Archive For The “Florida Attractions” Category
Winter Park Florida: A Wealthy History
Winter Park is one of my favorite Central Florida towns. Even before I became a Florida resident 17 years ago, I was attracted to its upscale ambiance and old-world beauty. Geographically, it’s a mere 5 miles north of Orlando (the tourist capital of the world) but it feels a million miles apart.
Winter Park was founded as a resort community by wealthy northern business magnates in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The affluent “snow birds,” along with their household employees (yeah, they were filthy rich!), would spend the winters in the wonderful warm town they discovered. Today, in 2017, Winter Park remains the address of some of Florida’s wealthiest individuals. According to the Orlando Business Journal, some of our top earners reside in Winter Park zip codes. The old adage “money begets money” seems to hold true here. I guess money-makers like clustering together. Birds of a feather, I suppose. We all reap the benefits, though. Their multiplied millions have built some pretty spectacular things; art galleries, specialty boutiques, museums, civic buildings, gorgeous parks, a train station, a golf course country club, historic cemetery, and a beach and boat launch. Wealthy Winter Park is also home to Rollins College, the oldest college in Florida and the nation’s premiere liberal arts college.
No matter how you choose to spend your time in Winter Park, the residue of its rich roots seems to be everywhere. But, here’s some fantastic news: You don’t have to be wealthy to enjoy them! There are ample things to do in wealthy Winter Park, even if you’re on a budget.
6 Things To Do in Winter Park on a Budget
Whether you’re a local looking for a Floridian staycation or a visitor seeking shelter from the craziness of crowded theme parks, Winter Park is a great choice. I’ve recommended 6 of my favorite inexpensive (or free) things-to-do. Regardless if you have a few hours or a few days, there’s something here for every time schedule… and budget!
- Park Avenue
- Central Park
- Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
- Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens
- Robert Bruce Barbour House (Casa Feliz)
- Kraft Azalea Park
You can’t visit Winter Park without a leisurely stroll down posh Park Avenue. With more than 140 boutiques, sidewalk cafes and museums, it’s the signature shopping street. No doubt, you’ll encounter wealthy Winter Park residents swanking about. But even though Park Avenue is a Central Florida premier destination for chic shopping and dining, you don’t have to spend a dime to enjoy the awesome aura of this special setting. You’ll experience the same vibrant atmosphere and scenery whether you dish out thousands of dollars or simply engage in some savvy ‘window shopping.’
Prosperous Park Avenue is bordered by oak-canopied Central Park. The park was deeded to the city by one of Winter Park’s most wealthy and influential early citizens — Charles Hosmer Morse. Of the plethora of parks throughout Winter Park, this is the crown jewel. The 11-acre park is beautiful year-round but also plays host to seasonal events like concerts, art shows, exotic car shows, fashion exhibits, festivals, and even [free] movies in the park. Whether you’re rolling in the dough, or living with your adult children just to make ends meet, admission to Central Park is free!
It’s extremely clean (no dogs allowed in Central Park), and despite its downtown location, I find it quite relaxing. If you’re a fitness buff on a good run through the park or simply satisfying your people-watching passion with a birds-eye-view from a strategically placed bench, you’ll appreciate the beauty here.
On a recent visit I enjoyed the outstanding ‘sidewalk art’ presented by some very creative middle-school children. Then, as I approached my favorite area of Central Park, I witnessed a professional photo-shoot for a young couple’s upcoming wedding. How gorgeous; I couldn’t think of a better backdrop than charming Central Park. This area, the far south end of the park, is quite popular with photographers as it includes the peacock fountain and rose garden. There’s a hexagonal planter with a variety of roses and rows of benches nearby. I noticed the peacefulness of this place, even before I knew the backstory. And what a tear-jerking inspirational story it is! You can read the history of the peacock fountain here on FloridaFunAndFork.
***TIP: Don’t miss the prestigious Sidewalk Art Festival which draws over 350,000 visitors each year to Central Park to enjoy some of the best art and music in the United States.
2018 Sidewalk Art Festival Dates
Friday & Saturday March 16 – 17, 9 AM to 6 PM
Sunday, March 18th, 9 AM to 5 PM
Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
Even on a shoestring budget, this museum is affordable. The Morse Museum (created in honor of Charles Hosmer Morse, the man who donated Central Park) houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by American artist, Louis Comfort Tiffany. Although there are other notable works in the museum, the displays of Tiffany glass outshines them all. Admittedly, I was not a big fan of Tiffany glass… until I visited the Morse Museum. Wow! The exhibition includes Tiffany-designed stained glass windows, lamps, glass mosaics, blown glass, ceramics, and jewelry (remember Tiffany’s in New York?). The extensive collection took me by surprise. The huge stained glass windows were out-of-this-world gorgeous, and the Tiffany Chapel was absolutely amazing and one of the highlights for me.
Hubby and I spent nearly 2 hours exploring the Morse Museum. By museum standards, it’s not large, but it has a host of interesting and rare items, and a wealth of historical information to go along with them. I cannot say enough about the friendliness of the staff and the knowledgeable docents strategically positioned throughout the museum to answer any questions. It made for a warm and welcoming environment. This is an impressive museum for the price, $6 for adults, only $1 for students! Sometimes, during special events, admission is free. (Check the Morse Museum website for Calendar of Events.)
The Morse Museum is a real gem for Central Florida, and an inexpensive attraction in the heart of Winter Park. And, it’s conveniently located not far from the SunRail train station. You can access an in-depth review of The Morse Museum right here on FloridaFunAndFork.
Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens
This is a story of a wealthy artist and his lavish Winter Park home. The Albin Polasek Museum is in the historic former home and art studio of Mr. Polasek. The house showcases his artwork, but what really impressed me was the outdoor Sculpture Garden in the rear of the property, with stunning views of Lake Osceola. As you tour the historic home which includes Mr. Polasek’s personal chapel, you’ll take a step back in time and learn about the life of this incredibly talented (and affluent) man.
The Exhibition Gallery also features national and international artists and changes throughout the year. The Albin Polasek Museum has been the recipient of numerous awards and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s worth the low-cost entry fee — adults $5, seniors (60+) $4, and students w/ID $3. A visit to this 5-acre historical site is another inexpensive way to see what wealthy Winter Park was like back-in-the-day.
I spent about 90 minutes here during my April birthday weekend in Winter Park, and my review and photo tour can be accessed here on FloridaFunAndFork. (Wait until you see those sculptures!)
Robert Bruce Barbour House (Casa Feliz)
Speaking of wealthy residents, this home is a blatant reminder of Winter Park’s opulent past. Casa Feliz means “Happy House” in Spanish. This Andalusian-style masonry farmhouse is the signature residential work of famed architect James Gamble Rogers II. It was initially known as the Barbour Estate, and became the catalyst for historic preservation in Winter Park. The restored Spanish farmhouse overlooks the golf course in the heart of Winter Park. Casa Feliz is a historic home museum and popular rental location for private parties, weddings, and business events. The downside to Casa Feliz is its very limited hours. Public open house is every Sunday between 12 noon and 3 pm, and Tuesday and Thursday mornings between 10 am and 12 noon. You’ll learn the Casa Feliz story during the open house via trained docents.
If possible, go on a Sunday, to experience “Music at the Casa.” A different musical group performs each week in Casa’s main parlor representing a broad range of musical genres including jazz, classical, pops, Latin, bluegrass, and folk. You can afford this museum. Admission is free, however, there’s a suggested donation of $5 to help support the mission of Casa Feliz. Light refreshments are served and no reservations are needed. Dress code is casual, as with most Central Florida attractions. Don’t forget your camera. You’ll want a few memories from this skillfully refurbished Spanish farmhouse that evokes 19th Century Spain!
Kraft Azalea Park
If you’re doing wealthy Winter Park on a budget, this is another great stop for your itinerary. Kraft Azalea Park is a scenic public park located in the city of Winter Park. The 13+ acre property is located on the shore of Lake Maitland. Kraft Azalea is known as Winter Park’s ‘secret garden’ because of its secluded and unique location. You’ll drive through a residential neighborhood lined with spectacular homes to get there. The tree canopy is amazing. Even on the hottest of days, enormous cypress trees provide shade throughout this beautiful park. There’s really a sense of ‘Old Florida’ charm here. It’s easy to imagine Winter Park’s well-to-do money moguls of yesteryear enjoying Florida’s sub-tropical climate as they wintered here.
Kraft Azalea can be reserved for private weddings for up to 20 guests. The Exedra Monument is stunning. With Lake Maitland in the background, it’s ideal for sunset wedding ceremonies and picture-perfect photography. Pretty much, there are perpetual photo shoots happening here any time of day — from professional engagement pictures to amateur baby pics. There are no picnic tables, but don’t let that deter you from having a picnic lunch here (there are benches). Ideally, for the hopeless romantics, the best time to be here is sunset. Take a stroll, hand-in-hand with your honey, and enjoy the solitude that Kraft Azalea offers. This is a true Central Florida treasure that inspires creativity, happiness, and peaceful thoughts. Definitely a Winter Park favorite of mine that is free fun for all ages!
Even though Winter Park was originally developed as a winter resort for wealthy upper-class Northerners, it’s overflowing with inexpensive ways to see this Central Florida City with such rich roots. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth nor do I have money to burn, but I truly enjoy Orlando’s wealthy neighbor. It’s nice to know that you can visit the land of plenty without a bountiful bank account. I highly recommend a visit to Winter Park, Florida. It can be affordable, even on a limited budget!
What’s your favorite thing to do in Winter Park on a budget? Our readers would love to know. Please share in the “reply” box below!
Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden: Education and Exploration for Kids
The new Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden is an outstanding addition to the already beautiful landscape of Bok Tower Gardens. It’s a fantastic place for kids to explore nature. Recently, I took my toddler Grandson to Hammock Hollow, and what an awesome time
he we had! The environment was not only fun but extremely educational. We spent several hours there and his curious mind never stopped exploring the unfamiliar territory. It was the perfect place for my inquisitive little guy. It seemed as if there were interesting surprises around every corner. My 3-year-old is eager to learn about the natural world, and there was no better place than the hands-on classroom of Hammock Hollow to educate him.
Site Map of Hammock Hollow: 17 Unique Areas
Upon arriving at Hammock Hollow, it’s beneficial to take a look at the site map for the Children’s Garden. You’ll notice that it’s divided into 17 different areas. According to your child’s age and interests, some sections may be better than others. I’ll list a few of the ones that my Grandson, Apollo, liked.
TIP: It’s a good idea to print a copy of the site map and have it available when you arrive. You can download a copy of Hammock Hollow Site Map here, directly from the Bok Tower Gardens website.
We began our garden adventure by entering through the keystone gate. The kid-size entrance is just the right size for little ones. Grandma’s can go through here too, just don’t forget to duck! This area was a gift from the Bok Family.
The pebble mosaics were really cool. There were both large and small ones, including a woodpecker, gopher turtle, and firefly. Apollo has a fetish for any kind of rocks. On any given day his pockets are filled with them. So it goes without saying that he was fascinated by the artwork made with these colorful little stones. Sculptor Kevin Carman created the masterpieces that perfectly complimented the entrance. This area was a gift from Alexis and Jim Pugh.
I’m not usually a fan of snakes, not even the caged kind. But this humongous pebble mosaic snake sculpture seemed like a friendly fellow. This lifeless reptile encircled a tot-sized sand area complete with sand pails and shovels. What a fun way to help young children develop motor skills. The area has a sunscreen overhead to allow the kids to linger a little longer. I really love exotic bamboo trees, so I was happy to see them planted as a backdrop to the sand play area. I’m looking forward to seeing their growth in a few years as they tower over this twisty serpent. Indigo Pass was a gift from Frank and Carol Drake.
As a Florida resident for the past 17 years, one thing I learned very quickly was that the Sunshine State has 3 seasons: hot, hotter, and hottest! Obviously the designers of Hammock Hollow learned that lesson too. I’m sure that’s why they created the sparkling springs of River Walk. It’s the perfect place for the children to cool off. There are misters, spray jets, foggers, and fountains. This area is paradise for any rock-climbing tyke. River Walk was a gift from Publix Super Markets Charities.
This is a good time to remind you to pack a change of clothes for your child (or maybe 2 or 3!). And don’t forget the sunscreen — remember that Florida heat I told you about? Even in the winter months the sun’s rays can have dangerous UV levels.
Along the Ledge Walk kids will have a blast exploring all the little nooks and crannies in these huge rock formations. The fern-covered rocks represent Florida’s remarkable karst limestone history. The Florida Peninsula is a porous plateau of limestone that was formed many millions of years ago. Another great opportunity for a brief history lesson for your child. As parents, you may want to read up on the Geology of Florida before you go. (Your kids will think you are so smart!)
Edward Bok Word Garden
Edward Bok was a Pulitzer-Prize winning author and also the publisher of one of the finest magazines of yesteryear, the Ladies Home Journal. You can imagine the importance of “words” to a man with such creative writing talents. The Edward Bok Word Garden is an area dedicated to his memory. Unlike the other sections of the Children’s Garden that serve as outlets for physical play, this one is more reflective. Here, the beautiful stones each have an inspirational word etched in them — words that teach our children about qualities that make the world a better place. Pick up a few of the rocks at random and take the opportunity to teach your child about the importance of peace, joy, beauty, caring, and success. It’s also fun moving the stones around to create sentences or phrases. After some exhilarating physical exercise, take a moment to rest in the Word Garden. It will rejuvenate the body and soul.
Fence Swift Stumpery and Fox Den
Without question, the Fence Swift Stumpery and Fox Den was one of Apollo’s favorite areas at Hammock Hollow. My little dude loves to run, jump, and climb on things. At the Fox Den there was a log climb that challenged Apollo to take it slow and focus on balance. The Fence Swift Stumpery garden proves that even tree stumps can be beautiful and useful. It was inspired by the acrobatic lizards that are native to Florida. Although we have many species here, I like watching Geckos. It’s pretty interesting to see how they use their tails while leaping from place to place. This sprawling area under a shady oak hammock was the perfect spot for Apollo to put his best Gecko imitation to the test.
Doodle Bug Art Place
The Doodle Bug Art Place is an area to encourage young artists to display their artistic ability. The paper, crayons, markers, and colored pencils are provided. The tables are made from wood and the seats from tree logs. When finished, the child can proudly showcase their drawings with the other Hammock Hollow guests by hanging the artwork on a clothes-line type apparatus secured with a clothes pin. Who knows… the next Van Gogh might just be discovered here at Hammock Hollow! The Doodle Bug Art Place was a gift from The Herndon Family Foundation.
Songbird Music Tree
The Songbird Music Tree is the perfect spot for your budding musician. Here, you’ll find several tuned acoustic instruments that encourage hands-on activity. Depending on your child’s age, this would be a great opportunity to introduce them to the rich musical heritage of Bok Tower Gardens. The nearby rope hammocks are another great place for parents and kids to rest. The Songbird Music Tree area was a gift from The Ruth V. Marchione Foundation.
Another of Apollo’s favorite activities at Hammock Hollow was the Spider Climb. It’s a gigantic spider-web-inspired structure that allows children to weave their way through this enormous faux web. But be careful, keeping your balance while others are maneuvering the web can be quite challenging.
Hammock Hollow has a beautiful winding boardwalk that twists and turns along a Cypress grove. They’ve strategically placed bird feeding stations in the Bird Hollow section and added special plants that attract wildlife, birds, and butterflies. Few children have actually caught a butterfly, but most of them enjoy the difficult task of trying. Apollo does, for sure!
The fundraising efforts certainly paid off for this amazing project — raising over $16 million dollars in donations, far exceeding their initial goals. I found Hammock Hollow, the new interactive children’s garden at Bok Tower Gardens, to be fun for the entire family. The interactive areas encompass 3+ acres, and do an outstanding job of representing Florida’s varied ecosystems.
It did my heart good to see so many children engaging in outdoor activity. Some of my fondest childhood memories include playing outside after school, on weekends, or any chance I had. Decades later, I still remember those mud pies! But it’s a different world now. With the age of rapid technological advances, oftentimes we depend on our [very young] children to educate us regarding computers, cell phones, and most other wired devices. We must keep up with this “wired” world, or get left behind. Not minimizing that, my concern is that children are missing out on healthy physical exercise, not to mention the overall learning experiences that are only found in the classroom of nature. And, Apollo felt like a million dollars after his outdoor adventure!
Leave No Child Inside — Nature Play is Healthy
There is growing research about the positive impact of nature play for children. This type of unstructured play in the outdoors has proven beneficial for a child’s social, emotional, intellectual, and physical well-being. I highly recommend a best-selling book by Richard Louv entitled “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.” It talks about the great divide between children and the outdoors, with possible links to childhood obesity, attention disorders, and depression. The book’s success has spurred a national movement called “Leave No Child Inside.” I’m so grateful Bok Tower Gardens is doing their part to reunite our children with nature. Don’t miss this Central Florida attraction!
NOTE: Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden is just an hour’s drive from Disney and the Orlando area.
TIP: Florida residents may want to consider an Annual Membership to Bok Tower Gardens for year-round unlimited admission. With many membership levels, there’s one just right for your adventurous family. A membership also includes the American Horticultural Society Reciprocal Admissions Program, with free or discounted entry to attractions, museums, and gardens throughout Florida and the United States.
What is your family’s favorite outdoor activity? Can you recommend a special place to enjoy an outdoor adventure?
Help! I Need a Unique Milestone Birthday Gift Idea
Time was running out. There was only two weeks left to come up with something magnificent and memorable for my hubby’s birthday. And this wasn’t just any birthday, but a milestone one that required something more than the traditional dinner and flowers. To make matters worse, he had the audacity to be born right between Valentine’s Day and President’s Day, so typically we find restaurants and hotels in Florida to be overbooked, overpriced, and way under our expectations. So wine and dine was no option.
Sure, I could have done the [pretend-you’re-surprised] surprise birthday party, but that was too obvious. Isn’t that what everyone does when they’re celebrating three-quarters-of-a-century? The pressure was mounting and I felt like hubby thought I had it all under control, but in reality I had nothing planned and the onslaught of negative thoughts were having a party in my perplexed little head. I had no peace and was flat-out persuaded this special birthday was not going to be special at all.
Unusual Gift Ideas for a 75th Birthday
You’re probably thinking why didn’t I just go to the big “G” to get some recommendations for unusual birthday gifts. Truth be told, I spent hours doing Google searches that yielded very little results for something truly unique for a “seasoned citizen” living in Florida. Consequently, the word ‘senior‘ created a barrage of results giving me the top birthday ideas for men wasting away in state run nursing homes.
Really? Do they assume at 75 you’re senile and immobile? My hubby gives new meaning to the term “active adult!” He walks in divine health and has more energy and stamina than I do. The recorded miles on his Fitbit don’t lie! No, I had no interest in a gold plated custom-engraved magnifying glass or imported European walking stick. The top sure-to-please gifts for a 75th birthday (according to the search engines) were not going to impress my golden guy. I needed a special gift to reflect his youthfulness, not what the candles on the cake were indicating.
