TravelJuly 31, 2015

A Florida resort tries to restore its historic charm (and its Donald Ross course won't hurt)

The Belleview Biltmore Hotel & Course, the venerable Florida tourist stop on the state's gulf coast, has been in the news ever since it opened in 1897. The news in 2015, however, hasn't been of facility's transition to a 21st century destination.

Not familiar with one of the grand ladies of early resort locales? Henry B. Plant was one of the pioneering Florida developers who were key to the infrastructure and growth of the state as a tourism locale. The main mode of transportation in the late 1800s was railroad, and Plant, who had developed a transportation system to the South after the Civil War, used the rails to build up the west coast of Florida as Henry Flagler would do for the east coast. Plant City, east of Tampa, is named after the developer. One of the hotels he built was the Belleview Biltmore in Belleair, on Clearwater Bay, and Plant, who died in 1899, had private railroad cars pull right up to the front door (see photo below) to drop off elite, wealthy and famous clientele, even presidents.

If only the delivery of guests had stayed so simple, the hotel might not be in the precarious state it currently finds itself. Starting in the 1970s, various events and ownership changes began the hotel's decline. Threats to demolish the hotel were met with pleas to preserve and renovate it, even as it had been shuttered for several years. But in April, the Tampa Bay Times reported a sale was made of hotel that's on the National Register of Historic Places to St. Petersburg-developer Mike Cheezem and his JMC Communities for $6.2 million. In May, demolition began of the structure, known as the White Queen of the Gulf. By most accounts, the plan is to retain perhaps 10 percent of the hotel, or 36,000 square feet, as a classic inn and build condominiums on the rest of the old grounds. The inn (the name Belleview Inn is tossed around) would be the focal point of the new development and have 33 rooms, the original lobby and a grand living room.

The good thing for golfers still looking to experience the Donald Ross/Biltmore feel is that golf has never stopped being played there. Six holes were built in 1897, three more in 1899, and by 1909 the West Course was made into 18. The hotel is considered to have the first course in Florida. Then by 1915, a second 18 was done, by Ross, with both the East and West courses considered to have been done under his influence.

In 1959, the hotel bought a 1926 Ross course built very close to the Biltmore -- Pelican Golf Club -- making it a 54-hole resort. In the 1990s, the East & West courses went fully private as Belleair Country Club, and the Pelican layout continued as a resort course under the Belleview Biltmore Golf Club name to keep that heritage alive.

So while there is no more Belleview Biltmore hotel to stay at, you can play a Belleview Biltmore Ross layout (727-581-5498). Green fees range from $40 to $65, depending on the season, and you can dine at the Pelican Restaurant. If you play after Sept. 1, you can see the results of a complete bunker renovation.


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