If what you want most is a comfortable night’s sleep, stay in an ordinary name-brand hotel.
If what you want is an experience, stay in a historic hotel.
Despite its relatively late development, Florida has a surprising number of historic hotels. Many date to the golden age of Florida tourism, the teens and ’20s, when visitors arrived by train and marveled at this tropical frontier.
Some of those grand hotels have been updated to maintain or restore their luxury edge — famous spots like the Breakers in Palm Beach, the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables and the Don CeSar Hotel on St. Pete Beach.
Other historic hotels persevere but are less famous or a bit more dated. Picture some of these hotels with funny plumbing, old-fashioned elevators that require an attendant to operate or rooms that are small by modern standards.
They’re an experience you’ll remember, and that’s why I seek them out. There’s nothing more forgettable than a comfortable night’s sleep in a generic hotel. But a quirky old hotel where the wooden floors slope and there are separate faucets for hot and cold water? That makes an impression.
Even better: These spots are sometimes bargains, offering rooms for $20 or $30 less per night than the generic competition.
Here’s a sampling of historic hotels around Florida for adventurous travelers.
Today Cedar Key feels like an out-of-the-way fishing village, but it was once a boom town. Founded in the 1850s, its big break was in 1861, when it became the western station on the Florida Railroad, the first link across the state, originating in Fernandina on Amelia Island.
The Island Hotel started out in 1859 as a general store. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has 10 rooms on the second floor, a good restaurant on the main floor and a popular bar off the lobby. There are no phones and no TVs.
The rooms are decorated with antiques, some bathrooms have claw-foot tubs and, of course, there are the requisite ghosts.
A broad balcony wraps around the second floor, where guests enjoy relaxing with a view of downtown. It was from that balcony, the story goes, that Jimmy Buffet sang and strummed his guitar during many visits in the 1980s. The hotel has hosted a random collection of other celebs that would make a good trivia question: What do Jimmy Buffet, Richard Boone, Myrna Loy and Tennessee Ernie Ford have in common?
One of the hotel’s small treasures is its Neptune Bar with a mural of King Neptune and bare-breasted mermaid. The mural probably was slightly scandalous when painted in 1948. The restaurant, which is very good, serves dinner. Breakfast in the dining room, for guests of the hotel only and included in the room price, is exceptional.
This hotel has seen glory days; its grand staircase and a 4,000-square-foot lobby testify to the aspirations George Sebring had when he built it in 1916. The Seaboard Airline Railway stopped here and Sebring saw boom times ahead.
The Great Depression and land-boom bust ended that, but the Kenilworth has been operating as a hotel ever since. Now, with a location decidedly off the beaten path, rooms start at $70 a night.
The front porch has rocking chairs and a view of Lake Jackson. The front counter is the original, with wooden mail slots. Out back, there’s an Olympic-size heated pool. Continental breakfast is included in the tariff. There’s plenty of charm here, but be warned: rooms are unadorned and some plumbing is old.
The Kenilworth is a great base for exploring this Old Florida region, with the beautiful Highland Hammocks State Park nearby and low-traffic country roads popular with bicyclists.Kenilworth Lodge, www.kenilworthlodge.com
This 1926 hotel has stuck it out on Atlantic Avenue as Delray Beach’s popularity has waxed and waned. Today, Atlantic Avenue is a happening place, with restaurants, nightlife, boutiques and new hotels, and the Colony is in the perfect location for guests to walk to everything. The Colony is now operated by the third generation of the family that bought it in 1935.
There are a few things that are striking about the Colony. Its expansive terrazzo-floored lobby is painted with vivid tropical colors, but because it was used as a winter resort for decades, it is not air conditioned. (Don’t worry: The rest of the hotel is.) The tiny elevator is the original and must be operated by an attendant. The original telephone switchboard is still there and the rooms are furnished in vintage style.
A key selling point for the Colony is the cabana club with a salt-water pool on a private beach, which is served by a shuttle bus from the hotel.Colony Hotel and Cabana Club, http://colonyflorida.com/
It’s hard for us to picture Indiantown, about 30 miles northwest of West Palm Beach in Martin County, as the future center of commerce in South Florida. But in 1926, prominent Baltimore banker and railroad man S. Davies Warfield decided it would be a model city and headquarters of his Seaboard Airline Railroad.