Sailboat Charters: The Perfect Special-Occasion Gift!
I was disappointed, to say the least, with my search engine results. The popular opinion seemed to be that many of us will either be dead by 75 or incontinent. But longevity is an inheritable trait, so I expect my handsome husband to be around for many more milestone birthdays!
So even after searching the internet, I was back to square one. My hubby doesn’t need Metamucil, has been on hot air balloon rides, climbed the ancient Mayan Pyramids in Tikal, Guatemala, and encountered screaming [Howler] monkeys in the jungle, among other notable experiences. Surely the Sunshine State has something outside the [boring] birthday box to offer his adventurous spirit, right?
In an effort not to be totally humiliated on that special day, I reluctantly booked four nights at a Luxury Bed & Breakfast Inn near Daytona Beach, only 10 minutes away from one of the top-rated restaurants in the country. It was exactly what I did not want to give… dinner and flowers! But I was persistent. In the wee hours of the morning, while hubby was sound asleep, I finally received my breakthrough. While searching TripAdvisor for “Things to Do in the Daytona Beach/Holly Hills area,” I came across a fantastic option — charter a sailboat with your own private captain! But even that was not so unusual for us. We have fond memories of sipping champagne as the sun was setting on a spectacular sailboat in the Florida Keys. But this one had a unique twist…
Our 36′ Morgan Nelson/Marek Designed Sloop EAGLE
Private Sailing Lessons — I Hit the Mark with Eagle Yachts!
No, this was not your typical sit back and sip champagne kind of sailing. In fact, alcohol is strictly prohibited on this sailboat. I was booking a participatory adventure. In short, that means we were going to be sailing the boat! During our two-hour cruise down Florida’s Halifax River we would receive private sailing lessons.
I had contacted Captain Eric West with Eagle Yachts who helped me understand how it all worked. I was so impressed with Captain West. I told him the sailing lessons were a birthday surprise for my husband, so he privately texted the directions to the marina and secretly answered my many questions. He helped me keep it a secret, and my husband never knew where we were going when we left our accommodations at The River Lily Inn… until we pulled into the marina! And even then, when he fixed his eyes on his birthday surprise, he assumed it was going to be your average sit-back-and-relax chartered sailboat ride. Not so! I was convinced I hit the mark with Eagle Yachts.
Adventure Yacht Harbor in Daytona Beach/Port Orange, Florida
Location of Adventure Yacht Harbor on Florida’s Atlantic Coast
The Adventure Yacht Harbor is located just south of Daytona Beach and near Ponce Inlet, Florida.
Sailing Lessons in Central Florida — The Perfect Gift for ANY Age!
I was amazed to learn that no prior sailing experience was necessary, nor any maximum age restrictions imposed. In fact, Captain West told me he had just finished a lesson with a 90-year-old man who did fantastic! And, that senior citizen chose the more adventurous “ocean route” verses the calm Intracoastal Waterway I had elected. Captain West wasn’t even concerned that I couldn’t swim. He said he had given sailing lessons as young as three years old!
Prior to leaving the dock we were given detailed instructions and taught proper sailing terminology to be used throughout our trip. Captain West would not allow any negative talk, and making fun of each other’s efforts was a major no-no. We were also educated on sailboat safety and emergency procedures. Knowing that the life jackets were within easy reach helped to calm my nerves, although wearing them was optional. By the time we set sail I felt perfectly safe and one-hundred-percent confident in Captain West’s vast experience and nautical knowledge. And, besides being an excellent teacher, Captain West is an interesting story teller as well. This sailor has had some incredible high-seas sailing adventures! For private sailing lessons in Central Florida… Captain West is certainly the best!
Private Sailing Lessons on the 36-Foot ‘EAGLE’ Sailboat
Sailing 101 — Welcome to the Classroom
It was an extremely windy day with wind gusts to 28 knots, which made our sailing adventure even more dramatic. During our two-hour sail on the Intracoastal we did a lot of winching and had to tack a lot. (Those were a few sailing terms I learned… and remembered!) Hubby and I both had the opportunity to take the helm for about thirty minutes each. We found the sailboat to be responsive, easy to control, and we were not intimidated in the learning process.
What an incredible classroom! As sailors we learned all the basics: points of sail, rules of the road, overboard procedures (I tried not to focus on that one too long), heaving to, reefing, required safety equipment, maneuvering under sail and power, anchoring, and so much more.
The 36-foot ‘EAGLE’ Yacht: Our Hands-on Classroom!
Dolphins & Various Marine Life — The Icing on the Cake!
For an added bonus during our sailing lessons, we witnessed playful dolphins and various other marine and bird life. Occasionally, according to Captain West, manatees, ospreys, frigate birds, manta rays and eagles are sighted. He told us this area is also a Right Whale sanctuary and calving ground, therefore, they can sometimes be spotted between November and April. (I would have loved to see them! They are among the most endangered of the world’s large whales, with an estimated population of only 500!) My only regret was that I couldn’t take more pictures of the marine life… we were too busy working!
Marine Life as Seen from Our Sailboat
The ‘EAGLE’ Yacht is Not Just for Sailing Lessons…
Even though Captain West specializes in private sailing lessons, there are additional events he’s available for…
- Lessons on your own boat
- Burial ashes scattered offshore
- Wedding proposals
- Wedding ceremonies
- Meteor shower watching trips at night
- Any special requests
Contact Captain Eric West:
(386) 295-2578 or at email@example.com
Sailing Lessons – For the Young and Young at Heart!
We would highly recommend this sailing experience to anyone… young, or young at heart! The sailing lessons were not only educational, but entertaining. The next time you’re searching for a special occasion or unique Florida-themed gift, think outside the box. Our sailing lessons were unforgettable! Chartered sailboat lessons make great gifts for birthdays, retirement, graduation, promotions, Mother’s Day, or Father’s Day. Or, here’s a fantastic idea: Purchase a 2-hour Private Sailing Lesson Gift Certificate and donate it to a charity fundraiser.
Sailing Lessons are not only the perfect unique gift for Florida residents, but also the millions of tourists who visit every year. It’s a beautiful reprieve from the hectic Central Florida theme parks, yet only an hour or so away from them. We’re already planning sailing lessons for our best friends who visit from Pennsylvania every year. And, because of Florida’s mild semi-tropical climate, it’s something you can do 12 months out of the year! We went in the middle of February. By Florida standards, it was quite chilly (low 60’s) but a sweat suit kept us comfortable and warm.
NOTE: The cost for the sailing lessons was far less than I had imagined. For a very reasonable rate of $85/hour, (minimum 2 hours), I spent $200 which included a $30 tip. Although it was just hubby and me, Captain West allows up to 6 people on the sailboat, which makes the lessons a very good value for families or small groups.
Finished Our Lesson – Officially Sailed a Boat!
A Gift to Remember Our Sailing Experience
Each time we travel some place new or have a first-time life experience, I try to bring home a unique gift or souvenir to remember the occasion. Imagine our surprise then, when Captain West photographed us sailing the boat, then hand-delivered the keepsake photos to us at The River Lily Inn the following day. What an unexpected personal touch! And a sweet souvenir from our sailing adventure that we didn’t have to purchase.
Sailing Lessons: The BEST Birthday Gift… Ever!
Needless to say, hubby absolutely loved his gift. In fact, he has reminded me many times that it was the best birthday gift he ever received. Perhaps it was the ‘secret’ element; he’s so hard to keep a secret from! Here’s my challenge though… his birthday is coming up again in a few weeks. How do I top the sailing lessons?
Happy Birthday Hubby! He Was a Happy Man!
Would you consider Sailing Lessons for a unique special occasion gift? Or perhaps you have another unusual gift idea. Please share with our readers in the “comment” box below!
Florida is synonymous with sunshine. And one of the many benefits of living in the Sunshine State is the spectacular year-round beauty that our semi-tropical climate produces. Something outstanding is blooming every month of the year. It’s no surprise, then, that Florida is home to some of the most breathtaking botanical gardens in the United States. Some are elegant and formal, others whimsical and amusing, still others aesthetically appealing with the addition of artistic elements and magnificent architectural components. Each one has a uniqueness all its own.
But have you ever thought about who planted those botanical beauties? Before they were drop-dead gorgeous gardens that delight you and I, they existed only in someone’s imagination. It’s interesting, to me, that the visionaries behind all that awesomeness were filthy rich businessmen. Yes, Florida’s most exquisite gardens have very, very rich roots! Buried deep within our sandy soil lies DNA from some of the wealthiest families in American history. I’ve chosen these 5 Florida Gardens with Rich Roots for you to add to your botanical bucket list.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens — Miami Florida
When I say Miami, “Gardens” is not usually the first thing to pop into someone’s head. Or the second, or third for that matter. Miami is best known for points of interest like South Beach, Ocean Drive, Art Decor Tours, Little Havana, Lincoln Road Mall and Bayside. But if you’ve been to this Southern Florida City and haven’t visited Vizcaya Museum and Gardens somewhere between your Cafe con Leche and Tostada Cubana, you’ve missed a botanical masterpiece!
Vizcaya’s Rich Roots
Vizcaya is a stunningly beautiful American Villa inspired by the palaces of Europe — a subtropical interpretation of an 18th-century Italian countryside villa. It was built in the early 1900s as the winter home for northerner James Deering, a retired millionaire businessman, and one of America’s wealthiest families. Mr. Deering was diagnosed with pernicious anemia, so his doctor recommended sunshine and a warm climate to lessen the effects of his affliction. (Turns out his pain was our gain!) As an avid sailor who owned three yachts, he also had quite a passion for landscaping and plant conservation. All of these things combined to play a huge role in the location of his 180-acre winter estate.
