Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Calling all classicists in search of the real thing in the Tampa Bay area: The Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa , set on a high coastal bluff overlooking Clearwater Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, is not only Florida's oldest golf resort, it's reputedly the largest occupied wooden structure in the world. The sprawling, 244-room hotel (above), built by railroad magnate Henry Plant in 1897, was renovated in 2001 to the tune of more than $9,000 per room and is today a full-service resort with swimming pools, a spa and fitness center, a children's playground, and other amenities. A stately Victorian edifice patronized by Babe Ruth and dozens of other Jazz Age celebrities (their black-and-white photos line the hallways), the Biltmore is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In a state filled with commercial cookie-cutter hotels, this property offers genuine turn-of-the-century style.

Five minutes from the resort is the Belleview Biltmore Golf Club , a little-known Donald Ross-designed gem opened in 1925 and recently treated to a $2.4 million restoration that adheres closely to original blueprints supplied by the Donald Ross Society. Unusual for most Tampa-area courses, nature, not houses, dominates the field of play. Crowned pedestal greens, a Ross trademark, invite run-up shots but tend to shed careless approaches,

while well-placed fairway bunkers snare errant drives. The course looks fairly benign on the scorecard -- 6,614 yards, par 71 -- but four of the par fours exceed 440 yards from the tips. Large water oaks and pines narrow a few fairways, and water comes into play at seven holes. But the biggest deterrent to low scoring is the wind. In common with a links, much of the course is relatively flat and exposed to onshore Gulf breezes. The best-kept secret on Florida's west coast? This refurbished classic may be it.

On the other hand, the club's Grill Room and Bar is a 19th hole for the 21st century: 14 televisions, five satellite dishes, and a lively sports bar atmosphere. Seeking improvement? The on-site Ken Venturi Golf Academy offers half-day, full-day, and three-day packages.

The Belleview Biltmore's two-night Classic Golf Package, including accommodations, full American breakfast, 18 holes with cart daily (additional rounds available for cart fee only), unlimited use of practice facility, club storage and cleaning, and shuttle to and from the club (and to Clearwater Beach), is priced at $185 per person, double occupancy, through April 30. Reservations: 800-237-8947. Web site: www.belleviewbiltmore.com.

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