I’ve been to a lot of places in Florida…at this point, I’ve pretty much been up and down both coasts in their entirety and seen and done “the best” that Florida has to offer.
Well, I won’t beat around the bush here…Staying at the Don CeSar Hotel in St Pete Beach and spending time in nearby Pass a Grille and Fort de Soto State Park just might be my favorite Florida beach vacation.
I’ll be honest…I felt pretty good about this pick before I arrived (hello, have you seen the pictures??), but even several months after I stayed here I was surprised by how much I kept thinking about it and comparing every other place I’ve stayed since to this one.
Don CeSar Hotel on St Pete Beach // Pass a Grille // Fort de Soto State Park
St Pete Beach isn’t exactly unknown (it was named TripAdvisor’s #1 Beach in the US in 2021), and the Don CeSar Hotel isn’t exactly a “sleeper” hotel or a hidden gem. Although I do think it gets overlooked by bigger places in Palm Beach and Miami.
But it’s pretty famous. Built in the 1920s, this place is straight up Gatsby (the Fitzgeralds have actually stayed here) and is on the national register of historic places. But it’s undergone a HUGE renovation in recent years so in addition to its vintage charm it’s on par with other modern luxury-ish resorts.
I first stayed at the Don CeSar on my first “post COVID” trip in April 2021, and I couldn’t have been more impressed. Do you ever walk into a place, sigh, relax your shoulders a bit, and think “yes…this is my kind of place.”? No? Just me?? Well anyways, that was my first impression.
And after spending time at the Don CeSar and exploring nearby Pass a Grille (maybe Florida’s cutest beach town?!?!), and searching for sand dollars in Fort de Soto State Park, I can definitely say that this is one of my favorite places in Florida.
Here’s what you need to know about planning a trip to this area:
Staying at the Don CeSar
Immediately after we checked in at the Don CeSar and walked through the lobby, my cousin and I both turned to each other and said it reminded us of the hotel from the Tower of Terror ride at Disney World BEFORE it got struck by lightning. Which might sound like a weird comparison, but if you’re a Disney person you’ll get it.
It’s swanky and has a very strong period appeal.
The Don CeSar is located in the southern/middle part of St Pete Beach. St Pete Beach is actually a barrier island off St Petersburg which is in the Tampa Bay area. The Don CeSar is the southernmost resort on the island and everything to the south of it is residential so it’s much quieter than pretty much every other resort or hotel on the island.
My favorite thing is how close it is to Pass-a-Grille (the southernmost neighborhood on the island). Pass-a-Grille is where people “in the know” go because it has such a different vibe than St Pete Beach. More about that later.
It’s also in the zone for Freebee (a free electric car service that operates in a lot of areas of south Florida). Download the Freebee app and you can request a ride (just like Uber or Lyft). You’ll get picked up in a large golf cart and zipped wherever you want to go FOR FREE (it’s subsidized by the city but you should tip your driver!).
When we were there, there were two cars operating in the area and they did pick ups and drop offs from the southern end of the island (Pass-a-Grille) up to Dolphin Village (Publix, CVS, Chick Fil-a, etc.). But I think they’ve expanded it quite a bit since then. It was waaay more reliable than Uber or Lyft and a lot more fun too (not to mention free). So if you’re staying at the Don CeSar, you’re basically right in the middle of their service area which to me, is a huge perk.
I didn’t really have any expectations (other than knowing that everything had been recently renovated), but I was still super impressed by the room. We were in a standard room (nothing special) and it honestly seemed about 50% larger than most hotel rooms.
There was just so much space that it felt like we could’ve squeezed a few more people in! The bathroom actually seemed on the smaller side, but it was laid out very well and all of the finishings felt really high end.
The decor was pretty cute. It definitely felt Floridian but not over the top and keeping with the upscale vibe of the resort.
Like I mentioned above, this is the last resort as you go south on the island so the beach tends to be quite a bit less crowded than pretty much everywhere else on St Pete Beach. It’s really only people staying at the resort and walkers.
There were plenty of chairs, umbrellas, and sun loungers/cabanas set up every day and it seemed like it was easier to get a spot on the beach than at the pool.
Just like everywhere in the St Pete and Clearwater area, the beaches are white sand and the water is pretty turquoise and clear. I was pleasantly surprised by how good the shelling was too.
Besides an early morning and afternoon walk, we pretty much spent the entire time at the pool. It’s one large pool area with two different pools. No slides or anything but very family friendly. There’s a counter where you can get your towels (they had stuff like sunscreen there too) and then it’s all first come first serve.
The pool bar (with new rooftop lounge!) had just opened when we were there and it was HOPPING. The poolside service (food and drinks starting at 11AM) was REALLY good. Like, no half hearted attempts of asking you if you wanted anything once and then disappearing. The pool crew was seriously amazing. Like anywhere, when you’re ordering food poolside always plan on it taking 30 minutes or so to arrive. Drinks were super fast though.
Also, if you know me you’re not at all surprised to find out that the pink and white striped towels were my favorite part ; )
What I Love about Staying at the Don CeSar:
To sum it all up, I pretty much loved everything, but specifically…
This place is stylish and swanky while still being pretty lowkey. It has a really strong brand and it sticks to it when it comes to the details (the music in the lobby is A+, the pool towels are PINK, etc.). It’s nice but not stuffy and has a good mix of families, couples, older and younger, etc.