Vizcaya’s old-world European-inspired gardens are among the most elaborate of any in the United States. The formal gardens of Florence, Venice, and Rome served as the inspiration for James Deering. I absolutely love the use of sculptures, elaborate fountains, and other architectural structures strategically placed throughout the garden landscape. There are statues, urns, busts, and vases reminiscent of the Renaissance, which I find remarkably romantic. Apparently I’m not the only one that gets romantic vibes here, as Vizcaya Gardens is a popular wedding destination for multitudes of brides looking to create an enchanting fairy-tale backdrop for their special day. There are tons of charming, picturesque spots to choose from.
The horticultural collections in Vizcaya’s Gardens are so extensive and diverse (it took almost eight years to create the Garden), they have to be catalogued in a plant database. The Gardens include a subtropical forest, a mangrove forest, an exotic 2,000-specimen orchid collection, massive live oaks, Royal Palms imported from Cuba by boat, unusual plants such as Peach Palm and Giant Elephant Ear, and many endangered plants. Some are so rare they only exist here and in one or two other places in the world!
Vizcaya still remains an outstanding garden oasis for the rich and famous. It’s not unusual for Hollywood to come here for film shoots. They’ve recognized what we Floridians have known all along: Vizcaya showcases the history of the Mediterranean, the glamour of the Jazz Age, and the heat of the tropics! For hours, admission, calendar of events, and frequently asked questions, visit the Vizcaya website.
Bok Tower Gardens and Pinewood Estate — Lake Wales Florida
Tranquil and serene. Bok Tower Gardens gets my vote for the most peaceful place in Central Florida. It’s the ultimate great escape from Orlando’s thrilling [and sometimes over-crowded] tourist attractions. Since it’s one of my favorite places, Hubby and I have an annual membership to the Gardens. One of the great perk’s of membership is that we receive reciprocal benefits (including free admission) to many other spectacular gardens in Florida and around the country — places like Harry P. Leu Gardens and Museum in Orlando. Bok Tower Gardens is a mere 30-minutes from my home, so we visit frequently. There’s always something new blooming!
And with the recent addition of Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden, an educational and fun children’s learning area, I can introduce my toddler grandson to the beauty of “natural” Florida. Part of the expansion project also included an Edible Garden & Outdoor Kitchen. The Bok Tower Gardens special event calendar now includes various chef demonstrations and other culinary activities. This area also hosts after-dark soirées perfect for intimate gatherings. A favorite of visitors to Bok Tower Gardens is the infamous 205-foot-tall Singing Tower which houses one of the world’s finest carillons. Concerts occur twice daily, with additional live performances during peak periods.
Pinewood Estate’s Rich Roots
Pinewood Estate is a 20-room Mediterranean-style mansion from the 1930s. The Estate is open for self-guided tours throughout the year, with docents on hand to answer questions. The holidays are my favorite time to tour the mansion which features one of the best Christmas Home Tours in all of Florida. Each year, the local Garden Club creates a holiday “theme” and decorates each room of the mansion accordingly — truly spectacular! Charles Austin Buck, a Bethlehem Steel vice president was the original owner of this elaborate residence. And, like so many other historical homes in Florida, this was only a winter retreat. Can you imagine having a 20-room mansion that you occupied a mere 6-weeks out of the year? Mr. Buck was so wealthy that he brought 7 – 9 servants from his home in Pennsylvania with him each winter. He hired a manager to live in the house and take care of it the rest of the time.
For a glimpse of Pinewood Estates at Christmastime, read my article about Bok Tower Gardens during December.
TIP: Wear comfortable shoes… it’s easy to spend an entire day at this National Historic Landmark!
Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens — Winter Park Florida
The Albin Polasek Sculpture Garden is located just a short drive from Orlando, the theme park capital of the world, in beautiful Winter Park, Florida. I’ve always loved everything about Winter Park — the architecture, casually elegant restaurants, shopping on Park Avenue, the yummy Winter Park food tours, museums, art festivals, and relaxing Central Park with its inspirational Peacock Fountain. But of all my visits to this wonderful place, only recently did I discover the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. Hubby and I spent several hours here, and had we packed a lunch we could have lingered longer.
Mr. Polasek was a world-renowned Czech sculptor. In 1950 he retired to Winter Park, at the age of 70. Prior to that, he headed the Department of Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago for nearly three decades. The Polasek Museum is the actual home and art studio where Albin Polasek lived and worked. Many original paintings, drawings and small clay sculptures are on display here. While touring the Museum, I learned about the history of this incredibly talented man. But no amount of reading could have prepared me for what I was about to see in the Polasek Sculpture Gardens located on the property behind the Museum, right along the edge of scenic and serene Lake Osceola.
My goodness, these sculptures are absolutely amazing! When intermingled with many native Florida and subtropical garden species, it becomes a botanical utopia; simply perfect! I was blown away by both the created and natural beauty represented in this three-acre Garden. Not withholding the fact that some of Albin Polasek’s greatest artistic achievements came as a severely disabled person. Wow… if only these sculptures could speak! (You may be interested in a more comprehensive article on the life and legacy of Albin Polasek here.) This is truly a “not to miss” attraction if you appreciate outstanding outdoor gardens and are ever in the Central Florida area.
Winter Park’s Rich Roots
The entire town of Winter Park was founded by wealthy Northern industrialists as a winter getaway. This classy place might be geographically close to Disney and other Central Florida tourist attractions, but it’s a world apart in almost every sense. Its got style and substance! Winter Park has never lost its late-19th-century charm — brick-paved streets, stately turn-of-the-last century historic homes, 200-year-old live oaks with Spanish moss, and meandering canals once used for logging. And because money begets money, Winter Park still attracts multimillionaires today. Don’t be surprised if you rub elbows with a member of the Orlando Magic or see a movie star at a Park Avenue sidewalk cafe…
Edison & Ford Winter Estates and Botanical Garden — Fort Myers Florida
Did you know Thomas Edison (the innovative inventor) and Henry Ford (the Ford Motors car mogul) were very good friends? Yes, indeed. Such great friends that they purchased adjoining properties in southwest Florida in the early 1900s as their winter estates. The 21-acre estate features the former homes of the two men, a research laboratory, museum, and botanical gardens.
It’s a lovely waterfront location right alongside the Caloosahatchee River in Ft. Myers. Here, you’ll get a taste of what tropical, “old-Florida” used to be like. Whether you choose the guided or self-guided tour, you’ll receive so much historical information you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back in time. In the Gardens, it’s hard to believe that a few of the original trees planted during Edison’s time are still standing. Hint: check out that famous banyan tree! Good golly miss molly, wait till you see the size of that thing. I won’t give away all the fascinating facts, but you practically need a wide-angle lens to capture the whole thing. Additionally, there are 1700 plants representing 400 species from six continents on display. Hard to find a more diverse horticultural collection anywhere! To get a heads-up of what’s blooming in any given month, check out the Edison Ford Gardens “what’s blooming” page on their website.
Edison & Ford Winter Estates’ Rich Roots
Of course we’re talking about Henry Ford and Thomas Edison here. This popular Florida attraction represents some serious wealth. The net worth of these two men individually is massive, with a capital “M!” When combined, it’s mind-boggling. By the mid-1920s, Henry Ford’s net worth was estimated around $1.2 billion. That’s billion, with a “b!” At age 57 he was worth $188 billion, making him one of the 10 richest people of all time! When Thomas Edison was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1928 Congress valued his work at nearly $15.6 billion. Imagine the good times they had together on that property in Fort Myers that you and I get to visit…
Harry P. Leu Gardens and Museum — Orlando Florida
Leu Gardens is vintage Florida at its best! It’s easy to imagine Florida the way it used to be while strolling this massive Garden comprising nearly 50 acres. It’s nicely divided into 14 distinctly different areas (you’ll need a map). A few of them are formal, like the Rose Garden, but most sections appear more “natural.” While meandering through the landscape that contained the Palms, Cycads & Bamboo, I envisioned old-Florida — the way the Sunshine State looked pre-Disney. I was waiting for a gator to emerge at any moment from the dense subtropical terrain. Stand still long enough on Lake Rowena Overlook and in your minds-eye you’ll see the logging of humongous cypress trees that were transported via steamboat through Florida’s chain of lakes and canals.
Yes, old-Florida is becoming extinct. Vanishing. Endangered as our beloved manatees. But there are remnants, if you know where to look. Thank goodness Harry P. Leu Gardens is doing their part to preserve Florida’s cultural identity, for many generations to come, I hope. You’ll notice Leu Gardens has a personality all her own; it’s old Florida today!
Make sure you save time to tour the Leu House Museum; it’s included in the entry fee. A restored 19th century Victorian-style home, it’s one of the oldest buildings in Central Florida. Some of the architectural details include a tin roof and pine floors. Before it opened to the public in 1961, four different families resided there. The stories told by our docent about these wealthy owners were captivating. If you want a sense of what turn-of-the-century Florida living was like for affluent landowners, take this guided tour!
Harry P. Leu House’s Rich Roots
From a cotton farmer (1st owner) to an actress (2nd owner) to a steel manufacturer (third owner) to the Leu Family (4th and final owner), this house-turned-Museum has had quite a rich history. The most intriguing of the occupants was Duncan Pell, a prominent New York businessman who divorced his first wife in order to marry actress Helen Gardner. Ms. Gardner went on to create her own film company (a first for a woman) and became very well known throughout Orlando. Joseph and Martha Woodward were the 3rd owners; wealthy industrialists who only used the home as a winter residence. Mr. Leu, the last resident, owned a very successful industrial supply company. He and his wife traveled the world and brought back seeds and plants for their gorgeous gardens.
