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Destination United States of America

Florida Between Gardens and Wetlands

The central Florida area surprises visitors by extending the common conception of “destination” to include authenticity and natural beauty. Here you’ll find land thickly planted with citrus, wild areas, and adventure activities.

By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez

 

The first thing that captivates visitors to Polk County is the sky, which appears in tones of azure and white. Luminous and boundless, it arches boldly over Florida’s fourth largest county; there are no tall buildings, hills, or mountains to limit its sweep.

Then there are the water lilies, delicately peeping above the surfaces of rivers and lakes, which seem to pulsate with the plants, while the oppressively hot air of central Florida flays those on land.

Polk County is located in the heart of Florida, near the cities of Tampa and Orlando. It is a rural district covering 2,164 square miles, 1,169 of which are planted with orange groves, meaning that 54% of county land is allocated to citrus fruit. It is no surprise that the industry involves a 12,000-strong army of growers. In fact, Polk county is the state’s largest producer of oranges.

Beyond its importance to the citrus industry, Polk County is famed for its natural beauty. Among the attractions are parks, nature preserves, and gardens that could have served as models for the Garden of Eden, irresistibly encouraging visitors to lose themselves in the colors and sounds of the landscape.

Wetlands Abound

Camp Mack’s River Resort, located between Lake Kissimmee and Lake Hatchineha, offers rented cabins, vacation homes, and RV campsites in addition to airboat tours. Airboats are small flat-bottomed boats with elevated seats, powered by an airplane propeller and ideal for navigating swamps, canals, rivers, and lakes. It is a noisy vehicle, but it maneuvers easily among and over tree trunks and matted vegetation.

Commanding the airboat this Tuesday morning is Captain Andy, who left his air-conditioned desk job many years ago to traverse these alligator-infested waters with the company Alligator Cove. The tour consists of a trip along the river that allows passengers to discover—in the trees, among the plants, or on the banks— birds, insects, or alligators. This is a visual feast for bird watchers; there are eagles, herons, ducks, ibis, egrets, and vultures, as well as innumerable smaller species, many with exuberant songs and colors.

Another significant site for appreciating the biodiversity of the wetlands is the Circle B Bar Reserve. The 1,265 acres of the reserve consist of county land formerly used for cattle ranching and mining, but now restored to a wetland state. Aside from the more than ten trails, Circle B features Polk’s Nature Discovery Center, an interactive museum that allows children to learn about and understand the variety of local flora and fauna in an entertaining, hands-on fashion. The reserve’s educational mission is particularly important since Florida has lost more than half of its wetlands in the last two hundred years.

History and Play

Polk County includes the cities of Fort Meade, Mulberry, Auburndale, and Lakeland. As the name indicates, Lakeland is a lake city with a charmingly restored old quarter, thirty-eight named lakes, and many more unnamed ones.

One of the lakes is inhabited by trusting swans, ducks, and ibis, which are accustomed to being fed by humans. This is an idyllic spot, not only because of the lovely surroundings dotted with benches for sitting and contemplating the view, but because it is located smack in the middle of a city that had the vision to turn its bodies of water into civic attractions for residents.

The Lake Mirror Promenade, another area attraction, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Bordering the lake are several buildings and public spaces, including a train station (the train route stretches across Florida and goes as far as New York), Hollis Garden, and Barnett Family Park. Hollis Garden has sections of tropical, aromatic, and edible plants, among others, and a spectacular rose garden well worth a visit. Barnett Family Park is a vast children’s playground with playscapes and fountains.

The city was founded by Abraham Munn in the 1870s, and it grew as the railroad developed. The streets of this historic city are lined with buildings from the 1920s through 1940s, including the emblematic Polk Theater, where Elvis Presley himself performed in 1955.

A trip to Polk County is not complete without a visit to the county’s signature Legoland Park. Located in the city of Winter Haven, it is aimed at children from two to twelve and young-at-heart adults, who can play with giant pieces in Duplo Valley, engage in water battles in the World of Chima, or enjoy medieval adventures in Legoland Castle. There are more than fifteen constructed worlds —each more fantastic than the one before—complete with denizens built entirely of Legos. There is also a water park and a water ski and stunt show in Pirate’s Cove.

Two places in particular caught my attention. The first, Cypress Gardens, drew me with its beautiful trails, gazebo, and the wild beauty of its main attraction: the banyan or Bengal fig, an enormous tree with exposed roots that form an incredible, spreading tangle of shapes and shadows. The other is Miniland, a miniature city that reproduces iconic scenes from various U.S. cities; the amount and quality of detail make it a highly entertaining attraction.

A Singing Garden

Bok Tower Gardens is undoubtedly a close second to an earthly paradise: fifty acres of ancient trees and ornamental plants in an unstructured woodland setting give the trails a relaxed, country feel.

Some of its attractions include the Endangered Plant Garden, the Oak Garden, the Reflection Pool, and the Singing Tower, which is topped by a sixty-bell carillon. Geert D’Hollander, who inherited the trade from his father, is in charge of the instrument. He is just the fourth person since 1928 to hold this job in the Tower. The Belgium-trained musician belongs to a select guild of carillonneurs: there are only some six hundred carillons around the world and only 250 people who know how to make this instrument sing.

For gardening and landscape enthusiasts, Bok Tower is incomparable. There are roses, hibiscus, marigolds, pinto peanut, fragrant water lilies, berries, and more than 120 species of birds drawn to feeding stations and birdbaths. In season, the azalea garden glows with color, and every afternoon from one to three, the music emanating from the Singing Tower is lovely enough to nearly qualify as a spiritual awakening.

 


Additional Sites

Polk County features yet another not-to-be-missed site: the Safari Wilderness Ranch, which offers guided tours in safari vehicles that bring visitors up close to exotic animals like dromedaries, camels, zebras, antelope, deer, capybaras, kangaroos, ostriches, dwarf goats, lemurs, and burros, among many others. For more information, visit

www.safariwilderness.com.

Take a trip through the Citrus Candy Factory, which offers a wide variety of candies and jams that make ideal gifts.

For further information on tourist attractions, routes, and prices, visit the Polk County Information Center

(www.visitcentralflorida.org).

 


How to Get There

Copa Airlines offers four flights a week to Tampa and four flights a day to neighboring Orlando. Polk County is one and a half hours by highway from either city.

Where to Eat

The Terrace Hotel Restaurant is located in Lakeland, on the corner of Main Street and Massachusetts Avenue. The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and has a wonderful view of the Lake Mirror Promenade.

Gary’s Oyster Bar & Seafood in Lake Alfred is a real family-dining restaurant. Specializing in various preparations of seafood (fresh, fried, and roasted), they also serve more unusual dishes like alligator tail and frog legs. In fact, alligator and frog are normal fare at many area restaurants.

Don’t miss the raw oysters, the seafood soup, and the Yuengling Draft beer.

Where to Stay

Central Florida has lodging options for all tastes and budgets. In addition to hotels, there are fully-equipped vacation rentals for $99 to $150 a day. For further information, visit www.contempogroup.com.

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