Florida Beyond the Beach

By Lavender February 29, 2008

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Central Florida boasts a couple of swell flight museums, and any Minnesotan with a thermometer can calculate the reason: If God had wanted us to suffer through another winter, would He have given Orville Wright the go-ahead? Think about it…. Then, step out of the Orlando Airport into a little slice of heaven, fringed with palms, you bet, but also with jeweled citrus groves and arcades of live oaks dressed in drooping shawls of Spanish moss. Leave the palms to Miami: These are the emblems of the Old South, as played out in Florida. Step back into pockets of mannerly, small-town hospitality, where a deferential “Sir” or “Ma’am” trips off the tongue with every sentence, and smiling locals greet you, as if their happiness depended on it—“Haah. How all y’all doin’ today?”

No ocean outside your hotel, but enough lakes to make a Minnesotan cede bragging rights: 544 within Central Florida’s Polk County, dotted with pelicans, cranes, herons—and, yes, proprietary gators. (That’s also why God also invented swimming pools, I believe.)

Downtown Lakeland, our base, boasts a cluster of mirror lakes. The town came into being when the railroad laid tracks in the 1880s to haul away the cattle and citrus crops. Later, a decline set in, causing many of its caramel-colored Art Deco limestone buildings to lie vacant. Then—fast-forward to the 1980s—civic leaders banded together to reverse the blight, and restore its architectural treasures. The town took the arts to its heart. Tourists heard the call, and hightailed it over, as respite from the Disney frenzy 30 minutes distant (thus, best-of-both-worlds location for vacationers).

It’s Norman Rockwell through a sunny lens. Lakeland’s streets bear sweet names like Orange, Lime, and Lemon. They’re lined with flowerpots, inviting benches, and engaging public art—like the bronze angler casting his line into Lake Mirror. He’s so lifelike that aggrieved citizens report him to the cops: “He’s fishing, Officer! That’s illegal!”

Within the galleries of the Polk Museum of Art, however, the artworks are treasured rather than arrested—especially its priceless collection of pre-Columbian figures. Artworks dot the lakeside Hollis Gardens, too, from its fountained grotto to the formal plantings to an astounding collection of trees from estates of renowned people—Martin Luther King’s sycamore; Elvis’s weeping willow; plantings from the homes of Patrick Henry, Susan B. Anthony, and the list goes on.

The town boasts its own orchestra and ballet troupe. Along with road shows (Hairspray just concluded), they occupy the stage of the Polk Theater, an over-the-top movie palace from the ’20s. If you stick around for the tour, you’ll spy Elvis’s autograph where he scrawled it on the dressing room wall. Hike to the Lakeland Center, a stage-cum-arena hosting everything from indoor football and rodeos to ice revues and the circus. Or, step outdoor to catch a ballgame—Lakeland is the winter home of the Detroit Tigers.

Instead, I patrolled the classic town square, bounded by a quirky mix of retail shops, antiques emporiums, an Irish pub, and a coffeehouse called Black & Brew and Mitchell’s—home, I was instructed, of “the best Co’Cola cake you ever ate.” (Indeed, it was, but I’m a novice.) Anchoring the square is Harry’s Seafood, with its Mardi Gras theme, offering killer fried green tomatoes, crawfish etouffée, and a chocolate bread pudding that caused our server to hyperventilate, “It’s a religious experience.” For the record, then, I’ve been saved!

For genteel dining that could hold its own in any city, wander into the romantic Terrace Grille, and summon its meltaway crab cakes atop wilted spinach in Creole sauce, followed by what locals swear is the best meatloaf on the planet. But, hey, I voted for the dynamite rack of lamb, and confess to sneaking a fork into my neighbor’s excellent sea bass, too. The flat-out best dessert? Key lahm pah.

And for breakfast, Southern-style, try Tony’s Air Café, overlooking—no, make that virtually on top of—the airstrip, where you can order hotcakes with a side of grits, and biscuits so light, they take off faster than the planes.