Have you been to any of the 5 Florida Gardens with Rich Roots? Or perhaps you know of another garden here in the Sunshine State with roots back to the rich and famous. Please share with our readers via the comment box below!
Sensational Sanibel Island
Sanibel Island is a premier destination in Southwest Florida. Only 14 miles from Ft. Myers, it sits off the coast in the blue/green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. This tiny little island oasis has gained quite a reputation for itself. Experts in the travel industry have been bragging on sensational Sanibel Island for decades! Authorities within the travel industry say Sanibel is an extraordinary travel experience. But what makes Sanibel so special, and so different from any other island in the Sunshine State?
Well, Travel & Leisure says it’s one of the 10 Best Shelling Beaches in the United States! And USAToday ranked the seashells of Sanibel in the Top 10 Attractions in Florida! So then… seashells and Sanibel are synonymous! But what if beach-combing isn’t your thing? If shell collecting isn’t on your tropical vacation to-do list, is Sanibel still worth a trip? The answer is unequivocally, yes! I’ve put together a list of my favorite things to do every time I visit (in no particular order). You’re welcome to add your favorites as well. Simply reply in the comment box at the end of this article.
- BOOK A WATERFRONT PROPERTY: The beaches of Sanibel are so relaxing. Even in the busy season they’re not crowded. Do yourself a favor and book waterfront accommodations. The few extra dollars a night will more than pay for itself with a million-dollar view. Don’t be surprised if you decide to do nothing at all during your stay, except to immerse your senses in the simplistic serenity of nature. Put your cell phone on mute, kick up your bare feet on that lanai lounger, grab a spoon and enjoy a pint of Queenie’s ice cream (no sharing allowed) — homemade, right across the Pine Island Sound in Ft. Myers. Cinnamon is the bomb! We like to stay at Tortuga Beach Club, a Vacation Ownership property managed by Hilton. Even if you’re not a timeshare owner, rentals are available. It’s only a few steps to the sandy beach via a small boardwalk. It truly felt as if we were vacationing in the Caribbean. Here’s the view from our balcony…
- VISIT JERRY’S FOODS: We started a tradition while on Sanibel. The first thing we do right after check-in and unpacking is make our customary run to Jerry’s Foods. It’s a combination grocery store/restaurant right on the island, at 1700 Periwinkle Way. It has the coolest entrance to a grocery store that I’ve ever seen. It feels like you’re walking through the jungle to get there. Strategically placed throughout the dense tropical palms and foliage are colorful parrots and birds. As you stroll the peaceful pathways, stop and say hello… they do talk… but only when my video is turned off! How do they know that? These gorgeous guys and gals will have you in a relaxed state of mind in no time. When Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” starts running through your head, “island time” has officially found you! Jerry’s isn’t cheap, so we don’t do a large grocery order here, but their pastries and breads are excellent for breakfast on the balcony, and this is where I get my Queenie’s! Also, for a casual lunch or dinner, you’ll never go wrong with Jerry’s Restaurant. The daily specials are always a good value. We’ve had fish tacos, grouper fingers, oriental chicken salad, prime rib, and that coconut pie… oh my! Everything we’ve tried has been excellent!
- TOUR BAILEY MATTHEWS NATIONAL SHELL MUSEUM: You don’t have to be a shell-lover or collector to appreciate this place. There’s no other museum like it in the United States. It’s the only museum devoted entirely to shells and the mollusks that create them. There’s over 30 permanent displays and some temporary ones that often change. The Museum is home to at least 4 different world-record-sized shells. (Wait till you see the size of those things!) But, Bailey-Mattthews is far more than just colorful shells, it’s incredibly educational. The Marine Biologists that research and study here are internationally known as the foremost authorities in their field. Take advantage of the interesting and interactive “Tank Talk” lectures; and in the Arts & Crafts Room you can make a shell souvenir to take home (far more memorable than anything you could purchase in a tacky shell-shop!). Both things are free with a paid admission. FloridaFunAndFork did an in-depth article and photo tour of Bailey Matthews Shell Museum here.
- HISTORICAL SANIBEL LIGHTHOUSE: The Sanibel Lighthouse (originally called Point Ybel Light) is worth a visit for anyone who loves historical points of interest. It’s located on the eastern end of the 12-mile long island and was one of the first lighthouses on Florida’s Gulf coast; first lit in August 1884. The Sanibel Lighthouse is currently maintained by the Florida Coast Guard. Although the lighthouse is not open to visitors, you can walk the surrounding property that includes the keeper’s quarters. There’s also a fishing pier and public beach access. Have your camera or cell phone nearby, it’s a great area for photography!
- J. N. “DING” DARLING NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE: With an address like “One Wildlife Drive” you know you’ve gone somewhat off-the-beaten-path. The Refuge is named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Jay Norwood Darling. Many are familiar with his cartooning in the New York Herald Tribune, but few people realize Mr. Darling was a passionate environmentalist. In fact, he was a pioneer in the conservation movement, and an advocate for wildlife management. At The Education Center you’ll learn his story and the connection he had with President Franklin Roosevelt and ultimately Sanibel Island. The “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is quite large; 6,300 acres. It’s accessible via car, interpretative tram tours, biking, walking trails, or by canoe. We chose the 4-mile scenic drive but also walked a few of the shorter trails. I’ve seen stunning photography of various birds, reptiles, and mammals spotted at the Refuge, but unfortunately we didn’t see too many. Know before you go: Timing is everything! Birds typically feed during low tide, so that’s the ideal time to be there. We visited in the afternoon, in the heat of the day, when movement is minimal. Next time, I’ll tour the sanctuary according to the tide tables.
- CHAPEL BY THE SEA: Just north of Sanibel, via a small bridge, is a tiny sliver of land called Captiva Island. I love the scenic drive to Sanibel’s sister island. As you’re driving perfectly parallel to the sea and sand you’ll be amazed at the colorful bougainvilleas, giant cactus, and other tropical flora. Chapel by the Sea was originally built as a schoolhouse in 1901. On Sundays it would double as a church. Nowadays, it’s an interdenominational church that holds services seasonally, November through April. When you see the setting of this seaside sanctuary you’ll know why it’s also a popular wedding spot. Take a walk through the very old cemetery right next door to the church, many of Captiva’s original 19th century settlers are buried there. TIP: Time your visit to Captiva so you can have dinner while watching the setting sun!
- PLAN A DAY TRIP TO MATLACHA: OMG… I smile just thinking about this place. We discovered Matlacha (pronounced MAT-la-shay) on our way to a romantic anniversary lunch at the historical Tarpon Lodge Restaurant, a 4-Star waterfront restaurant on Pine Island. Matlacha is a teeny-tiny little town the size of my walk-in closet (well, at 99 acres, that’s almost true!) that you have to drive through to get to Bokeelia, our restaurant destination. Turns out, this pee-wee sized place with a population around 735 is a bright, funky artist enclave — it’s so colorful you’ll be tempted to wear your Ray Ban’s at night! The color is what captured my attention, but the incredible talent is what really impressed me. Matlacha is home to a multitude of authors, musicians, and artists. (You know… birds of a feather…) You’ll definitely want to check out Matlacha’s Art Galleries, amongst the most eclectic I have seen!
- MURDER MYSTERY DINNER TRAIN, FT. MYERS: Another outstanding day trip is to one of the best attractions in all of Florida. A short 40-minute drive will have you in Ft. Myers, — a popular Southwest Florida destination. Here’s an itinerary idea: Tour the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, Have Lunch at The Veranda (one of my favorite upscale restaurants in Florida!), Stroll the Fort Myers Newly Expanded River District, then experience Dinner and A Show on the Murder Mystery Dinner Train. (Perhaps you’ll be like my sleuth friend, Ron, who received an award for correctly solving the “who done it” mystery!) It’s a full schedule, but you can chill at your beach-front Sanibel villa the next day! Fort Myers is a day trip you’ll be talking about for a long time after you return home, I promise!
- BIRD WATCHING ON THE BEACH: If you’re not into shelling, no problem. There’s another popular pastime on the beaches of Sanibel. Here’s how it works: Perfectly position your beach chair at one of the birding hotspots and spend a lazy afternoon doing a little bird watching. Simple as that! Simple, but oh so satisfying to the soul!
- THE SANIBEL STOOP: Okay… I must confess. After a few days of watching everyone else doing it, I decided to try it myself. The Sanibel Stoop, that is. It’s difficult watching the sense of satisfaction and jubilation people get when finding one of those “prized” shells, and not being a participant. After all, it’s kinda like the “official” pastime of Sanibel. And, you know what they say… when in Sanibel, do as the Islanders do! But I have to warn you, the Sanibel Stoop can become seriously addicting, with spontaneous bouts of stooping over with little or no warning. Don’t fight it. There’s some spectacular spoils waiting to be discovered on the sparkling shores of sensational Sanibel!
The Sanibel Stoop Sets A Guinness World Record!
In March 2012, over 800 hovering hineys of Sanibel broke the world record for “largest treasure hunt game!”
Lonely Planet — FREE E-Book
Discover the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel | 2017
Discover restaurants, entertainment, shopping, pristine beaches, outdoor adventure, and a relaxed island paradise on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel with this new guidebook from Lonely Planet.
Have you been to Sanibel Island? Would love for you to add some interesting “Things To Do” to our list! Simply reply in the comment box below!
Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island
There’s no other museum in the entire United States quite like the Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum. It’s the only museum stateside that is entirely devoted to shells and the mollusks that create them; that’s what makes it so unique. It’s located on Sanibel Island, a small island off the Southwest coast of Florida (14 miles west of Ft. Myers) in the Gulf of Mexico.
