By Emily M. Grey
Poking Around Central Florida
Weary of the queues at Disney World, Epcot Center, and the like?
Why not treat yourself and family to more back to basics places?
An hour southwest of bustling Orlando is Polk County, Florida.
Within its 2,048 square miles is a surprising diversity of year round family fun.
Who would believe there’s a dude ranch with barrel racing, bronco bull riding, and wholesome barbeque suppers? Nestled on the banks of the Kissimmee River, Westgate River Ranch also has a marina with boat rentals, sunset cruises, and a 5,000-foot private runway. Guests can stay in rustic but posh cabins and enjoy horseback riding, hayrides, and trap and skeet shooting.
Situated on one of the highest points on the Florida peninsula is enchanting Bok Tower. This national landmark in Lake Wales is draped with 128 acres of gardens and swan-inhabited ponds. Its bell tower has one of the world’s outstanding carillons.
In Lakeland, neoclassical-designed Hollis Garden showcases over 10,000 flowers and ornamentals. The site chronicles the onset of Florida’s agrarian period to the present.
Fantasy of Flight in Polk City houses the world’s largest private collection of vintage aircraft. Highlighting the center is a gigantic Short Sunderland, the last airworthy four-engine civilian flying boat.
Nature lovers will appreciate Polk’s Nature Discovery Center at 1,297-acre Circle B Bar Reserve. Alligators, Bald Eagles, and a variety of shorebirds, waterfowl, and songbirds frequent the lake shore, hardwood swamp, freshwater marsh, or oak hammock. The new educational center is an excellent venue for rainy day discovery.
It would not be Central Florida without citrus groves. Through its research, extension, and teaching programs, the Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC) in Lake Alfred furnishes scientific and technical information to the Sunshine State’s citrus industry.
At Florida’s Natural Grower’s Grove House, visitors learn more about the nutrition, horticulture, and history of the state’s official fruit.
Family owned and operated, Lang Sun Country Groves and Taste of Florida Café feature tasty honeybell cakes, sandwiches, and grapefruit pie.
Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille
The Barn, the Stable & the Backporch Tearoom
Chalet Suzanne Restaurant & Country Inn
Holiday Inn Winter Haven
During warm seasons, visit the renown Cypress Gardens
A Day in the Swamp
Alligators hiss. Buffalo roam. Skunks spray (innocuous fluid). Outside the town of Clewiston and an hour and a half northwest of Miami is Billie’s Swamp Safari. Families and individuals can visit this critter-friendly place for the day, camp, or stay in a dorm or chickee hut overlooking the swamp.
Part of Big Cypress, watershed of the Everglades, this is a Seminole Reservation. What better opportunity to learn about nature’s majesty than from the people who revere it?
From alligator wrestling to snake watching to chilling campfire stories, one is certain to have a rare outdoor experience. Airboats whisk passengers over the Spanish moss-draped swamp, sloughs, and hardwood hammocks. Gators sun on the banks in close proximity to herons, egrets, and other wading birds.
An amphibious custom-motorized swamp buggy rides past ostrich, Asian water buffalo, and other exotic or indigenous mammals. A cypress domed boardwalk leads by tortoise, armadillos, and other well-fed beasts roaming in pens.
The Swamp Water Café serves Seminole specialties such as gator nuggets, frog legs, catfish, and fry bread with honey. Regular American-style meals are also available. Beautiful clothing, jewelry and other handmade Seminole products are for sale in the gift shop.
Billie’s Swamp Safari
Cool Lodging Near Miami International Airport
Besides its flair as a destination city, Miami is a hopping off point to the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. A convenient place to stay just three miles from Miami International Airport is the newly remodeled Doubletree Miami Mart Airport Hotel.
The 334 contemporary décor guest rooms and suites have floor-to-ceiling windows, custom-designed plush-top mattresses, fleece blankets and comfy duvets. Amenities include wireless Internet access, flat-screen TV, and room service.
Complementing the business center is over 24,000 square feet of flexible meeting space. Imagine soaking in a heated, 50-by-30-foot pool and spa tub after exercising in the fitness center. The hotel’s Escuna Restaurant serves three delicious buffets daily, while the Navio Bar features dim lighting and leather seating.
One can park a personal vehicle in the bordering lot and hop aboard the hotel’s complimentary 24-hour airport shuttle service. Forget anything? Attached to the building is a center with over 200 shops.
711 NW 72nd Ave
Miami, FL, 33126
(The Port of Miami, University of Miami and Fountainbleu Golf Course and are only eight miles away).