As talkies took over from silent films, movie stars moved away from coastal Florida. The Hacienda began a slow decline around World War II. At one point the hotel served as a facility for psychiatric patients, and it sat abandoned for nearly two decades. In 2022, it finally reopened as a restored landmark worthy of its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Despite its early brush with fame, New Port Richey remains a low-key kind of place. It was just what my friend Patti and I were looking for as a relaxing getaway. When we get together, we always have a lot of catching up to do. We appreciate a few diversions and adventures, but we don’t need to be entertained every minute.
From the moment we walked past the fountain in the front courtyard and entered the Hacienda’s massive lobby, we basked in the old-style glamour of the stone fireplace, wrought-iron chandeliers, and wooden ceiling beams and moldings. Patti and I didn’t spot any celebrities — or either of the two ghosts said to haunt the hotel. But that was OK. We did check out the celebrity roster on New Port Richey’s Walk of Fame along the sidewalk outside the hotel. It honors everyone from early settlers to sports stars and entertainers. Patti and I puzzled over the names of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash and wondered about their connection to the city. Later on, we’d get the answer.
Charming civility at water’s edge
There’s an easy interplay between the natural world and urban life in New Port Richey. The back of the hotel opens onto Sims Park, a popular green space in the heart of downtown. We strolled around the lake near the center of the park, and then continued walking to the Cotee River Park. Along the short riverbank path, we spotted sport anglers, boaters, and paddlers enjoying a slow-paced sunny Florida afternoon.
The city’s old-fashioned downtown is also a short walk from the Hacienda. Patti and I browsed the all-local merchants offering antiques, crafts, and warm-weather vacation attire. On Grand Boulevard, we passed the Spanish Revival-style Richey Suncoast Theatre, which presents music, comedy, live theater, and movies. Originally called the Meighan Theatre, it opened in 1926 with a screening of Thomas Meighan’s film “The New Klondike.”
We were headed for the White Heron Tea Room, only a block from the theater. Patti and I knew we’d made the right choice when tea room manager Dawne McDonald told us to turn off the ringers on our cellphones. Enjoying a mellow afternoon tea calls for full attention without interruption. McDonald presented us with a tiered tray laden with deviled eggs, finger sandwiches, caramel lemon macarons, chocolate chip cannolis, and vanilla scones.
“We don’t force anybody to share,” McDonald quipped as she prepared to pour our tea.
A castaway idyll
To get out on the water, Patti and I could have rented kayaks at Windsong Charters & Boat Rentals. We opted instead for a leisurely cruise aboard the Ponty Saurus so we could soak up some local color from Captain Anthony Andrianos. He kept up a lively patter as we cruised out of the marina headed for open water.
“Those trees are the nursery for our wildlife,” Andrianos said as he pointed out the mangroves along the shore. Andrianos also told us to keep an eye out for manatees. We didn’t see any of the chunky sea cows, but we did spot plenty of gray herons, cormorants, and pelicans. Playful dolphins swam alongside our slow-moving pontoon boat, as if challenging us to a race they knew they’d win.
The captain also resolved that mystery from the Walk of Fame. He pointed to one of the more modest homes along the riverbank. “That was the home of Johnny and June Cash,” Andrianos told us. “I used to see him out there fishing.”
Cash probably had a lot of luck casting his line. As we puttered along, we spotted small boats angling for redfish, flounder, and speckled trout. As we reached open water, several rickety structures perched precariously on stilts. “These stilt houses were first built about a century ago for fishermen to store their catch and escape bad weather,” Andrianos explained. Fewer than a dozen stilt houses remain. Many were destroyed when Hurricane Gladys roared through in 1968.
Such a storm seemed unimaginable as Andrianos brought the boat close to Anclote Key and Patti and I waded ashore through brilliant turquoise waters. The key is the largest of the four barrier islands of Anclote Key Preserve State Park. The islands can only be reached by boat. Even on a gorgeous day, Anclote Key was nearly deserted. We felt a bit like delighted castaways as we padded barefoot down the sparkling white sand looking for shells.
I was sorry when Andrianos docked our boat back in New Port Richey. My sojourn in the Florida sun was drawing to a close. Right at the water’s edge, Widow Fletcher’s helped me ease into a New England frame of mind. The tavern is, in fact, named after a now-closed tavern in Hampton, N.H. That establishment took the name of the widow of a mid-18th-century New England militiaman who died in battle. To support herself and her child, the Widow Fletcher opened a tavern in her home.
Patti and I love a good tale of a spunky woman, however fanciful it might be. Who can blame her for flying south like all the other snowbirds? On a balmy Florida evening, winter could wait, at least until we finished our fried fish sandwiches.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at [email protected].
If you go …
Where to stay and eat
5621 Main St.
Forty bright and comfortable guestrooms are less ornate than the public spaces. From $159.
White Heron Tea Room
6228 Grand Boulevard
Afternoon tea served Wednesday-Saturday at noon and 2 p.m. Reservations required. $24.95.
Widow Fletcher’s Restaurant
4927 US 19
Dockside dining features salads, sandwiches, and fresh fish.
Open daily for lunch and dinner. Sandwiches from $11.99, entrees from $14.99.
What to do
Windsong Charters & Boat Rentals
5015 US 19
Open Friday-Monday 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Kayak rentals from $20, pontoon boat with captain from $250.