Sanibel Island’s claim to fame is its beaches. USAToday ranks the Seashells of Sanibel as the 7th of Florida’s Best Attractions overall (right on the heels of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, so you know Sanibel is pretty spectacular!). It consistently ranks at the top of Travel & Leisure’s 10 Best U.S. Shelling Beaches. And, internationally, it’s known as one of the best shelling beaches anywhere. So what better place to have a shell museum than right in the middle of the shelling capital of the world!
The Museum was conceived in 1984 and opened its doors to the public in 1995 — a dream-come-true for many Sanibel shell enthusiasts. Since its inception it has operated as a reference center for students and scientists, both nationally and abroad. During my last visit some researchers from out of the country were working upstairs (not accessible to patrons) to assist with curating and organizing part of the Museum’s vast mollusk collection. It’s been an ongoing effort for many years.
Bailey Matthews Shell Museum has become the premier destination for anyone interested in terrestrial, marine, or land mollusks of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. Lecture Series are commonplace and given by leading specialists in malacology (the branch of zoology that deals with mollusks) and natural history. Shell aficionados young and old have benefited from the Museum’s findings — shell clubs, community groups, public schools, home-schooled children, churches, and retirement homes. In fact, an official collaboration with Lee County schools was started in 1997.
The Bailey Matthews Shell Museum was named in honor of the family who donated the 8 acres of land where it was erected, and operates as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Marine biologist José H. Leal, Ph.D., serves as Curator and Scientific Director of Education.
Sanibel Island is World Renowned for its Shelling Beaches
Many of the shells that end up in Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum are found on Sanibel Island, Captiva Island right next door, or neighboring barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico. If you look closely at the photo below, you’ll notice that the sand on this Sanibel Island beach is covered with seashells! I have never seen such a high concentration of shells as what I experienced on the beaches of Sanibel. As a Florida resident I’m accustomed to walking barefoot on our beautiful sandy shores. But… not here! It’s a dangerous thing because of the multitude of shells. I overheard a lady in a Sanibel Island gift shop tell her friend that she cut her foot very badly on some shells, even with sandals on. For her, it required an emergency trip to the hospital; not the way to spend a vacation in paradise!
TIP: Always wear protective beach shoes while on Sanibel Island’s shell-strewn beaches. Although the pastel-colored shells are stunning to look at and exciting to collect, they’re likely to cause injury if proper footwear is not worn.
Southwest Florida Shell Guide: A Work in Progress!
I had a blast searching for and collecting shells on Sanibel Island. The locals are awesome; always eager to help a bone fide novice like me learn the secrets to successful shelling.
- Rule #1: Learn the “Sanibel Stoop!” Scouring the beach with a bent-over posture will yield better results.
- Rule #2: Buy a shovel! The plastic kiddie-kind will do just fine. Prized shells are like most other valuable treasures — found just below the earth’s surface with a little digging.
There were so many unusual ones, very different from what I find on beaches elsewhere in Florida. Since I’m not a serious shell collector, and I’m far from being an expert at seashell identification, I needed a lot of help distinguishing one from another. The Bailey Matthews Shell Museum was the perfect place to assist. José H. Leal created the Southwest Florida Shell Guide. It depicts hundreds of shells, but has an emphasis on those collected on Sanibel and Captiva Islands. It currently has 349 species listed but is continually being expanded and updated. Various information is given for each type, along with a photo for easier identification. But here’s the best news of all… you don’t have to travel to Sanibel Island or the Bailey Matthews Shell Museum to gain access to this information. It’s available to anyone via the Museum’s website. Simply click this link to open the Southwest Florida Shell Guide.
Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum: Hours and Daily Programs
Unlike many Sanibel Island businesses, the Museum doesn’t keep seasonal hours. That means no matter what day, week, or month you visit it will be open. (Our last trip to the Island was in September, and we were disappointed to find out many of the local businesses close during that month!) The Museum is closed only one day each year; Thanksgiving. Otherwise, you can visit daily from 10 – 5 (with abbreviated hours on major holidays). Adult admission is $15, with reduced prices for children and youth. Children under 5 and active military are FREE. Parking is included, and daily programs are FREE with paid admission.
How long should you plan on being at the Museum? Well, I’ve been to Bailey Matthews Shell Museum twice, both times spending several hours looking at awesome displays, watching informational videos, and participating in the daily programs. But even if you bypass the extra programs, I’d recommend a minimum of 1 1/2 hours. The events are ever-changing, so it’s best to check the daily schedule on the arrival board in the main lobby.
We attended a Live Tank Talk that was presented by a marine biologist. What a great way to gain insights into the fascinating world of mollusks! It was both fun and informative. Our speaker allowed ample time to answer all questions and we got to handle some of the subject matter. There’s no better way to learn than “hands-on!” There was also an hour-long Arts & Crafts session that my “crafty” friends took advantage of. Hubby and I were sorry we didn’t join them after seeing their shell masterpieces. My friend Ron made a cat, and his wife, Donna, made the most adorable seashell elephant. Her miniature version of this otherwise large pachyderm was amazingly adorable. I affectionately call him “EL, the seashell elephant!”
Permanent and Temporary Exhibits at the Shell Museum
The Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island offers more than 30 permanent exhibits, along with some that are on display for a limited amount of time. I remember prior to my first visit having this thought, “How can you build an entire museum out of a few sea shells?” Oh my goodness, I was so narrow-minded! I had the opportunity to see and learn about shells that I never even knew existed. Gorgeous shells, scary-looking shells, humongous shells, itty-bitty shells… and every kind in between. Not to mention that Bailey-Matthews houses some of the largest record-holding shells in the world. In fact, they have the largest known Goliath conch, Atlantic trumpet triton, horse conch, and lightning whelk. These things were massive! Take a look at some of my favorites…
The Role of Shells in History
Shells are not just beautiful and interesting to look at, but for centuries they’ve played an important role in culture, art, design, and medicine. For example… do you know what the oldest currency in the world is? Prior to visiting the Bailey Matthews Shell Museum, I didn’t know either. It’s shells! Apparently even before coins were made of silver and gold and precious gemstones, the ancient monetary system was shells. In one of the exhibits at the Museum you’ll learn why shells were used as money.
“The money cowrie (Erosaria moneta) is the most widely circulated and longest enduring currency in history!”
~ The Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum Quote
On a more romantic note, shells were also used as Valentines! Back in the early 19th century, shells were used as a popular art form developed by women in the Caribbean Islands. Oftentimes, sailors would create extravagant shell artwork and bring them home to their loved ones as the ultimate Valentine.
Additionally, shells were used to make some very practical things like buttons and bows. And fashion diva’s “back in the day” didn’t have Gucci, Coach, or any other designer-named purse so guess what they used? Yep, shells! And check out the intricacy (photo below) of the “flower” arrangement. It’s made entirely of shells, all with their natural color — every petal delicately and strategically placed. Among other things, there are 7 stems of lilac flowers made from 3,500 purple coquinas, all hand-collected on Sanibel Island. It took the artist and his wife 200 hours to complete this stunning piece.
Calusa: Florida’s Original Shell People
The exhibit depicting the Calusa Indians was fascinating. The Museum uses life-size models that look amazingly real. The Calusa were the original inhabitants of Southwest Florida (long before the first Spanish explorers) and made many of life’s necessities from shells; hence, the nickname “Florida’s original shell people.” Through the artifacts on display we know they used shells for things like tools, weapons, utensils, jewelry, and shell spears were made for fishing and hunting. More information on this “people group” can be found on Wikipedia’s Calusa Indian page.
Exotic Shells from Around the World
Upon entering the Museum the focal point of the Great Hall is a display featuring exotic shells from around the world. You can’t miss it! It includes shell species from the Japanese Province, Indo-West Pacific and other distant locales typically only accessible with a passport. It’s an inexpensive way to do some island hopping, and, if you get tired the room has a few comfy benches.
The Prized Junonia
I’ve saved the best for last! The Scaphella junonia is the grand prize for shell collectors on Sanibel and its surrounding islands. It truly is the pride of Sanibel Island. The treasured junonia is such a special find because it rarely washes ashore. It’s a deep-water marine mollusk that lives off the coast, in the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s how the official Chamber of Commerce website for Sanibel and Captiva Islands describes it:
“The islands’ most coveted seashell, it belongs to the volute family. Its milky chamber is covered with brown spots on the outside, and the animal that occupies the shell is likewise marked. Shellers who find a junonia on Sanibel or Captiva get their pictures in the local newspaper!”
Yes… a junonia find is so rare that you practically become a celebrity by the locals if you scoop one up — right down to getting photographed for the local newspaper! HINT: the best time to find one is right after a major storm, when all kinds of marine life comes ashore.
The Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum is a great experience for the whole family. They have incredibly useful information for shellers of all types, from amateur to professional. In addition to viewing shells you won’t see anywhere else, their resources are second to none. And, even if you’re not an avid sheller, you’ll leave with a new appreciation for shells and the little creatures that inhabit them. It’s no wonder people come from all over the world to visit Bailey-Matthews! I highly recommend this experience.
DID YOU KNOW…
Yearly Memberships for Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum are available for as little as $50 for 2 people?
Purchase online before you go!
NAME: Beach Walk — LOCATION: Island Inn Beach
TIME: 9:00 AM Daily — DURATION: 60 Minutes — COST: $10 (Adult)
MEETING ADDRESS: 3111 West Gulf Drive, Sanibel — Purchase tickets online
Led by a Marine Biologist, you’ll learn about the shells, mollusks, and other marine life that has washed ashore!
