburg High School. Olga and Leon Manket opened a dry good store in 1908; their daughter Anne was the first-known Jewish child born there. The first-known boy was Julius Lovitz in 1909; the Lovitz family were the first-known Jews in Tarpon Springs, a Greek sponge fishing village. Sam Lovitz was known as “Mr. Jew Sam.” That family moved to Clearwater, and another relative, Abe Tarapani, had a store in St. Petersburg in 1911, before also moving to Tarpon Springs. The Ben Haliczers had a gas station and tire store from 1910 and had four children in Florida – two in St. Petersburg. Ben’s brother Leon arrived in 1921 and had a watch repair store.
In 1920 St. Petersburg had 14,000 people, streetcars, and daily band concerts in the park, unpaved streets, and people who went to the Beach to open businesses were thought “crazy.” The pioneer Jewish families’ names, in addition to those already mentioned, included Jacobs, Davis, Goldman, Sierkese, Cohen, Katz, Heller, Benjamin, Wittner, Rothblatt, Argintar, Lew, Solomon, and Gilbert. Some of these early families had come from Europe first to Key West, Florida, then migrated to other areas of Florida, including St. Petersburg. The Jews faced the “gentlemen’s agreement” and antisemitic signs, lived near Central Avenue and had bicycle, jewelry, and grocery stores. On Sundays and holidays, Jewish families would drive through Pinellas County to pick oranges at the groves for 50 cents a bushel or drive to the waterfront and swim, filling jugs with the water that supposedly had health-giving properties – an early spa. In the evenings, the families would congregate in each other’s homes to play poker and pinochle while their children played. They ordered kosher meat from Finman’s in Tampa, which was delivered by boat across Tampa Bay; often it arrived spoiled, which discouraged many from keeping kosher. By 1925 a bridge was built and the meat came by bus – a big improvement!
The Jews also went to Tampa for religious services until 1923, when Congregation B’nai Israel was chartered and Conservative services were held in a rented store. The first president was Hymen Jacobs, and daughter Goldie Schuster recalls, “The discrimination and the schools were worse than her native Chicago.” The first Jewish women’s organization, the Ladies Auxiliary, was organized by Dora Goldberg to help the needy. In 1928 Reform Jews founded Temple Beth-El. The membership outgrew its original small home in downtown St. Petersburg, moving to its present location in 1955, and completing the Religious School addition in 2002 to meet the needs of its 600 member families.
During World War II, many Jewish servicemen enjoyed the hospitality of the small Jewish community for Sabbath dinners and the Passover seder. Bunny Rothblatt Katz collected scrap metal for the war effort in 1941 with her slogan “Your scrap will whip the Japs.” Her father, David, was a legless veteran who owned Southern Grocery and was active in both civic and Jewish affairs. After the war, the Jewish population grew rapidly to about 1,500 families, and the first Jewish nursery school was opened in 1959. Since 1960 Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services has been helping infants, children, families and elders in serious physical, medical, mental, social and financial crisis, enabling them to remain free and independent with families and loved ones. In 1970 Menorah Manor was built to serve the Jewish aged; it includes a nursing home and assisted living facility. Philip Benjamin Tower is an apartment complex adjacent to Menorah Manor. In the early 21st century plans were being made to build a $16 million North County Campus of Menorah Manor. In 1986 the Jewish Federation of Pinellas County approached Jim Dawkins and Karen Wolfson Dawkins to start and publish their own Jewish community newspaper for Pinellas County, Jewish Press, which continues bi-weekly.
Opened in 1992 on the grounds of the former Jewish Community Center of Pinellas County in Madeira Beach, The Florida Holocaust Museum (www.flholocaustmuseum.org) – the fourth largest Holocaust museum in the U.S. – moved in 1998 to the heart of St. Petersburg’s museum district. The permanent exhibit includes an original boxcar from Poland once used to transport prisoners during the Holocaust. Traveling art and historical exhibitions change regularly, and the museum is currently the only one of its kind in the country to house a permanent art collection related to the Holocaust. The museum was begun as the vision of St. Petersburg philanthropist and businessman Walter Loebenberg, who escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, together with a group of other business and community leaders.
The Jewish Federation of Pinellas County has the following beneficiary agencies: Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, Pinellas County Jewish Day School, Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center in Clearwater, and TOP Jewish Foundation. A Jewish demographic study in Pinellas County in 1993 showed 24,200 Jews who live there year round. Most have come from Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. The congregational roster for Pinellas County includes five Reform, three Conservative, two Orthodox, and one independent.