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.
Airboat towing at Grape Hammock Fish Camp is a cinch for the Ford F-150.
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.
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.
Westgate River Ranch Resort offers swamp-buggy rides to display Central Florida marshland
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.