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Gardens and Groves of Central Florida Provide

Relief for Disney Fatigue
by Mark Bradley
March 16, 2008

Everyone knows Orlando and Central Florida is home to DisneyWorld and is at the top of many family vacation wish lists. But do yourself a favor if Disney “fatigue” sets in and escape to the gardens and groves of nearby Polk County.

Less than an hour away from the Magic Kingdom I found the charm and relaxation I was seeking by strolling through lovely, lakeside Hollis Gardens in downtown Lakeland; enjoying a panoramic view of bountiful orange groves from historic Bok Sancturary near Lake Wales (the highest point in penisular Florida), and marveling at the water ski show on Lake Eloise in Winter Haven at world famous Cypress Gardens. But first, let’s talk about getting you here. It’s never been easier to fly to Central Florida thanks to Allegiant Air. Affordable direct flights to Orlando/Sanford airport are available to Illinois residents from Peoria twice weekly. Go to www.allegiantair.com for more information.

It is also a short drive from this airport to Daytona Beach where I decided to return and meet my friend Georgia Turner for a day trip to climb Florida’s tallest lighthouse.

The historic Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum is just a few miles south of Daytona Beach and its 175 foot climb rewarded me with a workout as well as a spectacular 360 degree view of the coastline and the intracoastal waterway on a glorious 75 degree sunny day in January.

In the shadow of the lighthouse I spotted the Marine Science Center and SeaBird Rehabilitation Sanctuary. Here injured sea turtles, birds, and other local creatures are lovingly nursed back to health with the eventual goal of being released back into the wild. Check them out at www.marinesciencecenter.com.

And don’t miss the Museum of Arts and Sciences and the Southeast Museum of Photography to satisfy your cultural cravings in Daytona.

The next morning we set out for our primary destination of Polk County and our first stop was Polk Outpost 27, a new and engaging Visitor Center. Here you can make all your lodging/dining reservations as well as learn about all the attractions the county has to offer. Conveniently located on Hwy 27 just off Interstate 4 it is worth the stop.

Our hotelier of choice was the Best Western Admiral’s Inn in Winter Haven. Centrally located in the county and adjacent to Cypress Gardens, it not only provided comfortable accomodations but is home to Antonio’s Ristorante- one of the finest restaurants I’ve enjoyed anywhere (more on that later).

Polk County is known as lake country (554 to be exact) so we chose Harborside Restaurant on Lake Shipp in Winter Haven for dinner. Tasty traditional Florida fare such as oysters, shrimp, fresh fish, frog legs, etc were on the menu but my favorite was the deep fried “Gator Bites”. Alligator is delicious!

The next morning we dined at the elegant Terrace Grille in downtown Lakeland, the county’s largest city. Across the street Hollis Gardens offers a respite from the modern world with its neoclassical gardens featuring more than 10,000 flowers and ornamental shrubs.

Lunch was much more informal at The Barn, the Stable and the Backporch Tearoom. This family operated business offers antiques, gifts, and collectibles in a rural setting. In fact, lunch is served in wooden baskets at the Backporch.

Of course, citrus is the primary crop here and to learn more about it we visited the Citrus Research and Education Center. Here scientists conduct research to develop seedless fruit; natural solutions to pests(not involving pesticides); and how to most efficiently process and pack fruit.

Just down the road in Lake Wales, the Florida Natural Grower’s Grove House offered us a taste of Florida sunshine in a glass. Their farmer owned and operated co-op produces all natural juice products using only Florida citrus unlike their larger competitors who often import juice from overseas. Their Florida Natural brand has always been my favorite. It’s available at Schnucks in our area.

That night we were treated to fine dining at Antonio’s along with live piano music and tableside cooking. If you’re lucky, the restaurant manager will sing opera at the piano bar accompanied by the Ray Charles look-a-like pianist. I know it sounds strange but somehow it worked! The next moring we crossed the street from the hotel to visit Cypress Gardens Adventure Park. This famed landmark opened in the 1930’s and has retained the world famous ski show, botanical gardens and Southern Belles that helped make it famous while adding family fun rides, roller coasters and a new water park.

I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Whitney Bragg, a lovely young Southern Belle decked out in her trademark hoop skirt who strolled the grounds. She agreed to give me her best “Gone With the Wind” imitation of Miss Scarlett and I played Rhett Butler for a photo op as she recoiled in horror at my suggestion of a kiss on the cheek. Great fun!

After a walk through the gardens and a front row seat for the amazing water ski show, we departed for lunch at Taste of Florida and a tour of Lang Sun Country Groves near Lake Alfred where my search for the super sweet Honeybell orange would end.

I had first tried Honeybells three years ago and found them to be far superior to any orange I had ever eaten. They are a hybrid that is only harvested once a year and lucky for me it is in January.

I sampled a slice and quickly ordered a case of them to be shipped home along with enjoying their sweetness in a homemade Honeyball cake at Taste of Florida. It just doesn’t get any better for citrus lovers including Martha Stewart who has featured them on her show.

Nearby Davidson’s of Dundee has also gained a well earned reputation for its citrus and was recently featured on the Food Network for its trademark Citrus Candy. Located in he SunRidge area of Central Florida they have been shipping to customers for over 35 years.

That evening we were guests of Chalet Suzanne Restaurant and Country Inn near Lake Wales which has been voted one of Florida’s most romantic getaway destinations. Their award winning restaurant and quaint individual rooms have been attracting guests to their family run operation since the Great Depression.

If you’re looking for a place to spend a special occasion this is it. Their signature dishes include Chalet Suzanne’s Broiled Grapefruit topped with a chicken liver. You can’t get that everywhere!

However, if you’re more a rough and tumble vacationer you’ll want to visit the Westgate River Ranch, a 1,700 acre dude ranch on the banks of the Kissimmee River. Here you can horseback ride, skim down the river on an airboat, shoot skeet, play golf, and even participate in their Saturday night rodeo. A variety of affordable rooms and RV slips are available to overnight guests. Who would have thought you could be a cowboy/cowgirl in Florida?

Another hidden gem is the Historic Bok Sanctuary. Located near Lake Wales on a high ridge, Bok Tower Sanctuary is a national landmark including 128 acres of gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr, and features a magnificent 205 foot bell tower housing one of the world’s greatest carillons.

Founded by publisher/writer Edward W. Bok in the 1920’s, it has long been a retreat from the stress of the modern world and on this day with the sun shining brightly, a swan swimming peacefully in the pond, and a gentle breeze lifting the music from the carillon over the gardens I’m sure he would have been pleased.

The next morning on our way back to Orlando, we were treated to breakfast at one of the many vacation rental homes that are available through the Central Florida Vacation Rental Management Association.

We toured a six bedroom home complete with a screened patio and swimming pool that rents for under $250 per day! When you consider it can comfortably sleep a dozen or more people it might be the most affordable way to accommodate your group. For more information write to Jeff Chase, Excutive Director, at jchase@floridamagicvacation.com.

For complete information on Polk County go to www.visitcentralflorida.org

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