Category Archives: Central Florida

A Weekend Getaway at Weeki Wachee

I hadn’t been to Weeki Wachee since I was a child, or so I thought, but nothing looked familiar and I think I might be remembering Silver Springs instead. Located on the corner of US 19 and SR 52, we headed north, over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Sunshine Skyway Bridge

I booked a room for two nights at the Spring Hill Marriott. Or so I thought. Turns out I booked a hotel room in Tampa, NOT Spring Hill…the name of the hotel was “Spring Hill Suites at Marriott”. We were about 45-60 minutes away. The hotel service was excellent, the room modern and comfortable, and it was a non-refundable deal, so we decided to stay.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? I should have. Our weekend getaway to Weeki Wachee coincided with a major bike rally. For some reason, bikers decided that the land of mermaids was the place to display their colors and tattoos. I was extremely uncomfortable having to walk through a crowd of at least 1,000 bikers to get to the entrance. I found out later that the rally was for a police officer dying of a tumor. Police! Dressed up like thugs! Later, inside the park, they held a raffle. For guns. In a kids’ park. It just seemed bizarre to me.

The park’s entrance fees were reasonable, I thought: $13 for adults, $5 for kids. We headed right, toward the swimming area, which turned out to be very nice, with picnic areas, a white sand beach, two large water slides, and lots of room for swimming and tubing down the inlets.

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The spring is shallow, the water a constant 74 degrees. There are several concession stands, a shop that offers swimsuits, sunscreen, etc., restrooms and volleyball courts. There is also a fenced off pool for toddlers.

We explored the other side of the park after that. The Wilderness River Cruise does not last 25 minutes as advertised. It’s more like ten minutes. We did not find King Neptune’s daughter, Princess Wonderous, or her home.

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The space is shared by canoes and kayaks, so it was crowded during our visit. Any wildlife had long been scared off, save for the fish.

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The Underwater Theater show was cute. We watched the “Fish Tails” program.

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“The Little Mermaid” show is offered twice a day, as well. The young people who perform are very talented.

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This young woman dove 117 feet down to the source of the spring, against currents strong enough to push her face mask off, holding her breath for over 2 ½ minutes.

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We also saw mermaid try-outs and according to the two middle-aged women who sat beside us, there are mermaid camps for girls of all ages. They were participating in one.

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Water ballet used to be popular back in the 1940s, when Weeki Wachee was first developed. Back then, the women would line up in bathing suits beside the highway, waving in the cars that passed. Even if the audience only had one person in it, they performed.

The grounds are well manicured and peacocks and pea hens roam freely.

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We skipped the Wildlife show. We were at the wrong end of the park and missed it, but did enjoy the short Tranquility Trail.

The park is an excellent choice for families, particularly those with young children, and most definitely for families with little girls who dream of a life “under the sea”. We thought the value was excellent. For around $50, a family of four can spend the entire day swimming and tubing in the spring (a triple tube is $15, less for singles and doubles) and ride the wilderness cruise and/or catch a free underwater or wildlife show when they need to escape the sun.

Lakeside Inn Dining, Shopping in Mount Dora

Lakeside Inn Dining, Shopping in Mount Dora

That evening, we enjoyed a lovely meal in the Lakeside Inn dining room.

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We split an order of baked brie, warm and smooth inside a puff pastry drizzled with white chocolate and raspberry sauce, topped with crushed walnuts and served with fruit. It could have been dessert! I ordered the St. Jaques Seafood, which was quite good, my husband enjoyed his roast duck. Lakeside Inn dining was delightful. Between dinner and killing a bottle of wine, we were full and opted to take our desserts (raspberry cheesecake and orange cake…fantastic textures!) back to our room.

Lake Dora itself is not a busy lake, and wildlife was bountiful. We walked out on the dock and enjoyed the silence. Thankfully, no one had opted to use the jet skis outside our room during our stay.

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I was pleased with the pictures of a wading heron I’d taken. The surface of the lake was still and glassy as the sun set. A few others joined us from time to time, but none of us spoke much, each of us drinking in the cooling air and sounds of nature.

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The main dock had four or five smaller docks jutting off it, each small dock ending in a park bench. Everyone seemed to walk first to the octagonal deck at the end of the main dock, then back track to one of the benches on the smaller docks, so each of us had the feeling of having the place to ourselves. Nice touch.

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Downtown shopping in Mount Dora is delightful, as are the art venues and galleries. We also enjoyed the old-fashioned bathhouse down by the lake shore near the yacht club.

The only downside was the lack of interest from the staff at the Lakeside Inn. Despite numerous requests, we never received extra clothes hangers or a replacement iron, and our complaint about the gap in the shades was ignored.

