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Florida's Hidden Golf Resorts

Beth Perkins Florida

Photo: Beth Perkins

Inside, the inn looks like your grandmother might have decorated it, if she had very good, conservative taste. There’s a grand­father clock in the lobby and a large, stuffed tarpon over the check-in desk. The first floor has several attractive conversation nooks furnished with floral-print curtains and overstuffed chairs in muted pastels. For gentlemen, who must wear jackets and ties to dinner at the resort’s main restaurant, there’s a clubby room in the back with a pool table, leather furniture, paneled walls and a trophy-mounted bobcat over the fireplace.

After dinner, the most exciting entertainment might well be a rousing game of table tennis. There’s not much else to do off campus. The only village on Gasparilla Island, Boca Grande (a three-minute walk from the inn), has a few art galleries, some restaurants and a couple of picturesque churches. It’s a place where people fish, walk on the beach and, if they’re feel­ing social, ride their bikes to cocktails at a neighbor’s. Boca Grande has yet to see its first McDonald’s, or, for that matter, a franchise or outlet of any kind.

So if you think you could endure a Florida vacation without traffic, stoplights and shopping malls; if you understand that a gentleman never wears socks with Top-Siders; and if you can refrain from calling ahead weeks in advance to secure an acceptable tee time, the Gasparilla Inn could be just the right slice of Florida for you. Just don’t tell anyone else about it.

Clearwater

Belleview Biltmore Golf Club

When the majestic Belleview Biltmore Hotel opened in 1897, it was the largest occupied wooden structure in the world, a distinction it’s still believed to hold. Built by railroad tycoon Henry Plant, the hotel (not to be confused with the Coral Gables Biltmore; see page 50) came to be known as the White Queen of the Gulf. Each winter it hosted luminary families such as the Fords, the du Ponts and the Vanderbilts. By 1924 the hotel had expanded from 145 rooms to 425 rooms (it currently operates 246 of them), but in the following decades the property slid more than once from boom times to depression and back again. A new owner purchased it in June, saving the hotel from demolition, and has promised a multimillion-dollar restoration.

Donald Ross designed twenty-seven holes (and later added nine) on land adjacent to the hotel, as well as a separate eighteen-hole course called the Pelican Golf Club several blocks south. Until the 1980s, most guests played at the original thirty-six (now the private Belleair Country Club). It was then that the hotel renamed the Pelican club the Belleview Biltmore Golf Club and made it part of the resort. In 2001, the course underwent a restoration.

The layout had changed little over the years, despite lapses into poor condition. Its restoration was carried out by Florida-based Chip Powell in consultation with the Donald Ross Society. Powell recaptured the old character by expanding the greens and enhancing their contours and surrounding slopes. The rest of the course is relatively flat, but small rolls in the land provide unexpected personality and depth. —Derek Duncan

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