For my first visit to Florida, I had only one requirement. I didn't want the experience to be one big theme park. No problem, as it turned out; I was sent there to work, at a trade show in Orlando. With my colleague Dwayne, a landscaper and avocational botanist, I flew in a couple of days early to seek out remnants of a low-tech, untrendy, offbeat Florida.
It was nearly midnight when we arrived at the Park Plaza Hotel in Winter Park, just 10 minutes north of downtown Orlando. Even at that hour the hotel's charm was evident. The exterior is almost obscured by awnings, flags, ferns and flowers spilling over the second-story balconies. In the lobby, antiques and Oriental carpets surround an old-fashioned bird-cage elevator with a metal grillwork door. The best surprise: a Godiva shop in the lobby.
Chartered in 1887, Winter Park was originally developed as a winter resort for wealthy Northerners, and it retains that upscale gloss. In the quiet early hours we strolled its brick streets, window shopping at high-end retailers and stylish little boutiques with frescoed exteriors.
The next morning we headed for the gem that drew us to Winter Park in the first place. The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art has been famous for decades for its collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany: favrile glass, stained-glass mosaics, leaded glass windows and lamps, furniture and architectural elements. Since 1999, it also houses his chapel.
In 1893, Tiffany built a small but perfectly realized chapel interior at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In terms of glass design and technology, there had never been anything like it. In one window alone he used 10,000 separate pieces of glass. All the components are in place at the Morse, and all of them glitter. Six concentric carved plaster arches are supported and surrounded by 16 mosaic-encrusted columns. On the retable the tesserae were formed by sandwiching gold leaf between a layer of opaque glass and a layer of clear glass. The design on the reredos, the curving wall above the marble and white glass altar, consists of fractured lumps of iridescent glass and faceted beads. It seemed perfectly apt to me that Tiffany used a pair of peacocks in that design, ancient symbols of eternity, rather than common Christian icons.
We decided to drive to the ocean for a seafood dinner. Less than an hour later, Florida Route 520 decanted us into the town of Cocoa Beach, 20 minutes from Cape Canaveral, on a skinny barrier island between the Atlantic and the Banana River Lagoon. Dinner at the Pier House (now the Atlantic Ocean Grille) was exactly what we anticipated -- big drinks, big plates of seafood, big view of ocean all around. The restaurant sits on Cocoa Beach Pier, an old fishing pier that juts 850 feet out into the Atlantic. We walked on the beach long after the sun had set, until it was too dark to see the little creatures scuttling away at our feet.
Heading inland in search of an affordable motel, we discovered Fawlty Towers, a sprawling, pink, turreted place that offered free use of videos of the British comedy series. It had a decidedly un-English tropical garden, a heated pool and a tiki bar.
The next morning we headed for Gatorland. Hewing to the ocean, we headed south on Route A1A and crossed the Melbourne Causeway to the mainland on U.S. 192, which becomes the Orange Blossom Trail. It took us straight to our destination. I've always been a sucker for kitschy roadside Americana, and Gatorland did not disappoint us. It has all the honky-tonk elements you'd expect from a place where you enter through the gaping jaws of a bright green gator snout. There's a snake exhibit, a petting zoo dominated by pushy little pygmy goats, a swamp walk, a scaled-down slow train called the Gatorland Express, a snack bar serving deep-fried gator nuggets. And of course there are alligators, more than a thousand of them.
Alligators are found only in the southeastern United States and in China, with the largest concentrations in Florida and Louisiana. Not so long ago the market for alligator handbags, shoes and briefcases had put them on the endangered species list, but since 1979 Gatorland's pioneering work in alligator reproduction has been one factor in bringing the population back. Now, according to guidebooks and local lore, they can be found in almost every body of water in the state, from large swamps to irrigation ditches.
The alligator shows are the big draw at Gatorland. At the Jumparoo, a bunch of 13-foot gators steam torpidly around big hunks of raw meat suspended over the tank. Eventually some heave their 600-pound bulks halfway out of the water to snatch at the bait. And miss. Just when I had decided they were uninterested, dim or otherwise unsuited to this activity, one monster stepped on another's head for purchase, heaved, and severed the meat with a single shocking snap of fearsome jaws. The sound was unforgettable.
On our last afternoon, we set out to satisfy Dwayne's passion for plants. Historic Bok Sanctuary, formerly called Bok Tower Gardens, is 55 miles south of Orlando, near Lake Wales, on top of Iron Mountain, the highest point in peninsular Florida (about 300 feet above sea level). The tower itself is another 205 feet tall, and we could see it for miles as we drove south through the sandhill scrub around Route 27.
Edward W. Bok was a Dutch immigrant who became the editor of the Ladies' Home Journal in 1889, shortly after his 26th birthday. During his 30-year tenure he pioneered the concept of the modern mass-circulation women's magazine. When he retired, he divided his time between writing (one of his books, The Americanization of Edward Bok, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921) and philanthropy. As a gift to the American people, he bought a patch of sand, pine and palmetto and commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted, already America's most famous landscape architect, to turn it into a sanctuary for migrating birds and world-weary humans.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times