The history of Florida Is much longer than its attraction as a major winter destination. Prior to the post-Civil War Era, visitors had to enter Florida by coastal steamboat and outside of some mid-size hotels in Saint Augustine, there were no large resorts.
The coming of the railroads in the Victorian/Gilded Era (1870-1900) allowed Northerners to reach Florida in a few days. Railroad barons like Henry Flagler on the East Coast and Henry Plant on the Gulf Coast bolstered their transportation empires with monstrous hotel masterpieces that would make the Sunshine State the winter vacation spot for the wealthy.
Some of these hotels are available for booking today while others have been reborn as colleges and offices, but you can still appreciate most on an extensive architectural excursion.
The oldest continuous hotel was not part of the railroad connection. The LAKESIDE INN, built in Mount Dora in 1883, is the pride and joy of the arty Central Florida town, a great weekend getaway with its fine restaurant, huge antique offerings, and boating excursions along the area’s many waterways. The Lakeside is at 100 North Alexander Street, (352) 383-4101.
The five yellow and white buildings house 90 guest rooms and suites, the Beauclaire Dining Room, Tremain’s Tavern, and Gatehouse Gift Gallery. The massive 200-foot Victorian porch looks out onto the lake, a huge pool, guided boat tours, carriage rides, and nature trips. Lakeside is a laidback vacation ideal for both shoppers, diners, and adventurers.
Saint Augustine has three Victorian gems once part of Henry Plant’s East Coast railroad empire. The largest, the incredible Hotel Ponce de Leon, a Carrere & Hastings masterpiece, is now part of Flagler College, but tours are available to view the structure. The nearby Alcazar Hotel became the Lighter Museum, open to the public, its indoor pool a gift shop.
But the next-door CASA MONICA HOTEL (1888) is operating as a hotel, a great choice to stay in the Saint Augustine Historic District and to feel the atmosphere of the city’s glamourous Victorian Era when famous writers, artists, and celebrities filled the rooms.
The Moroccan style resort has access to a beach on Saint Augustine Beach as well as the restaurants, bars, shops, and pool expected of a fine resort. The Casa Marina is at 95 Cordova Street, (844) 631-0595.
Over in Tampa, Henry Plant’s equivalent of the Flagler Ponce de Leon is the massive riverfront Tampa Bay Hotel, the first Florida hotel with an elevator (and it still works). Now, part of the University of Tampa, the building houses the Plant Museum with original resort furniture and art.
The oldest wooden hotel in Florida was almost sacrificed to the condo builders, but a section of the 1896 Hotel Belleview remains as the 45 room BELLEVIEW INN (25 Belleview Blvd., (877) 905-4496. Sitting on a hill overlooking Clearwater Bay and a golf course, the inn still has the original large pool and grounds, but it lacks full=service restaurants and bars.
Just a few blocks from the ocean at New Smyrna Beach is the RIVERVIEW HOTEL (1885), a wooden 18-room boutique inn, which offers some unusual features for a small place – a spa and a marina. You are within a short walk of restaurants, gift shops, and beachside activities.
New Smyrna Beach has the same sand as nearby Daytona Beach without the crowds and noise.
The Riverview is at 103 Flagler Avenue, (386) 261-1588.
If rustic fishing and boating, as well as eating lots of fresh seafood is your type of weekend getaway than the ISLAND HOTEL and RESTAURANT, the landmark of Cedar Key may be your choice. Some say it opened as early as 1859, others note 1870s. Free breakfast and lots of advice where to rent a boat or canoe and explore the backwaters of the Gulf Nature Coast.
The laid-back two-story inn is located at 373 Second Street, (352) 543-5111. HAPPY TRAVELS!