Bok Tower and Gardens ~ National Register of Historic Places
Bok Tower Gardens is a 50-acre garden located in Lake Wales, Florida. It’s perfectly positioned on Iron Mountain within the Lake Wales Ridge, one of the highest elevations in peninsular Florida. Rising 295 feet above sea level, for me it’s the most peaceful place in all of Central Florida. As a Florida resident looking to take a break from the craziness of Orlando’s theme parks and myriad of other touristy places, Bok Tower Gardens provides a place of solitude, and seemingly shelters me from the over-crowded venues synonymous with the Sunshine State. Even when the parking lot is full, I feel like I’m all alone; just me nestled amongst nature’s finest.
Bok Tower Gardens has been inspiring locals and visitors for the past 88 years! It was established almost 9 decades ago by Edward W. Bok as a gift to the American people. Mr. Bok spared no expense in creating this garden oasis, hiring famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. as the designer. After 5+ years in construction, Bok Gardens was dedicated on February 1, 1929, by President Calvin Coolidge. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993. The history of Bok Tower Gardens is truly fascinating!
Edward W. Bok was the editor of the women’s magazine Ladies Home Journal!
Bok Tower Gardens ~ 7 Distinct Areas
Bok Tower Gardens consists of 7 distinct focal points:
- Olmsted Landscape Gardens
- Wild Garden
- Singing Tower
- Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden
- Edible Garden & Outdoor Kitchen
- Pine Ridge Nature Preserve
- Pinewood Estate & Gardens
Each one is unique and provides for leisurely strolls, enlightening moments, or engaging activities. There are a multitude of meandering paths and strategically placed benches perfect for reading, journaling, reflecting, meditation, or praying. The informal woodland setting is also a haven for bird-watchers, butterfly fanatics, nature lovers, and photographers. Keep your camera handy — in addition to songbirds, wildlife may include turkeys, raptors, lizards, or the rare gopher tortoise listed as “threatened” and thereby protected under Florida State law.
If you plan on thoroughly investigating all 7 areas in one day, it’s a good idea to arrive when they open at 8 a.m. Pack a picnic lunch or stop by the Blue Palmetto Cafe, their on-site spot for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. (You have got to try the Beer-batterd French Fries! They were even better than my beloved Sweet Potato Fries.) Here’s a peek at the Blue Palmetto Cafe menu and prices.
Begin your visit at the Visitor’s Center & Museum with a brief orientation film. Here, you can also learn about the history of the Gardens and view changing art exhibits. Be sure to pick up a brochure with photos of some of the plants that will be blooming during your visit; these change on a monthly basis. Additionally, there is a table right outside the Visitor’s Center with a sampling of what’s currently in bloom. Take a look, and then see how many you can locate! Save some time to explore the Tower & Garden Gift Shop with unique treasures (and a live plant shop for your own garden) to commemorate your visit.
Bok Tower Gardens is open 365 days a year, from 8 – 6. Visit their website at boktowergardens.org for visitor guidelines and frequently asked questions.
Bok Tower Gardens ~ Colorful Creations 365 Days a Year!
Regardless of which month you visit Bok Tower Gardens you’ll find a variety of flowers and plants in bloom. That’s the beauty of having a botanical garden right in the middle of the Sunshine State! During every season (and yes, Florida has them!) color abounds. For example, when I went in December there was Plumbago, Tropical Gardenia, Chinese Hat, Popcorn Senna, Beautyberry, Brazilian Red Cloak, and Camellias, just to name a few. The citrus trees were at the height of their growing season, and poinsettias were everywhere. And the mansion at Pinewood Estate was decked out in all its holiday splendor. Christmastime is truly one of my favorite times at Bok Tower Gardens.
Bok Gardens in February
My most recent visit was a few days ago in February. I didn’t expect to see much midway through winter, but Mother Nature proved me wrong. The Gardens were remarkable! Sensational Snapdragons were blooming in a variety of bright colors and ranged in height from dwarf to medium to tall. Their showy slender stalks appeared throughout the Gardens, from potted containers at the entrance to Pinewood Estate, and places in-between.
And speaking of “showy,” the Camellias were the crème de la crème! They were found in various sections and provided breathtaking eye-candy for anyone with a passion for botanical beauty. The red, white, and pink flowers (oftentimes mistaken for a rose) were in full bloom during my February visit. Bird of Paradise, one of my all-time favorite tropical flowers, were also blooming. The Azaleas… oh my goodness, those Azaleas! Even though they’re quite common compared to a lot of the offerings here, were extraordinarily beautiful. It seemed like there were acres of them, in so many varieties — such as Amelia Rose, Gloria, Mardi Gras, Southern Charm, Kissimmee, Edward Bok, and Eugenie.
Pinewood Estate ~ Mediterranean Revival Architecture
A trip to Bok Tower Gardens is not complete without a leisurely stroll around the grounds of Pinewood Estate. The enchanting 20-room mansion is Mediterranean Revival Architecture, and just under 13,000 square feet. This area is comprised of nearly 8 acres and was built in the early 1930s for Charles Austin Buck, the vice president of Bethlehem Steel. “El Retiro” was the original name, which means “retreat” in Spanish. I purchased a book with the history of Pinewood Estate and Bok Tower Gardens in the gift shop, which I highly recommend. It was fascinating!
General Admission to the Gardens is $14, and a combo ticket that includes the Pinewood Estate tour is $20. It’s well worth the $6 up-charge which includes the home’s history, and docents are available throughout the mansion to answer questions about the Estate and its furnishings. Even if you don’t purchase the interior tour of the mansion, do yourself a favor and peruse the immaculate grounds. You’ll be able to see the formal Mediterranean-style garden, the Spanish frog fountain, an enchanting stone grotto at the front of the house, an Oriental moon gate fountain, and an English-style country garden with a rolling lawn and reflective pond.
The Singing Tower at Bok Gardens
Towering 205 feet above the Gardens is the neo-Gothic Singing Tower. It houses one of the world’s finest carillons with 60 bells. The Art Deco style is made up of stone native to the Southeast, ironwork, tile mosaics, and the infamous sun dial and brass door. Unfortunately, few people will get to tour the inside of the Singing Tower and see what’s behind the brass door. To receive a private tour invitation you must hold a Sustainer Level Membership or above. Even so, the outside of the Tower is worth seeing; it was awarded the grand prize for design in 1930 by the American Institute of Architects. Carillon concerts occur at 1 & 3 p.m. daily. They can usually be heard almost anywhere on the grounds of the Gardens.
The carillon musical instrument was designed and built in England, in 1928. There are only 4 in Florida and 600 worldwide. Bok Tower Gardens will be hosting the 23rd International Carillon Festival March 4-12. Daily concerts and special events will be performed by world-renowned carillonneurs. This world-famous music festival only happens twice every 5 years!
Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden ~ New at Bok Tower Gardens
One of the new additions to Bok Tower Gardens is the children’s play area called Hammock Hollow. What a fantastic idea! Young children are generally not as interested or impressed by botanical gardens as adults are, therefore, this add-on was a win-win for everyone in the family. Mom and Dad no longer have to fight with the little ones to go to the Gardens. In fact, with an activities area like this one, the only battle will be getting the kids to leave.
At 2.7 acres it’s much larger than I envisioned. The children can enter through the pint-sized keystone gate, where the adventure begins. There are rocks to climb (careful… you may get wet!), a gigantic spiderweb to maneuver, logs to climb, a painting area for the next Van Gogh to be discovered, sand play area complete with sand pails and water, a stick stack for building forts and other structures, a chickee hut with an outdoor kitchen, frog hop for jumpers, acoustic musical instruments, bird feeding stations, and lots more. There’s a decent amount of shady areas to escape the hot Florida sun with places to rest and cool down; rope hammocks, secret nap benches, fountains, spray jets, misters, and foggers.
***Note: This is not a babysitting service. The children must be supervised at all times.
Edible Garden and Outdoor Kitchen ~ New to Bok Tower Gardens
Another upgrade to Bok Tower Gardens is the addition of an Edible Garden & Outdoor Kitchen. Developed by the University of Florida and other growers, it features fruits, herbs, and vegetables. Of course, the varieties planted are those well suited for Central Florida weather. This area hosts special events and culinary classes such as Grilling with a Twist, Sippin’ & Suppin’ Under the Stars with Celebrity Chefs, Kids in the Kitchen, Fermentation Festival, Craft Beer & Cuisine, and Brining & Pickling.
A Slice of Old Florida
Bok Tower Gardens gives me a sense of Old Florida — the way our great state used to be before scores of people discovered our little secret. It’s off-the-beaten-path, yet so easy to access from almost anywhere within Central Florida. I highly recommend this peaceful piece of paradise. And even though there’s been a noticeable increase in attendance since the new spaces have premiered, you won’t have tons of tourists stepping on your toes. The serenity is addictive.
Bok Tower Gardens Membership and Reciprocal Program
If you’re in a geographical area that will allow you to return again and again, consider purchasing a Membership. With 11 different Membership Levels, there’s one that fits most budgets. Hubby and I purchased the “Duo” right before the price increase (we paid $55). But even at $70 for 2 people it’s a bargain. Not only do you get unlimited visits to Bok Tower Gardens and discounts at the Blue Palmetto Cafe and Tower Garden Gift Shop, it also includes a reciprocal admission program that allows free or greatly reduced entry prices for other select botanical gardens and museums in Florida and throughout the country.
For example, Harry P. Leu Gardens in Orlando offers free admission simply by showing your Bok Tower Gardens Membership Card (and photo ID). Here’s my Leu Gardens Review and Photo Tour from a recent visit. This is another gorgeous botanical garden and museum that is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Additionally, The Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Garden in Winter Park has free reciprocal admission. The sculptures in this outdoor sculpture garden are amazing! To me, if a facility is on the National Register, it’s usually worth seeing. In total, there are 47 botanical gardens and/or museums in the state of Florida alone that participate in this program.