It’s a NICEEEEE resort, but I wouldn’t call it high end luxury. It’s not in the same ballpark as (most) Four Seasons, St Regis, or Ritz Carlton properties, but it’s also not in the same price tier. The way this hotel operates is actually what I prefer. Sometimes you just want to grab your own towel from the pool attendant and set up camp and you don’t need them to find you a spot and spread your towel out/hover over you.
It’s a fairly self-contained resort. It’s not enormous, but it actually has everything you would need or want on property. One casual restaurant (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), one signature restaurant, the poolbar, a spa, multiple shops, and a grab and go/coffee shop/ice cream parlor.
It’s within walking distance to Pass-a-Grille which I LOVED. It’s where we ended up going to dinner pretty much every night. We walked there and back on the beach one night and it’s about a mile. It’s also in the service area for Freebees (download the app for free rides!) which is the only way I want to travel now.
We didn’t have a car so we were a little limited, but if you do have a car (or you can catch an Uber/Lyft – we had a hard time with that), it’s a pretty quick drive to downtown St Petersburg (on the mainland) and there is a LOT going on there.
Rooms generally run about $250- $350/night. There’s a $38 (+tax) per night resort fee (standard at most resorts these days) that covers things like wifi, bottled water in the room, beach chair and umbrella setup, paddleboard rentals, exercise classes, etc. There’s also a fee for parking ($24/day for self park and $31/day for valet).
You can book the Don CeSar here.
Pass a Grille & Fort de Soto State Park
Okay, one of my favorite parts about staying at the Don CeSar on St Pete Beach is how close you are to Pass a Grille.
This southernmost neighborhood on the island is technically St Pete Beach but it feels like another world. It has a very residential feel with no large hotels or condo complexes.
It starts pretty much immediately south of the Don CeSar Hotel (the famous and historic pink hotel in St Pete Beach) although the cluster of what you could consider “downtown” Pass-a-Grille is a bit further south (about a mile south). The small town center is pretty picturesque.
This quickly became my favorite area on St Pete Beach. If you’ve been to Florida’s panhandle, this area reminds me of the 30a (but less preplanned) with more island vibes.
Even if you’re not staying down here, you’ll at least want to spend an evening in the area.
Pass-a-Grille is a sunset town! Because of its location on the west side of Florida, you won’t see any sunrises, but sunset is a big deal every night. Everyone gathers in front of the Paradise Grill (and along the beach) for sunset every night and there’s usually a lot of cheering.
Beyond Pass a Grille & St Pete Beach, there are a chain of barrier islands that are perfect for day trips:
Fort De Soto State Park
This popular state park consists of five small islands at the south end of St Pete Beach, and it’s accessible by car ($5 entry fee plus $5 parking fee). In addition to a beautiful beach, you can rent canoes or kayaks (watch out for manatees!), fish from the pier, bike the park’s paved 7 mile trail (regular bike rentals as well as 8 seater Surrey bikes are available), or even visit the historic fort and museum.
But my favorite thing to do here is search for sand dollars. At the far end of North Beach is a point called Sand Dollar Island and as the name implies…it’s a great spot to find sand dollars! It’s a bit sheltered by another island offshore which breaks the waves so it’s easy to find them still completely intact.
You can park in the northernmost parking lot at North Beach and walk north along the beach as far as the tide allows (shelling is always best at low tide).
I spent a great afternoon here shelling and found quite a few sand dollars (despite seeing a lot of people walking back towards me with handfuls of them when I got started) so they must be pretty plentiful.
Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount USA Car Rental. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. I started using their sister company (Discount Hawaii Car Rental) on my Hawaii trips almost 10 years ago and now I use their main site for all of my other trips. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
Favorite Restaurants in Pass a Grille & St Pete Beach
Dewey: Best meal and overall favorite restaurant of the trip although the main dining room doesn’t have a view. There is a rooftop lounge that serves a cold bar.
Grace: Really enjoyed their patio. Solid cocktail menu. Loved the homemade pasta.
Hurricane Seafood Restaurant: Great rooftop lounge with typical beach bar drinks and food.
Toasted Monkey: The only spot we really tried farther north up the island. Very lively in the evenings and the best grouper sandwich I had on the trip.
Shaner’s Market: Cute little market to stock up if you’re staying in Pass-a-Grille but they also do made to order sandwiches (breakfast too). Short walk to the beach if you want to do a picnic.
Paradise Sweets: Getting ice cream from Paradise Sweets is a town tradition. I strongly recommend getting your ice cream BEFORE sunset as the line gets really long after.
On Another Note: If you’re looking for a condo or vacation rental for your trip, I always book with Vrbo. They’ve got the largest selection of rentals you’ll find anywhere and you can easily filter to find exactly what you’re looking for. Need a specific number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Narrowed it down to a certain location? Want flexible cancellation terms? Need to stay under a fixed budget? Click here to search for Florida vacation rentals for your trip.
Want to Read More Posts about Florida? I’ve got plenty!
Check out these destinations: Miami (Things to Do Besides Party & Where to Stay) // Key Biscayne // Sanibel & Captiva // Longboat Key & Anna Maria Island // Marco Island // 30a // St Augustine // Amelia Island // St Pete Beach // St Petersburg // Fort Myers // Dunedin // Crystal River & Weeki Wachee Springs // Honeymoon Island & Caladesi Island State Parks // Tarpon Springs // Matlacha & Pine Island // Apalachicola
Trying to narrow it down? Siesta Key vs Anna Maria Island // St Pete Beach vs Clearwater Beach // Sanibel vs Marco Island // Destin vs Panama City Beach // Destin vs 30a // Key Biscayne vs South Beach // Seaside vs Rosemary Beach
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