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Iconic hotels tell Florida’s history

To make the headlines and fill their beds draped with 1,000-thread-count sheets, today’s hotels must generate buzz.

To make the headlines and fill their beds draped with 1,000-thread-count sheets, today's hotels must generate buzz. Big-name architects, celebrity chefs, rock-star interior designers — all are common in the hotel scene of 2013.

And they are all indebted to Florida's grande-dame hotels — The Breakers of Palm Beach, The Biltmore of Coral Gables and the Don CeSar of St. Pete Beach — which were the first in the state to lure guests with last names like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Hearst with their gorgeous design and exemplary service.

These three have all survived troubled times and endure today as true Florida icons.

The Biltmore, Coral Gables

It may not be evident in the Spanish Revival grandeur that looms over the greenery of Coral Gables today, but The Biltmore hotel is a fighter—a survivor.

Built in 1926, it was the tallest building in Florida at the time and drew names like Babe Ruth and Al Capone to its grand hallways. Coral Gables historian Arva Parks has chronicled the history of the still- glamorous hotel, noting that it served as three different hospitals for the armed forces.

Nowadays, the Biltmore caters to well-heeled guests, with its lush gardens, 18-hole championship golf course, farm-to-table dining at the courtyard Fontana — and, of course, its glorious pool, once graced by Hollywood synchronized swimmers and today the domain of lively, pampered tots and sunbathing beauties in colorful caftans.

The Don CeSar, St. Pete Beach

Since 1928, the "Pink Palace" has been a beacon for travelers, not to mention for ships; the hotel is so large, it was listed as a point of reference on maritime maps.

Early guests included F. Scott Fitzgerald, FDR and the Great Depression-era New York Yankees, who stayed there during spring training. The hotel fell on hard times during the 1940s, and was even used as a convalescent home by the Air Force (and painted green — egad!) before being restored in 1973.

Today, the Don is again the plushest place to stay along the Gulf, a thing of beauty with its Moorish- style archways and cupolas restored to their original pink hue. But it's the emphasis on Jazz Age–era service — evident in extras like a poolside concierge and a VIP program designed for pets — that makes the hotel stand out.

The Breakers, Palm Beach

The impressive Schultze and Weaver structure that stands today is the third incarnation of the hotel, originally opened by Henry Flagler and called the Palm Beach Inn.

Flagler rebuilt the hotel after it was ravaged by fire in 1903. Twelve years after his death, it was revived after yet another fire.

For the hotel's historian, 95-year- old James A. Ponce, that spirit of renewal goes hand in hand with The Breakers' timeless glamour. He has a hard time pinning down his favorite aspect of the hotel: "The most beautiful room would be the Gold Room, but the most magnificent room is the Circle Room," he says.

The hotel is still the centerpiece of the Palm Beach social scene, and is fresh from an $80 million renovation, including a new suite designed by the fashion team Badgley Mischka.