Polk County in central Florida not only features orange groves, gardens and museums, but it offers easy access to Orlando and Tampa.
By Elaine Warner
If you’re looking for a Florida vacation with something extra, look to Polk County in central Florida. This area has plenty to offer, plus it’s a great base for forays to the attractions of Orlando or the treats of Tampa.
Above: Polk County is the No. 1 citrus producer in Florida, and visitors will find many places to buy oranges and more. ©Shutterstock Images® photo
Below: Fantasy of Flight in Polk City features an array of vintage aircraft, and visitors can even fly in an open-cockpit plane. Fantasy of Flight photo
Only Brazil produces more oranges annually than Florida, and Polk County is the No. 1 citrus producer in the state. For a signature Polk County experience, drive through the citrus groves during February and March, the peak season for orange blossoms. It’s an olfactory delight. The best time to see oranges on the trees–and to buy the fresh fruit–is from November through May.
To learn more about Florida’s liquid gold, stop in at Florida’s Natural Grower’s Grove House in Lake Wales. Open weekdays and select Saturdays October through May, the center features a short video on citrus from the tree to the table, and there’s a chance to taste the product.
You’ll find a number of spots to buy fruit, but one of the best is Lang’s Sun Country Groves between Haines City and Lake Alfred. A family business since 1951, Lang’s was one of Florida’s first gift fruit shippers–and you won’t get fresher oranges. Open during citrus season, Lang’s sells fruit, jellies and other gifts.
Plan on having lunch here at the Taste of Florida Café. Many of the recipes are originals created by founder Mary Lang. Where else could you get a hot dog topped with grapefruit slaw? Another signature item is Lang’s grapefruit pie that has been featured on the Food Network.
Sate your sweet tooth at Davidson of Dundee. Another homegrown enterprise, Davidson’s grew out of patriarch Thomas Walter Davidson’s citrus groves. His son, Glen, had experience in the candy business and founded Davidson of Dundee in 1967.
The company makes jams, jellies, marmalades and more from homegrown fruit. Davidson’s also makes chocolates, fudge, brittles, pralines, tropical butters and orange blossom honey. To open a jar of their honey is to release the aroma of the orchard. The shop in Dundee is open year-round and, if you time it right, you can watch candy being made.
Oldies and goodies
For a good view of orange groves, visit Iron Mountain, the highest point in the county at 298 feet above sea level. It’s also the site of one of Florida’s traditional treasures, Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. The signature feature of the gardens is the Singing Tower, a 205-foot structure of pink marble and native tan coquina rock with colorful tile and elaborate carvings. It houses a carillon of 60 bells. Regular concerts send the sound of music rippling through the gardens.
Trails wind through trees and past blooming plants that change with the seasons. One path leads to the Window by the Pond, where visitors can view birds and reptiles from a sheltered observation spot.
Created in the 1920s by Edward Bok–a Dutch immigrant, editor of Ladies Home Journal and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author–the gardens were a gift to the people of his adopted country. Above the entrance is a motto taught to Bok by his Dutch grandmother, “Make the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” He succeeded.
AAA members receive a $2 discount on general admission tickets when they show their AAA card when purchasing tickets at the entrance gate of Bok Tower Gardens.
Polk County is chock-full of family businesses with a unique flavor and outlook, and none is more representative than Chalet Suzanne, now run by a third generation of the Hinshaw family. A combination inn and restaurant, this AAA Three Diamond property is an interesting assemblage of art and architecture with pastel buildings and ceramic tile from exotic locations. Over the years, the guest list has included a variety of guests from Malcolm Forbes and Merv Griffin to the Kansas City Royals, Robert Redford and the prime minister of the Republic of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Another guest, Col. James Irwin, made history by requesting that the Chalet’s signature soup be served aboard Apollo flights to the moon. Romaine Moon Soup is available, with other food products, in the gift shop.
My favorite menu item is the broiled grapefruit, which is topped with butter, sugar and cinnamon before being popped under the broiler.
Biplanes and buffalo
Another homegrown attraction is the brainchild of Kermit Weeks, who grew up in Florida. Always fascinated with aviation, Weeks trained as an aeronautical engineer. He also was an aviator and aerobatics champion. Today, he owns what’s said to be the largest private collection of vintage aircraft in the world, and tourists can see a lot of it at Fantasy of Flight in Polk City. This is an immersion experience, with hands-on simulators and even the opportunity to fly in an open-cockpit biplane.
After exploring the history of flight, head down the highway to another reminder of Florida history at Westgate River Ranch near Lake Wales. While you might not think of Florida and cowboys in the same sentence, it’s true that Florida is the nation’s oldest cattle producer, thanks to Ponce de Leon who brought cattle to the area in 1513.
Take a horseback ride through a forest of live oaks past pastures of longhorn cattle and bison. Enjoy the Saturday night rodeo. But that’s just a beginning. This is a full-service resort located on the Kissimmee River that offers many activities, including boating and fishing. Airboat and swamp buggy excursions allow guests to see eagles, alligators and other wildlife.
Equidistant between Tampa and Orlando, Polk County makes a great home base for trips to either town. Tampa is home to Busch Gardens, a theme park with rides, animal adventures and shows, and the Florida Aquarium in Tampa is rated one of the 10 best aquariums for kids by Parents magazine.
Of course, Walt Disney World Resort, Sea World, and Universal Orlando Resort are in Orlando, and coming fall 2011, LEGOLAND will open a new park at the former site of Cypress Gardens, a long-time tourist favorite that closed in 2009. The 145-acre theme park will be designed for families with children between the ages of 2 and 12, and will have more than 50 rides.
From RV campgrounds and economical motels to bed-and-breakfast establishments, resorts and furnished vacation homes, there’s plenty of room in Polk County. With Detroit Tigers spring training in Lakeland, hundreds of lakes, dozens of golf courses, plus antique shops, boutiques and tearooms–even a collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings–Polk County covers a tourist’s destination map.
I’ll drink to that, and make mine orange juice.
Elaine Warner is a contributor from Edmond, Okla.
|Jan/Feb 2011 Issue
|BEFORE YOU GO
For more information, contact the Central Florida Visitors and Convention Bureau, (800) 828-7655 or www.VisitCentralFlorida.org.
To visit central Florida, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. View a list of offices to serve you
January is Disney Month at AAA. Fnd a AAA Travel agent near you who can tell you about pricing and special offers.
Lang Sun Country Groves
Served at the Taste of Florida Cafe in Lake Alfred, Fla. www.langsuncountry.com
1 (6-ounce) graham cracker crust pie shell
2 large or 3 medium red sectioned grapefruits
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 cups water
1 (3-ounce) package strawberry flavored gelatin
1 (8-ounce) container frozen non-dairy whipped topping, thawed
Arrange grapefruit sections in graham cracker crust pie shell. Set aside. In medium saucepan, combine sugar and cornstarch. Add water and cook over medium heat until thick and clear. Add gelatin and stir to dissolve. Let cool slightly. Pour gelatin over grapefruit sections in crust and refrigerate until firm, about two to three hours. Serve with whipped non-dairy topping.
Yield 8 servings