Warfield built the Seminole Inn and brought his niece, Wallis Warfield, to act as hostess at the hotel’s grand opening gala. Name sound familiar? Wallis Warfield Simpson would later become the Duchess of Windsor and the woman the King of England needed more than his crown.
Things didn’t work out for the businessman’s grand plans, but the Seminole Inn, with 18-inch thick walls that have been through several hurricanes, is a survivor.
The inn is now owned by Iris Pollack Wall and managed by her daughter Jonnie Flewelling. The Indiantown family has owned the inn on and off since buying it in dilapidated condition in 1976. The “on and off” part is an amusing tale of a family that bought the inn, sold it, bought it back, sold it again and then bought it for a third time when Jonnie begged her father to do so.
The place is full of charm, including a broad porch with inviting rocking chairs, a lobby with a handsome fireplace and a dining room with hardwood floors, a 12-foot pecky cypress ceiling and large arched windows. Rooms are all decorated in an Old Florida style.
With Indiantown not exactly a tourist mecca, the family works hard to make the Seminole a draw, with reasonable rates and good Southern-style food in its dining room. (We can vouch for the delicious fried-green-tomato-and bacon sandwich and sweet potato fries.) The moderately priced Sunday brunch attracts people from miles around.
In season, the Seminole Inn is the departure point for free guided tours of Barley Barber Swamp, a rare old-growth cypress forest with 1,000-year-old trees. The site is owned by Florida Power and Light.Seminole Inn, www.seminoleinn.com
The Jac, as residents call her, opened in 1926 and never closed. It has provided hospitality to travelers ever since.
It has seen Babe Ruth and Clark Gable as guests, housed hundreds of military pilots during World War II and was home base to dozens of St. Louis Cardinals during spring training.
Today you’re likely to find Red Hatters meeting for lunch and visitors lining up for the Sunday grand buffet.
Travelers driving down U.S. 27 (a slower but more interesting route than the Turnpike) stop here overnight.
One reason the Hotel Jacaranda is going strong is that in 1988 it was purchased by South Florida State College, which operates it and uses one wing as a dorm.
The expansive lobby is a step back in time, with paintings by the Florida Highwaymen on one wall, an old piano that is played daily during winter season and a library equipped with an antique writing desk.
In December, people come to the elaborately decorated lobby to take their family Christmas photos.
The rooms are reached by an old-fashioned elevator operated by an attendant. They are decorated with quilts and feature picturesque old-time plumbing fixtures.
The rooms are clean and comfortable rather than luxurious and they come in a variety of configurations. There are suites with two bedrooms and a living room for $140. The Big Grande Suite has three bedrooms, two baths and a living room for $205. All rooms have private bath with tub or shower and there is Wi-Fi, a pool and a hot tub.Jacaranda Hotel, www.hoteljac.com
For some readers, this hotel is in the neighborhood. For others, however, it is a perfect place to stay overnight so as to get an early start exploring Everglades National Park or the Florida Keys.
In recent years a local businessman bought and refurbished this 1904 hotel. It was one of the first buildings in Homestead, built directly across the street from the train depot when the railroad came through. Today it is a popular bed and breakfast with a restaurant that gets good reviews for its home-style cooking.
With its location in downtown Homestead, the Redland Hotel has served at one time or another as a store, the first post office and the first library.
It’s a friendly place, full of local character and interesting antiques. It is decorated with orchids, and historic photos line the walls. It revels in its history, with yellowing copies of articles about how Al Capone, among others, stopped here.
There are 12 rooms, each different and full of the sorts of things you imagine came from somebody’s grandmother’s attic. Like a lot of historic hotels, it is right on the line between charming and a little worn, but the ever-present owner, Mark Bell, and his staff work hard on customer service. It’s a favorite on TripAdvisor among birders and others intent on seeing the Everglades.The Hotel Redland, www.hotelredland.com
One more thought about staying in historic hotels: It’s wise to read up on TripAdvisor or in other travel guides when staying in an old hotel. Whether or not we enjoy something generally relates to our expectations. These places often have quirks and flaws. If you know people have complained about noise echoing in the hallways, maybe you’ll bring ear plugs and be prepared. Or, maybe you’ll stay someplace else. Either way, you’re more likely to have a satisfactory experience.
Bonnie Gross gives tips on visiting the natural and authentic Florida at www.FloridaRambler.com.