Special to The Sun
Lake Wales, FL —
If your idea of a vacation is seeking serenity, head for Florida. No, not the activity-riddled, theme park heaven of Orlando, but Lake Wales 55 miles southwest.
This tiny community is home to several of Florida’s favorite “old time” attractions — pre-Mouse loveliness that has brought tourists to the area for generations.
Prime among these is Bok Tower Gardens, a National Historic Landmark. Founded by immigrant Edward Bok, the gardens, with their famous “Singing Tower” opened in 1929.
The Gardens’ original design was created by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. Following in his famous father’s footsteps — Olmsted Sr. created New York’s Central Park — Olmsted Jr. also landscaped the White House, Jefferson Memorial, Washington National Cathedral and the National Zoo. In Lake Wales, he turned a sand hill into acres of lush gardens with ferns, palms, oaks and pines, azaleas, gardenias and magnolias.
Today the Gardens is home to 126 species of birds and is a designated stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail. It also houses a conservation center to preserve rare and endangered Florida plants.
Paths in the gardens wander through informal plantings to the top of Iron Mountain, at 298 feet above sea level, one of Florida’s highest points. The crown jewel of the property, the Singing Tower, rises above the terrain 205 feet and houses a 60-bell carillon.
The carillon was invented in Belgium in 1510 when a system was devised to attach a keyboard to the clappers of bells in a tower in Oudenaarde, Belgium. Of the more than 180 carillons in North America, the Bok carillon is the fifth largest. The bells range in weight from 16 pounds to 22,246 pounds. Carillon concerts are played daily at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. During this time, everything in the garden is hushed — even the lawn mowers stop during these 30-minute concerts — as the chime music rolls down the hill and over the landscape.
The tower itself is a work of art. The brass entrance door is decorated with 30 panels telling the story of Genesis from creation to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The tower combines Gothic and Art Deco elements and is constructed of coquina stone from St. Augustine, Fla., and pink and gray marble from Georgia.
Decorative elements include a band of carved marble featuring native wildlife and scenes from Aesop’s fables. Colorful windows with intricately carved faience depict herons and sea creatures at 130 feet up the tower. Green and blue tiles decorate lacy cut-outs over the large windows at the top.
The motto at the entrance of the Gardens is a quote from Edward Bok’s Dutch grandmother, “Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” Edward Bok certainly did.
Bok Tower Gardens is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, 365 days a year. General admission is $12 for adults, $3 for children. For more information: www.boktowergardens.org. To hear the carillon: www.boktowergardens.org/tower-gardens/the-carillon/carillon-music/.
While you’re in the neighborhood, here are some other must-see attractions:
• Grove House: This is the visitors’ center for Florida’s Natural juices. You won’t get a factory tour, but you’ll learn a lot about the company and its products from videos, displays and samples. The company is a co-operative. Founded in 1933, it is made up of 1,000 Florida growers who own more than 50,000 acres of citrus groves. Florida Natural juices are as home-grown as you can get — the farmers own the land, grow the fruit, process it and package it all in Florida. In a 2010 taste test of nine brands of pulp-free orange juice, Florida’s Natural was the No. 1 choice. If this sounds like a commercial, I make no apologies. As a matter of fact, I’ve been known to accost total strangers at the grocery store and encourage them to buy Florida Natural. It’s not only orange — it’s red, white and blue. Stop in at the Grove House — it’s fun and educational.
• Chalet Suzanne: In business since 1931 and on the National Register of Historic Places, Chalet Suzanne serves a heaping helping of nostalgia! A hodgepodge of architecture, done in Florida pastel colors, it offers both lodging and dining. I haven’t stayed there, but have visited the restaurant several times. The food was superb. The dining room is charmingly eclectic with mixed place settings of china and glassware. Be sure to try the broiled grapefruit — fresh fruit topped with butter, sugar and cinnamon. The gift shop carries a number of products produced by Chalet Suzanne — their soups are so notable that they were requested by Astronaut James B. Irwin for Apollo 15’s trip to the moon.
• Spook Hill: Optical illusion? Anti-gravity? The spirit of a long-dead Indian chief? Whatever, children love this strange phenomenon. You stop your car on a white line and put it in neutral. The car seems to roll backwards up the hill. As a thrill, it doesn’t compare with Space Mountain but it’s weird and it’s free and it’s been a local attraction for several generations. Besides, I’m a sucker for this sort of stuff.
ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond-based travel writer.