Checkout brought another surprise as I looked over the billing that had been slipped under our door. I called the front desk and protested the extra charge of $110 over the quoted package. After a twenty-minute wait, the charge was cancelled.

Before breakfast and checkout, I strolled the grounds one last time.

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Our late morning/early afternoon included a stop at the Renningers Antique Show on the edge of town. As I strolled along, I commented on the prices being asked for the crocheted linens from the 30s and 40s. Many of these items are exactly like the ones I inherited from my beloved Mother in Law. She never could understand what I saw in all that “old junk”. To her, it represented hard times. Another woman overheard our conversation and we started comparing different linens we had and decided we should open up a shop!

The trip home was uneventful, other than the usual nail-biter on I-4. The traffic eases after Lakeland, but it’s still a place to keep alert at all times. I’ll revisit Mount Dora one day, but I’m not sure I’ll give the Lakeside Inn another chance.

 

 

Mount Dora, a Florida Town With New England Ambiance

Mount Dora has New England Ambience With a Southern Twist

When we slipped away to Mount Dora, we weren’t sure what to expect. It’s a small town situated on Lake Dora (where else?), about a 40 minute drive from Orlando. The trip up was pleasant, listening to NPR radio until it faded, then switching to CDs. I think my favorite town on the way was Howey-In-The-Hills. I just love that name! It’s a pretty town and I think there’s a winery nearby. Didn’t find Howey, though. I hope to return one day to explore the area.

While St. Augustine has a decidedly European feel to it, Mount Dora seems like a trip to New England, with gently rolling hills, quaint storefronts, and Victorian homes. We’d visited for a day last summer for a juried art show. The streets were so crowded, though, that we began to feel like salmon trying to swim upstream and agreed to return when life was quieter. We chose our dates correctly, as we learned from a shopkeeper that this coming weekend is their annual craft fair, which draws even larger crowds than the art shows!

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I explored lodging options on the internet, checked the AAA book, and settled on The Lakeside Inn. I called the inn and made reservations, asking for a lakeside view in a preferred room. I was given “The Great Gatsby” stay, which included two nights, two continental breakfasts, and one dinner with a complimentary bottle of wine. I explained that this was a delayed birthday celebration and we wanted it to be a bit special.

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I thought I’d chosen well. The inn is on the National Historic Registry. The pictures on the website were lovely, showing the original inn and it’s two additional buildings, nice pool and grounds, tennis courts, cobblestone drive, you name it. Stretching out into the lake, a long dock ended in an octagonal seating area, complete with replica lighthouse. We’d mentioned the trip to a subcontractor, who said he and his wife had enjoyed their stay there, but to watch the bill. Note to self: red flags wave for a reason.

We arrived around five P.M. The wide front porch and the white high-back wicker rocking chairs looked inviting. The lobby itself is huge, chairs clustered around a large fireplace, other seating areas scattered around here and there. The one hundred year old wood floor was worn smooth and shiny from decades of use and the front desk still retained it’s original key cubbies and buzzers. A pretty staircase led to the second story of the main building, and off to the left was the bar and a lovely dining room with floor to ceiling French doors that bowed out to the gardens and the vintage train that runs to Orlando and back.

As we waited our turn for check-in, I turned to my husband and said I thought I’d made a great choice. He agreed and we glanced through the brochures about the inn and the town of Mount Dora, discussing what we wanted to do first and time constraints.

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We were in for quite a surprise!

 

 

Lake Placid: a History in Pictures

Surprises Await in Lake Placid

We headed up central Florida’s Rte 27 and stopped for lunch at the All American restaurant in Lake Placid. I wasn’t overly impressed. Even though the sign offered breakfast and lunch, apparently they only serve breakfast on Sundays. I was told I could have a BLT, except they didn’t have tomatoes. My omelet was fine, but the potatoes were dry and tasteless and screamed for butter, salt, and pepper, in that order.

Lake Placid was not a complete bust, though. Known as the “The Caladium Capital of the World”, we thoroughly enjoyed the pictorial history of the area, as told in murals throughout the downtown area:Lake Placid #1

Lake Placid #2

Lake Placid #3

The holdup of the Tropical State Bank in Lake Placid caused quite a stir back in the day. The boy depicted, Grady Parrish, was instrumental in foiling the attempted 1931 bank robbery. He received $10 for his effort. The mural has four dollar signs hidden within the painting.

Other murals depicted the prehistoric days of the area, settlement, and significant events in Lake Placid historyLake Placid #12

Lake Placid #7

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Lake Placid #4

The Florida panther is endangered now. My ancestors claimed their cry sounded like a woman screaming in the woods.

Lake Placid #9

One of the murals depicted the turpentine business that boomed back in the early days of settlement, but the camps date back to Colonial times.

