By Kathie Farnell
Photos by Jack Purser
Polk County, Florida, just down the road from Orlando, has been named an All American County. The National Civic League award, given to encourage and recognize civic excellence, was based on three grassroots programs which honor hurricane relief workers, encourage park rejuvenation and provide outreach to at-risk teens.
The designation raises the profile of this central-Florida county which charms visitors with a combination of Old Florida attractions and a relaxed outdoor lifestyle.
Florida’ fourth-largest county boasts a number of attractions for adventurous travelers, everything from vintage airplanes to water skiing to watching the buffalo roam.
Jumping off point for any Polk County adventure is Outpost 27, on Highway 27 just south of Interstate 4. The brand-new visitors’ center includes a movie theater, a putting green, interactive kiosks and information on numerous area attractions.
Near Polk City, visitors are invited to take their vacation to a higher plane at Fantasy of Flight. The world’s largest private collection of vintage aircraft includes a Curtiss Jenny, a Ford Tri-Motor (used in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”), a B-17 Flying Fortress and a huge Short Sunderland flying boat. Inside the Art Deco facility, interactive dioramas put the visitor in the center of the action in a series of exhibits depicting the early history of aviation. Centerpiece of the exhibit is a re-creation of a night bombing run in a B-17. Many of the planes at Fantasy of Flight have been restored to original flying condition, and daily aerial demonstrations allow visitors to see vintage aircraft in flight. For those not content with watching, hot air balloon rides and biplane rides are available.
Back on Earth, Westgate River Ranch, 1700 acres of winding trails and pristine lakes near Lake Wales, invites the visitor to “unleash your inner cowboy” with a trail ride, a cookout, or a relaxing view of its resident herd of American bison. Every Saturday night, the River Ranch Rodeo presents the Ranch’s own cowpokes in an exhibition of bull riding, barrel racing and trick riding; another popular weekend event, the Dinner Hay Ride, includes a cookout and a serenade by the resident singing cowboy. The Ranch’s Marina offers airboat rides and meals at the Smokehouse Grill, overlooking the water.
Lush central Florida is home to a number of spectacular gardens. The Historic Bok Sanctuary near Lake Wales includes 157 acres of camellias, azaleas and towering magnolias surrounding a 205-foot bell tower, a National Historic Landmark. A walking trail allows the visitor to explore the Lake Wales Ridge, highest point in peninsular Florida. Containing more than 1,000 plant types, the gardens were designed by America’s most famous landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, as a meditative woodland landscape and nature preserve.
In downtown Lakeland, Hollis Gardens overlooks Lake Mirror with more than 10,000 flowers, shrubs and trees. The formal neoclassical garden sees more than 300 weddings per year. Features include a big vegetable garden, a lily pond, the Trees of Americana—descended from trees in historically-significant locations—and herb beds containing medicinal and edible herbs.
Polk County’s most famous garden, however, is Cypress Gardens Adventure Park in Winter Haven. This historic attraction has retained the Water Ski Show, botanical gardens and strolling Southern Belles that made it famous while adding a new water park and rides. The Starliner Roller Coaster was relocated here from Panama City’s now-defunct Miracle Strip Amusement Park. Nearby, the Star Haven Amphitheatre sees performances by stars including Lee Ann Rimes and the Oak Ridge Boys. An aviary, a butterfly house and nature park offer opportunities for meeting wildlife up close.
Polk County offers opportunities for adventurous dining, too. Westgate River Ranch’s Smokehouse Grill features cowboy flavor. At Winter Haven’s lakeside Harborside Restaurant, diners may sample alligator while looking out over Lake Shipp, one of the county’s more than 500 lakes. A meal at the Terrace Grill in Lakeland’s historic Terrace Hotel offers a glimpse of historical Florida; the elegant hotel was built during the glory days of the 1920s. Just down the street, Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille features New Orleans-inspired desserts including Bananas Foster.
Chalet Suzanne Restaurant and Country Inn, in Lake Wales, is a unique tourist destination in its own right. Started in the 1930s as a restaurant, today Chalet Suzanne offers classic French cooking—including a soup that literally went to the moon on two Apollo flights— and fairytale lakeside accommodations, all with its own airstrip.
One of the area’s most entertaining dining options is Antonio’s Ristoranti. Located in the Best Western Admiral’s Inn, right outside the gates of Cypress Gardens, this upscale Italian restaurant creates a romantic mood with live piano music and serenades by operatically-trained Paul Gago, the restaurant’s manager and creator.
Polk County’s range of accommodations includes Winter Haven’s Best Western Admiral’s Inn, Lake Wales’ Chalet Suzanne and Westgate River Ranch, and Lakeland’s Terrace Hotel. Families visiting the area may want to check out Imagine Vacation Homes in Davenport. These completely furnished houses—up to 3200 square feet—include a private pool, fully equipped kitchen, and guest services to arrange car rentals, tickets, tee times and babysitting services.
Polk County is served by Delta and other airlines with daily flights into Orlando’s International Airport to the east or Tampa International Airport to the west. Interstate Highway 4, which connects Tampa and Orlando, crosses the county, and the Florida Turnpike borders it on the east and joins I-75 south of Orlando.
For more information on visiting Polk County, check the website at www.visitcentralflorida.org or telephone 1-800-828-7655.