Friday, February 18, 2011

The Other Florida

Treasures in Lakeland, Lake Wales and Winter Haven

By Doc Lawrence

Much of Florida is still off the beaten path. The museums, art galleries and architecture of Lakeland weren’t unknown to me. I knew something about Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectual wonders at Florida Southern College, this city’s crown jewel. Years ago, I adopted the aphorism that seeing is believing. When I walked into the first of Wright’s astonishing creations, the stunning college library, I thought how impossible it is to describe the grandeur in abstentia.

After checking in at the renowned Lakeland Terrace Hotel, I knew adventure was ahead. When the opulently appointed hotel opened in 1924, it was hailed as one of Florida's finest new year-round inns. Located in the heart of the downtown district, the hotel underwent a $13 million renovation in 1999 and was placed on the National Historic Register.

Every journey has a beginning and my first meaningful step was into Lakeland’s glorious Polk Museum of Art. A tour of the main galleries featuring renowned traveling exhibitions and the permanent pre-Columbian gallery and outdoor sculpture garden proved that this is one of the premier arts facilities in the Sunshine State. The nearby Polk Theatre, a beautifully restored historic vaudeville/movie palace shows films on weekends and features a live performing arts series each year.

My second day began with a visit to Lakeland Linder Airport and a tour of the Florida Air Museum and an introduction to Sun 'n Fun, best known for its April Fly-In, which attracts aviation enthusiasts from all over the country. The Museum at Sun 'n Fun is open year-round, displaying numerous aircraft including Henry Ford’s one-seat, single propeller airplane. Henry mistakenly believed his plane would follow a similar path to his popular Model T. There is also an impressive collection of aviation artifacts once belonging to Howard Hughes, including a flight suit likely worn by one of his glamorous companions. I wondered if it belonged to Katherine Hepburn?

Overlooking Lakeland’s Lake Mirror is Hollis Garden. Neoclassical in design and featuring more than 10,000 flowers and ornamental shrubs, it chronicles Florida history up to the modern era where horticulture is driven primarily by aesthetics. The nearby Explorations V Children's Museum, another fine example of why Lakeland is such a livable city. It consists of three floors of mind-stretching, kid-powered exhibits featuring art, science, literature, math, health, life skills and cultures from around the world.

Frank Lloyd Wright left an indelible mark on Florida Southern College. His legacy distinguishes the campus from all others. Construction of his " Child of the Sun" campus commenced in 1938 with the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel and concluded in 1958. Wright designed eighteen structures for the campus, and built twelve, representing the world's largest one-site grouping of his work. The Visitors Center is the permanent home for photographs, furniture, and drawings depicting Wright's relationship with the College.

The famed landmark Cypress Gardens, now known as Cypress Gardens Adventure Park, propelled Winter Haven as a tourist destination. Once, Ester Williams and her contemporaries performed here. New owner, Kent Buescher, who also owns Wild Adventures Theme Park in south Georgia, has revived Cypress Gardens while retaining the legendary Ski Show, botanical gardens and Southern Belles that helped make it famous, adding family fun rides, roller coasters and a new water park.

Winter Haven’s Ridge Art Association and Theatre Winter Haven share the Chain O’ Lakes Civic Center and are emblematic of the strongly rooted arts tradition in Central Florida. Theatre Winter Haven, called “one of the finest community theaters” by the Tampa Tribune offers eight full-scale productions annually, selling more than 30,000 seats.

The renowned Bok Sanctuary is one of Florida's original tourism venues known globally for a bell tower housing one of the world's great carillons. Located on the highest point on the Florida peninsula, Bok Tower Sanctuary is a national landmark that includes 128 acres of gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., also the landscape architect for Atlanta’s Druid Hills. The elevation and lush foliage are reminiscent of central Tibet, belying closeness to Orlando and Tampa.

The living is good in Lake Wales, home to the Lake Wales Arts Center. Housed in an old Spanish mission-style church building, this is a treasure trove of visual art and music, owned and operated by very progressive Lake Wales Arts Council. Nearby, the Lake Wales Museum and Cultural Center, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, features permanent exhibits from Lake Wales' colorful history plus a train exhibit and a 1926 Caboose.

Another aviation-themed museum, The Fantasy of Flight near Polk City is home to the world's largest private collection of vintage aircraft, and several of the perfectly restored planes have been featured in motion pictures like “Flyboys.” Among the impressive collection is a Curtiss Jenny, a Ford Tri-Motor, a reproduction of the renowned Ryan “Spirit of St. Louis,” a German JU-52, a Japanese Zero, a Corsair F4U, a B-17 Flying Fortress and a B-24 Liberator. Hot air balloon and biplane rides are popular offerings.


Breakfast at the world-renowned Chalet Suzanne, opened in 1931, is a step back in time. Located in Lake Wales, 30 rooms nestled on 70 acres caters to guests of all ages. The Texas Cattle Company in Lakeland features prime beef aged four to six weeks and has an impressive wine list with some real bargains like steak-friendly Malbec from Argentina.

Dining in Lakeland is a joy. The Terrace Grille in the Terrace Hotel has received national recognition featuring a gourmet menu equivalent to the finest restaurants in culinary centers like New Orleans with a wine cellar featuring an array of fine wines. The Grille and is rated as one of Central Florida's finest eateries.

These are just a few highlights from a region of Florida that is becoming more and more popular as a travel destination, which deserves a place in your vacation plans.

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