Lake Placid #13

Lake Placid #14

Before and during the Civil War, the camps were worked by slaves. After emancipation, former slaves viewed Blacks who joined the camps as traitors who signed away their newly obtained freedom. In the early 1900s, prisoners were released to work in the camps. The turpentine camps were deep in the pinewoods, isolated and known to be rough places. Camp bosses also ran the commissary; the only place workers could buy needed items. Unfortunately, most camp bosses charged outrageously high prices, which kept the workers in servitude, since most were not pain in money, but in scrip, which could only be redeemed at the company store. Those who tried to run away from their debts were hunted down. The work was dangerous, hot, and hard. Children born in the camps oftentimes knew no other kind of life.

Lake Placid #10

Lake Placid #11

The woods around Lake Placid are quieter now. The bottom dropped out of the industry in the 1940s, and by the 1950s, the market for turpentine had collapsed. Sawmills took their place, as the dead trees were turned into boards that helped to build area homes. Heart pine stood up well to the Florida elements and insects did not find a welcome home for boring in.

The town of Lake Placid is surrounded by twenty-seven freshwater lakes and is a popular tourist destination. Lake Placid itself is far more accessible that Lake Okeechobee. Originally called Lake Stearns, the name of the lake was changed by in the late 1920s by a suggestion by Dr. Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System.

Lake Placid
We finished our trip with a shopping spree for antiques in Arcadia before heading home, glad for a getaway that expanded our knowledge on Florida history.

Other Towns in Central Florida Offer Out-of-the-Ordinary Entertainment

Central Florida, From Fisheating Creek to the Brighton Seminole Reservation

We drove around Lake Okeechobee, enjoying the expansive views of the leading edge of the Florida Everglades. The sky is big in Florida, and the swamp stretches for mile after desolate mile, broken only by a cluster of live oaks or staked out individually by independent palm trees, whose round heads and lack of branches look very much like landscaped lollypops from a distance. The weather was clearing, but clouds still hung over the land like a dark umbrella bent on betrayal and we drove in and out of rain.

The larger towns in this part of central Florida have the usual chain motels, but most lodging offerings consist of RVs or trailers, some quite weary looking. Campers who don’t mind roughing it will have no trouble finding suitable lodging, but those looking for a little more comfort will have to dig a little deeper. We did find a few cabins. The most inviting were cozy log cabins with peaked roofs in a small enclave. One of the owners rents two of his units, #9 and #17, for around $500 per week. If you’re interested, call Abe at 561-234-0277. A future visit will most assuredly include a week at the Lake Okeechobee Resort in Pahokee. It is the only place with accommodations directly on the lake.

We made a stop at Fisheating Creek where I told my husband the story of my great-great grandmother who was taken (along with her kids) to Fort Myers by Union soldiers trying to flush out my great-great-grandfather who was aiding Confederate soldiers by bringing them cattle. She became disgusted with camp conditions and threatened to whip the soldier who tried to stop her from leaving. She went to her brother’s place on Fisheating Creek and stayed there until the War of Northern Aggression was over. I think I would have liked my great-great-grandmother. :)

The Seminole Indian Reservation in Brighton was a disappointment. No museum, no shopping, just gambling. The room was dark, filled with slot machines that flashed neon colors, and full of cigarette smoke. Once off the reservation, we stopped at a roadside stand and bought swamp cabbage. I look forward to breaking the trunk open and cooking up a pot of swamp cabbage, which tastes a lot like asparagus.

Brighton Seminole Reservation

Most of the central Florida towns around the perimeter of Lake Okeechobee offer airboat rides. Since the weather was bad the weekend of our visit, we decided against it, but if you’ve never been, I strongly encourage you to try it out. Most tours last about an hour, the cost is in the $30 to $40 range (per person) and includes picture stops. Airboat rides are exciting and fun, but not scary.

Lake Okeechobee: a Hidden Treasure

You Can’t See Lake Okeechobee From the Road

Lake Okeechobee would have probably been a lot more fun had we not visited during the last slap of Tropical Storm Andrea’s outermost feeder bands. Our stay at the Hampton Inn Okeechobee was reasonably priced, but I found the hard bed uncomfortable. The air conditioning unit kicked on and off, rather than the usual racket all night long and the bathroom had a great shower.

We enjoyed our fried catfish lunch at the Lodge at the River, which offers “Sharpies” (the entire fish, heads, bones, and all) or just the catfish filets. We chose the latter and enjoyed it very much.