The Florida Air Museum—the first of two I promised you—conveys the history of aviation via planes up-close and personal in its vast hanger, along with a unique collection of Howard Hughes memorabilia, including his ’n’ hers flight suits for when Katherine Hepburn climbed aboard.

Take in the Fantasy of Flight, boasting the world’s largest collection of vintage aircraft. And here you can indulge in more than wishful gawking. Its immersion experience called Fightertown is a journey through historic wartime battles in the air, starting with your “parachute jump,” landing you smack in the middle of enemy fire. Climb into a simulator to try to hit your target while dodging death via attacking planes. Or, try the chicken version—a simulated ride in a hot air balloon or hang glider.

Then, on to the most spectacular “who knew?” moment of all—the campus of Florida Southern College, where none other than Frank Lloyd Wright designed a dozen buildings (the world’s largest grouping of the preeminent architect’s works), linked by his arcaded esplanades. “The whole campus is a study of geometry and mathematics,” our guide said, from the Water Dome and its fountains to the skylighted chapel, where, Wright opined, “God shines down onto people”—a study in cantilever and balance, and, yes, raw genius. Interesting note: Many of the concrete-block structures were built by students during the Depression, earning their tuition via sweat equity.

That single-minded designer would turn over in his grave were he to set eyes on Chalet Suzanne—which only goes to show that those with unbending standards miss all the fun. The Pepto-pink restaurant and 70-room inn set lakeside amid 70 acres are what happened when a determined child of the desperate ’30s set her mind on survival. Founder Bertha Hinshaw, a young widow, pounded signs along the highway to attract her first paying guest, and the rest is a delicious history, illustrated by the Moorish and Mediterranean art treasures she subsequently collected while gallivanting across the globe (hiding priceless finds under her skirt to sneak them home, it’s said).

The chalet’s rooms are quirky and entrancing in equal measure, while the café’s food is simply downright wonderful, starting with the Swedish breakfast pancakes, whose recipe fourth-generation owner Dee smilingly declines to part with. Stick around for the inn’s fab five-course dinner, featuring the Moon Soup (OK, it’s really romaine) that astronauts from neighboring Cape Canaveral insisted on taking with them into outer space. Tour the soup factory they spawned next door, or venture into the Ceramic Salon to design and fire a tile in competition with the Moorish wonders that caught Hinshaw’s eye.

Fortified and happy, we steered toward Lake Wales, another slice of Rockwell, with an art center worth exploring and, nearby, a museum within the former depot, along with a couple of railroad cars to clamber through. Inside, artifacts of bygone local industry—cattle, railroads, and citrus—reveal a past era, as does the standout collection of vintage toys.

Lake Wales existed as the wintertime oasis for families like Rockefeller, Firestone, and Wrigley, as well as for a self-made millionaire named Bok, who rose to become editor of the housewives bible, the Ladies’ Home Journal. Come payback time, the philanthropist donated 200 acres of gorgeous gardens, anchored by its graceful emblem, the Bok Tower. Called (gushingly) the “Taj Mahal of America,” the limestone icon, dressed in Moderne carvings of water birds, contains a carillon whose bells peal calming concerts as you stroll.

And stroll we did—finally, farther along the way, through Cypress Gardens Adventure Park, a one-size-fits-all park featuring acres of tropical greenery for seekers of peace and contemplation, and an amusement park with killer rides that promise just the opposite. Smack in the middle is a water-ski show: “Watch in Awe” (the emcee speaks in capital letters) “as they Ski Across the Liquid Stage”).

Now, if you’re a Rockefeller down for the winter, you’re probably not the type to patronize a Floridian institution that astounded us Northerners: a drive-through called the Beverage Center (booze to go). Instead, the Spectator-anointed wine list at Lake Wales’s La Bella Torre is probably more to your liking. Marry the list’s earthy Primitivo with a heap of the kitchen’s lamb chops, and as far as I’m concerned, the South can rise again!

For information, contact the Central Florida Visitors & Convention Bureau at (800) 828-7655, or visit www.visitcentralflorida.org—and you soon will be on your way.

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