Sebring's more than speed

Special Correspondent

The sometimes sleepy little (pop. 9,000) Sebring in Central Florida is more than just a one-track town, but it does host the greatest sports car race in the country -- the 12 Hours of Sebring every March since the Sebring International Raceway was opened in 1952.

The serpentine 3.7 mile track is used 250 other days of the year without quite as much fanfare, or swarms of racing fans camped out alongside the course. Drivers and pit crews in training for other competitions come year-round to test their equipment and the timing of the crews. The public is not invited.

But you don't have to be a lover of the fast life to appreciate this settlement 165 miles from Miami and 90 from Orlando or Tampa, anchoring a prominent place on State Road 17 off U.S. 27 in the heart of Florida's lake country south of those early retirement communities founded by sun-seeking Northerners -- Avon Park, Babson Park, Frostproof.

Sebring was chartered in 1912 by George Sebring, prominent pottery manufacturer of Sebring, Ohio, and in short order it became the seat of Highlands County, home to hotels and resorts ringing the lake and the streets radiating from the downtown Circle Park complex of galleries, shops and snackeries.

Among them was the 1926 Lake Sebring Casino, built in the Spanish Mission style and sporting its own swimming pool and a pier jutting boldly into the lake providing a platform for anglers and the less active who are content to lounge and bronze the body.

There's also a small sandy beach and a nine-hole, par 3 golf course, one you can actually walk. Farther afield, by some four miles, is one of Florida's must-see state parks, Highland Hammock on State Road 634. There are nature trails and tram tours for those who like to confront the wildlife from the comfort of the sitting position.

In the Casino, renamed the Sebring Lakeside Golf Resort, there are 18 guest accommodations, all suites and all with private entrances and patios and modern bathrooms. The completely equipped kitchens are perfect for do-it-yourself snacking or preparing light meals.

The resort's tearoom was expanded and spiffed up by owners Maria and Mark Baker after they bought the property eight years ago and launched a revitalization campaign. They restored what had to be restored and added new landscaping and various improvements, especially in the tearoom, which serves much more than tea at noon and night. You can order breakfast delivered to your room for an extra $5. That's a bargain for all the fresh fruit, egg specialties and various breads -- and certainly enough stoking for your day swinging a club, exploring the park or strolling the shops on the Circle.

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Robert Tolf's Inn Way column is a monthly feature.

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