It is famous for its weather and theme parks, but visitors to Florida miss its smaller, hidden delights. One is Bok Tower Gardens, near Orlando, ideal for families and nature-lovers of all ages
Bok Tower Gardens, also known as Historic Bok Sanctuary (open 8am-6pm; $10 for adults, discounts for children and seniors), is located in Lake Wales, Florida, not far from Orlando. Whether you are a young couple, retired or a family, I cannot recommend it too highly. The gardens, sweeping lawns, nature trails, historic buildings and the Singing Tower itself are all worth a visit in their own right. Add them together, and you have an unmissable attraction.
My wife and I visited as a couple, but we saw plenty of families with children of all ages. While adults enjoy the sheer beauty and serenity of the gardens and the stunning views of orange groves stretching into the distance (perfect eye-candy), children are captivated by the wildlife. Sightings includes many birds (more than 100 species, some of them endangered), lizards, snakes, turtles, butterflies and cheeky squirrels that can be hand-fed – and, in fact, insist upon it. The swans are also a big attraction, one large family of them having taken up residence in the reflection pool, so named because you can see the entire reflection of Bok Tower in it. (We tried, and you really can.)
The gardens themselves are seasonal, but are spectacular at any time of year. They are perfect not only for a pleasant walk, but also just sitting down and enjoying the natural beauty. I especially admire the effort put into education and conservation, which makes you appreciate the work done here, and the obvious attempt to involve children and get them interested. This alone made me happy to pay my money.
Pine Ridge Trail is a nice walk, about three-quarters of a mile. On it, you may spot animals out and about – though we didn't, reminding us of a sign we saw, saying: "This is nature's show, not ours". You can also take the Pinewood Estate historic home tour, now part of Bok Tower Gardens. Though not essential, it provides an interesting glimpse into the lifestyles of the 1930s, and the house is a lovely Mediterranean design, looking almost as if it has just been built. We enjoyed it, and the guides (all volunteers) were very knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
Bok Tower itself is an amazing structure, more than 200ft in height; it is not possible to go inside – a shame, though you can appreciate the beauty of the exterior, and the effort put into it. I have it on good authority that Edward Bok, the founder, is buried beneath the Tower. Inside is the famous Carillon (bells, to you and me) which chimes half-hourly, while music is played twice-daily here, at 1pm and 3pm. We had lunch at 1pm and listened – and the sound does give the gardens a serene, Zen-like feel.
Unusually for Florida, you will find yourself on a hill. Iron Mountain (which is not iron, and not a mountain), on which Bok Tower stands, gives impressive views over a generally flat landscape, adding to the magic and uniqueness of this place.
Facilities include a Visitor Centre and the Blue Palmetto Café, selling sandwiches, salads, soups, alcoholic beverages and other drinks. Concerts, art exhibitions, and garden shows are held frequently throughout the year, and the thought of bringing your own picnic to listen to music under the stars is very appealing. See www.boktowergardens.org for full listings.
Where to stay
Green Gables Inn Well located for the gardens, very clean, with friendly staff – and affordable.
Chalet Suzanne Restaurant and Inn If you want to spend that little bit extra, this is the place to go. The quaint inn revels in its history, has great character, is situated in lovely grounds – and is sublime. It may not offer the mod-cons of the major chains, but it has the charm they try to imitate, and in bucketloads. The food is not cheap, but it is fantastic quality – especially in the evenings. I had lobster bisque and curry and saffron shrimp, which was fantastic.