Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Tuesday Travel: Hidden Secrets in Central Florida

Since coming to Florida almost three years ago, each day uncovers a new surprise.

The first day we arrived here to house hunt, the day after Hurricane Charley visited, the anoles -- little lizards with detachable tails -- taught me about surviving disasters and going about business as usual.

Mention Central Florida and people think: Orlando. And that leads to Disney World. But Florida is so much more than theme parks. This past February, my husband and I discovered a well kept secret: Polk County.

We felt the breeze freshen and smelled orange blossoms as soon as we crossed the county line. Located next door to Orange County with Disney and theme parks galore, Polk County seems like the country cousin. With 626,634 acres devoted to agriculture, including citrus groves and 554 lakes, much of the land remains under-developed or reserved for pasture. But don't let that country facade fool you. Some of the sweetest treats lurk near those citrus groves.

Lang's Sun Country Groves run a quaint little cafe and gift shop: Taste of Florida which is located halfway between Haines City and Lake Alfred at 5900 U.S. Hwy 17& 92. There they serve the freshest produce, including their own blend of fresh-squeezed orange juice from fruit grown in the family's groves. They ship produce all over the U.S. and we were told that Oprah, and Martha Stewart prefer Langs products. When visiting their cafe, order the grapefruit pie, a recipe perfected by the original owner, Mary Lang, who continues to do the pie baking. She hasn't given the rolling pin over to the next generation, yet.

Sadly the cafe closes in May when the citrus harvest ends, but opens again in October or November.

Davidsons of Dundee, located on U.S. Hwy 27, in Dundee, specializes in unique citrus candy that they make right on the premises. Visitors to their gift shop can watch the candy making process through large glass windows. You may have seen them featured on the Food Channel.

For a special dining experience, make reservations at Chalet Suzanne: 3800 Chalet Suzanne Drive in Lake Wales. The chalet and adjacent motel look like it was built by some architect gnome on hallucinogens. But that's part of the charm. Inside nothing matches -- chairs, tables, place settings -- all mix and match in a romantic setting that has drawn celebrities and plain folk alike. If you get the owner to reminisce, you're in for a treat. Chalet Suzanne also comes with an airfield where guests can fly in for dinner and fly back out again. Expect to spend some serious money at this stop.

And there is more to Polk County than food, although I've barely begun to mention all of the delightful little diners and cafes and country breakfasts....

But when you aren't eating, visit some of their entertain venues: Historic Bok Sanctuary, Cypress Gardens, Fantasy of Flight Museum....

For more indepth information about Polk County and what it has to offer -- at prices much nicer to your pocketbook than the theme parks, check out http://www.visitcentralflorida.org/