Lake Okeechobee is the second largest freshwater lake (730 square miles) that is entirely within the United States. Mostly what you see from the road is the Hoover Dike, a twenty-foot high berm, or levee, on one side and sugar cane on the other side of the road (sometimes corn…how can they grow corn in FL when I can’t?). This is the legacy of the Army Corps of Engineers, who, back when ideas like land stewardship and environmental responsibility were unheard of, “improved” the land for farmers and ranchers by draining the wetlands and straightening the surrounding rivers from their usual meandering course into straight line canals, forever affecting the natural ebb and flow of the Everglades.

We finally figured out the “Scenic Trail” signs indicated lake access to the other side of the levee. The top of the 140 mile long levee that protects the surrounding communities allows bikers and hikers a great view of the lake. Driving up the berm and making blind turns (and I DO mean your car is tilted skyward and you cannot see over your hood) reminded me, once again, of why I am not a mountain girl.

However, once you get over the levee, you aren’t quite there, yet, since the only way to access the lake is by canal…in other words, you take a waterway to get to the water! If you look at these pictures, you can see how the two are separated:

Lake Okeechobee #1

The water hyacinth, an invasive species, chokes the shallow lake of nutrients and oxygen and is an on-going problem for the area. The alligators, however, love them because they provide cover for the hunting reptiles.

Lake Okeechobee #2

Lake Okeechobee #3

Boating, fishing, and hunting in season are popular here.

Lake Okeechobee #4

Alligators, bears, and otters are a common sight, as are osprey and eagles’ nests, high atop light poles and trees. Some sights were amusing. At one point, a baby alligator escaped the lake and a big, burly man stopped his car in the middle of the road, got out and grabbed the reptile by the middle, right behind its head, and carried it to a ditch, while it wiggled and fought him the whole way. He was laughing his head off, looking as if he was having the time of his life. The man, not the gator. The gator was furious. His wife walked back to the car, shaking her head. We were going in the other direction and didn’t get stopped in time to take a picture. Apparently, this is not a terribly unusual occurrence down by the levee, as they seemed to take it in stride.

Lake Okeechobee #10

 

 

Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales: Making the World a Little More Beautiful

The Bok Tower Gardens Mission: Make the World a Little More Beautiful

We visited Bok Tower gardens and wildlife preserve on Saint Patrick’s Day. Edward Bok, a Dutch immigrant who’d made his fortune in the US during the 1920s, so loved the United States, and Florida in particular, that he wanted to give something back. His motto was his grandmother’s: “Make your part of the world more beautiful because you have lived in it.”

He chose to do that by purchasing Iron Mountain, at 298 feet the highest point in Florida, and making it into a botanical park. At the top of his mountain, he built his office: a 205 foot Gothic and art deco carillon tower. The 60 bell carillon is considered one of the world’s finest.

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Then he hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., famous for his work in Washington D.C. and Boston, to do his yard work. Olmsted tends toward designs that incorporate an outside perimeter circle with wandering paths in between. His genius is in creating hidden treasures: secret paths that lead to “plant grottoes”, hidden spots cleared in the middle of hedges and foliage.

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There is a seasonal home on the property, built by the President of Bethlehem Steel, last name of Buck, and is an impressive Mediterranean Revival. We did not take the $6 tour of the home, but probably will on another day. We walked for three hours. After we finished the nature trail, we went through all the Bok Tower gardens, among them, The White Garden, The Round Garden, The Live Oak Grove, The Reflection Pool, The Overlook, The St Francis and Mocking Bird Walk, and my favorite, Window by the Pond, and others. After spending time at the top, we went back down to shop and have lunch. Then we climbed the mountain a second time.

An Afternoon in the Bok Tower Gardens

The bell concert could be heard throughout the park, but I’m glad we were there at the tower for the big 3 P.M. concert because the bells’ deep tones seemed to resonate better. Not that we didn’t enjoy walking the Pine Ridge Preserve Nature Trail and listening to Menuet and Trio by Mozart, but up close listening to “Jerusalem” and “Marizapolis” (Spanish folk song) and “Send in the Clowns” seemed to resonate better. On this visit, we heard Processional, Sicilienne, and Milonga, and paid respect to the Irish, as well, since it was St. Patrick’s Day, with “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Paddy Whack” and “Londonderry Air (“Oh, Danny Boy”)”.

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Funnily enough, quiet is requested, and even more strange, the bells do not sound sharp and intrusive; instead they fill the air with dancing notes as you sit back on one of the many benches and comfortable chairs and look out on the panorama of rural Florida. It is not Disney World, but it also isn’t a busy botanical garden that you rush mother-in-a-wheelchair through. It was, literally, a time to stop and smell the Camellias. And they were in full bloom during our visit, as were the Darkshadow Magnolias and the Azeleas.

It was a tranquil day, one to remind me that making my corner of the world just a little nicer lifts not only my own spirits, but others’, as well.

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