After you’ve gotten out of your system the animated fantasy worlds found in the greater Orlando area, it might be time to seek out off-the-beaten-path venues with hidden treasures to be discovered. We were in that mindset when we arrived in Central Florida’s Polk County, specifically at Lake Kissimmee. Here, you can choose from hole-in-the-wall eateries, bistros, and elegant dining; rustic lakeside cabins and luxury boutique hotels; beautifully landscaped manmade tropical botanical gardens; and primitive pristine Everglade settings.
What was supposed to be a visit that would only last a couple days ended up keeping us intrigued for nearly a week. We also used this time to test a Ford F-150 from Weikert Ford. To see how well it could adapt to multiple demands, we towed a large trailer boat, hauled what Florida is so well known for (oranges), and called on it to be our mode of transportation during our stay.
| Airboat towing at Grape Hammock Fish Camp is a cinch for the Ford F-150.
With more than 500 freshwater lakes, Polk County is an ideal setting for those who love boating and fishing. It’s truly like a mini-Minnesota. However, by far the largest body of water found here, Lake Kissimmee, in a state park that covers 38,000 square miles, hosts unlimited opportunities for the outdoor enthusiast, especially those partial to boating and fishing. We began our stay at the Grape Hammock Fish Camp east of Lake Wales. As its name implies, this is where folks come to enjoy the backwoods quasi-primitive fishing experience.
Lake Kissimmee is known for its lunker bass and pan fish, and the charter of Grape Hammock is to accommodate fishermen. They have a boat ramp and boat rentals. The store adjacent to the boat launch carries the fisherman’s basics. You can come for the day, or you can pitch a tent or rent an RV campsite (with full hookups). For those who don’t like to rough it quite that much, there are comfortable rustic bungalows for rent by the day.
You can book an airboat ride at the boat ramp store and go out for a guided tour of the swamps and marshlands that surround the lake. This area is teeming with wildlife, including alligators -- huge alligators -- which are plentiful. It was on this trip that we saw the largest wild alligator we have ever seen; our guide guessed it was between 30 and 40 years old, a huge monster as long as our F-150 and a true throwback to prehistoric times.
A little farther east on Highway 60 is the entrance to Westgate River Ranch, a 1700-acre property that also offers excellent facilities to accommodate boaters and fishermen. However, they have much more than that, including horseback and airboat rides, a petting zoo, an excellent restaurant, and boat rentals. There’s a herd of buffalo, a kind of Texas longhorn, and if you’ve never seen a watusi (a breed of cow that comes from Africa), you’ve got to check it out. Westgate offers swamp buggy rides on their spec-built 4WD vehicle that looks like Florida’s version of a tundra buggy, the kind used in Churchill, Manitoba, for polar bear watching adventures. Every Saturday night, a full rodeo is held at the Ranch. You can rent one of the private homes they manage as part of their host program, or you can hook up an RV and stay as long as you want. A private airstrip permits the aviation buff to fly in for a stay as well.
| Westgate River Ranch Resort offers swamp-buggy rides to display Central Florida marshland inhabitants, including alligators and Florida longhorn cattle.
Grape Hammock and Westgate River Ranch are only minutes away from a wide assortment of attractions and activities in Central Florida. At Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, a 200-plus-foot pink-and-gray Georgia marble and coquina stone tower was built atop a hill back in the mid-1920s, when rich Northern industrialists found it fashionable to come South, spend the winter, and lavishly spend their money.
The tower houses a carillon called the Singing Tower, composed of a total of 60 bells ranging from 16 pounds up to 12 tons each. Every day at 3 p.m., the bells chime out a recital across the endless rolling and bucolic orange-grove landscape. Bok Tower Gardens includes 126 acres of botanical gardens and hiking trails that cover Central Florida. This area has been maintained undisturbed and remains as it was 500-plus years ago before Columbus discovered the New World and Ponce de Leon put Florida on the map. Another noteworthy site is Florida’s Natural Growers Grove House, also in Lake Wales. Central Florida is still a huge grower of oranges, and at the Grove House, you can enjoy fresh-squeezed orange juice as you learn about the history of the orange and how it came to be so big in the Sunshine State.
| Singing Tower carillon at Bok Tower Gardens holds 60 bells ranging from 16 pounds to 12 tons each. Chimes play a recital every afteroon at three.
Fifteen miles northeast of Lake Wales is town of Winter Haven, the home of Cypress Gardens. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Cypress Gardens was a giant magnet, drawing families to enjoy a true holiday. Today it continues to host the beautiful legendary cypress tree gardens and a waterpark that appeals to the kid in all of us. There’s also wine tasting, featuring only Florida-made wines. Huge topiaries (rabbits, snails, turtles, and peacocks that stand a dozen feet tall) covered with blooming flowers create a kind of botanical Alice in Wonderland.
| Peacock topiary at Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, where guests can enjoy wine tasting while visiting the waterpark.
If you’re coming down from Orlando, one attraction worth the few extra minutes it takes to get to is called Fantasy of Flight. Just as with automobiles, almost everyone is enamored of airplanes, and the people at Fantasy of Flight have captured the essence of the history and romance of aviation. This is not an operation that operates on a marginal budget. It is a well-supported attraction that includes more than 40 rare and vintage aircraft, several of which are frequently taken out of the display hangers and flown. The collection includes many legendary aircraft that helped us win WWII: the B26 Marauder, the B24 Liberator, the B17 Flying Fortress, and, sexiest of all, the P51 Mustang. Some on display go all the way back to the 1920s and include not only American aircraft but British, German, Japanese, and Soviet airplanes as well. If you’re so inclined, you can take a biplane and hot-air balloon ride.
| B-25J Mitchell is one of vintage aircraft on display at Fantasy of Flight in Polk City.
Good eats seem to be everywhere and in every direction. We had some of the finest filet mignon we’ve ever tasted in Lakeland at the Terrace Hotel, and the 32-ounce porterhouse at Texas Cattle Company is in a class by itself. Lang Sun Country Groves is a citrus packinghouse with a down-home-style restaurant called Taste of Florida Café. This is the first time we had ever heard of grapefruit pie, so we tried it -- and it’s excellent! Frank’s Restaurant’s pulled pork sandwich and French-fried sweet potatoes drew us back a couple times before the week was out.
| Loading up with our cache of Florida’s finest before heading home.
It was easy to get used to the relaxed pace and beautiful scenery while traveling central Florida, and some of that was due to the F-150 that served as our chariot throughout the week. It proved a comfortable and quiet ride that was plenty tough enough for the boat-towing and orange-hauling duty we asked of it while on the road. It did everything we wanted and made completing the tasks seem effortless.
Bok Tower Gardens
Central Florida Visitors’ Bureau
Fantasy of Flight
Grape Hammock Fish Camp
Lang Sun Country Groves’ Taste of Florida Café
The Terrace Hotel
Texas Cattle Company
Westgate River Ranch