You can check out the Membership Application for Bok Gardens on their website.
Bok Tower Gardens Map and Directions
ADDITIONAL READING FOR BOTANICAL ENTHUSIASTS
What do you get when you combine a passion for botanical beauty with America’s wealthiest families? You get 5 Florida Gardens with Rich Roots! It’s a fascinating article revealing the connection between the richest people in America and their winter homes here in Florida!
SPECIAL EVENT: EASTER SUNRISE SERVICE
WHERE: Bok Tower Gardens, 1151 Tower Blvd, Lake Wales, FL 33853
WHEN: April 16, 2017, 7:00 am — Gate opens at 6:00 a.m
COST: Complimentary Admission until 8:00 a.m
In addition to an inspiring Easter message, enjoy a carillon performance by Geert D’hollander
For an additional fee a buffet breakfast will be served in the Blue Palmetto Café following the service
Have you been to Bok Tower Gardens? Please share your experience or any questions about this National Historic Landmark in the Comment box below!
Leu Gardens — Vintage Florida!
As a 16-year Florida resident, I’m always searching for little hidden gems off-the-beaten-path from the hustle and bustle of Central Florida theme parks and other tourist-driven attractions. Amazingly, I’ve found one in the most unexpected place… 2 miles from downtown Orlando! So close to ‘the Mouse’ and his house at Walt Disney World, yet a million miles away (at least that’s what it seemed like to me). Don’t get me wrong, I’m one of Mickey’s fondest fans, but every now and then I crave some of God’s handiwork more than man-made Disney magic. The Harry P. Leu Gardens satisfied my appetite for an authentic “Old Florida” respite. They have perfectly preserved the beauty, culture, history, and environment of vintage Florida.
Harry P. Leu Gardens — Celebrating 55 Years!
In 1961, 55 years ago, the City of Orlando was given a grandiose gift. Harry Leu and his wife Mary Jane donated their home and gardens to the “City Beautiful.” The restored 19th century home has become the historic Leu House Museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The botanical gardens contain nearly 50 acres of cultivated tropical and semi-tropical plant collections from around the world, thanks to the extensive international travels of Mr. and Mrs. Leu. [Of course, that was prior to governmental regulations that restrict bringing certain agricultural products into the United States.] Their passion for horticulture is what transformed their estate into the botanical oasis that we enjoy today.
Leu Gardens — 14 Dedicated Areas
Leu Gardens is strategically divided into 14 different areas to better appreciate the offerings. Interpretive signs, QR Codes, and plant labels can be found throughout the gardens. I did, however, think the signage could have been better. Even with a map, my hubby and I found the navigational aides to be sparse for such a vast property. Although, we did encounter several staff members in golf carts who were more than willing to help with directions and any questions we had.
Following is a listing of the 14 dedicated areas within Leu gardens:
- Garden House Welcome Center
- Tropical Stream Garden
- Idea Garden
- Herb Garden
- Butterfly Garden
- Vegetable Garden
- Rose Garden
- Color Garden
- Leu House Museum
- Palms, Cycads & Bamboo
- Floral Clock
- White Garden
- Arid Garden
Leu Gardens — Free Admission The First Monday Of Every Month
My husband and I visited Leu Gardens in early October. We happened to be there on the first Monday of the month, and received free entry, as is their policy every month (excludes special events). Although adult admission is a modest $10 (parking included), the “freebie” was greatly appreciated. Additionally, if you have a Membership in any of the American Horticultural Society (AHS) Gardens throughout the country, you can take advantage of the reciprocal admission program and receive free admission to Leu Gardens simply by showing your Membership Card and photo ID. Florida has some outstanding botanical gardens and museums that participate such as Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, and Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Garden in Winter Park. With nearly 50 reciprocal partners in the Sunshine State, the cost of Membership will certainly pay for itself many times over! Here’s a link with additional information on a Leu Gardens Membership, including pricing and benefits.
Leu Gardens Self-Guided Walking Tour
Our tour at Leu Gardens began at the Garden House Welcome Center where we picked up a map for our self-guided walking tour. This building also provides space for business meetings, receptions, retreats, art exhibits, and plant groups. Classes are offered year-round for gardening, landscaping, history, wildlife, art, photography, and cooking.
For the plant enthusiast, be sure to stop by the botanic library. The Gift Shop was small but had some unique items to memorialize your visit or suitable for gift giving. A practical purchase would be the all natural botanical herbal insect repellent for your leisurely stroll amidst the gardens.
Leu Gardens In The Fall
As previously mentioned, I visited Leu Gardens in early October. Since the climate of Central Florida is conducive for year-round plantings, I was expecting much more color. There were a few pockets of gorgeous autumn hues in the Color Garden, but generally speaking, flowering plants were not plentiful. This was my greatest disappointment. I enjoyed the gardens enough to return, but will choose a different season when I do.
Leu House Museum — National Register Of Historic Places
The Leu House Museum is included in the entry fee, and should not be missed. I truly enjoyed my guided tour through this restored 19th century home. It was fascinating to see and hear about turn-of-the-century Florida living. Four families owned the property before it opened to the public in 1961, and each story was captivating. Our docent was extremely knowledgeable and answered questions without hesitation. Many of the furnishings in this historic home were originals left by Mrs. Leu; others are period reproductions.
Tours last about 25 minutes and are available on the hour and half hour. From November 13 – January 2 you can see the Leu House Museum decorated for the holidays. Creative juices flow as 9 local interior designers work their magic in each of the 11 rooms of this estate — everything from Christmas trees, tablescapes, wreaths, vintage ornaments, and much more. You’ll go home with a few decorating tips, for sure!
Leu House Museum Photo Tour
The Majestic Rose Garden — In Memory Of Mary Jane Leu
The Rose Garden at Harry P. Leu Gardens is nothing short of spectacular! The fact that Mary Jane Leu loved roses is quite evident here. She created it as a place of beauty and education for future generations. It contains some very old garden roses; those existing prior to 1867, as well as more modern varieties. This is the largest formal rose garden in the state of Florida! No wonder Leu Gardens is a favorite wedding destination that hosts over 300 weddings every year. It has been voted as one of the best wedding venues in Orlando.
The Floral Clock At Leu Gardens
There are certain not-to-be-missed sections of Leu Gardens, and the Floral Clock is one of them. This feature was inspired by the famous floral clock of Edinburgh, Scotland. The Scottish version was commissioned in 1903, and was the first of its kind in the world. This one was donated by the Kiwanis Club of Orlando in 1975. The unique and stunning display is an actual working clock and the floral designs that fill the face of the clock are changed seasonally. Although not as intricate and well-groomed as I had expected (it appeared somewhat overgrown and the hands of the clock were difficult to see), it is worth a few minutes of your time.
Palms, Cycads, And Bamboo
This specialty garden is sometimes referred to as “the dinosaur garden” because it contains many plants dating back to the prehistoric age. For example, Cycads are primitive plants that existed for nearly 200 million years. During the Cretaceous Period when dinosaurs ruled the Earth they were the main plant life. Even though they are palm-like in appearance, they are cone bearing plants and have no relation to palms.
The Palms in this collection rank among the most extensive in the United States. It is vast with nearly 400 species that are well suited for our Central Florida climate. Palms are useful for providing food, furniture, and even wax for surfboards (Carnauba Wax Palm). While strolling the Palm Garden, take a moment to read the plant labels that identify the common name, botanical name, plant family, and origin of each specie. They’re quite interesting.
If you’re a lover of Bamboo like I am, you will be fascinated with nearly 50 varieties in this garden. Bamboo is a woody-stemmed plant in the grass family. Some grow only a few inches tall, while others reach over 70 feet with canes 5 inches in diameter. If you’re considering planting Bamboo in your Central Florida backyard (or even in a controlled indoor environment) I highly recommend visiting Leu Gardens first, where you can check out tons of different species. Some of them have been growing for more than 30 years. When you’re ready to buy, Beautiful Bamboo in Groveland, Florida is a nursery that specializes in Bamboo, about 30 minutes from Orlando.
The Butterfly Garden
Always a favorite of mine is the Butterfly Garden. I’ve been to many in Florida; some were pretty awesome, other’s not so much! The one at Leu Gardens is worth a few minutes of your time. There’s just something about this flying insect that puts a smile on my face every time I see one. To me, this gentle creature that floats in the wind is the epitome of beauty and grace. In this specialty garden, a wide variety of annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees are planted to attract different types of butterflies. Some of them are nectar plants, others are larval plants that caterpillars eat. Many also attract hummingbirds and night-flying moths.
While in the Butterfly Garden, another visitor pointed out the presence of a snake that was trying hard to go un-noticed. Obviously, he got busted! I didn’t stick around long enough to see what kind it was, for even the harmless ones freak me out. Because of my speedy departure from this area, I didn’t spend any time looking at the Herb Garden which displays both culinary and medicinal herbs. The fragrant aroma, however, was proof enough that it existed! The Vegetable Garden area seemed barren. The fenced-in plot of land didn’t have any visible crops. Perhaps they were in-between the summer and fall plantings.
*TIP… Although Leu Gardens is impeccably manicured and maintained, be aware that it is a vast, open area with dense, lush plantings that may be desirable to wandering animals and critters like the one mentioned above. I highly recommend staying on the dedicated walkways. Be vigilant and keep your adventurous spirit in check!
Lake Rowena Overlook
The Tropical Stream Garden is appropriately named. There’s a variety of tropical and subtropical plants throughout this garden that create the atmosphere of a tropical rainforest. This is where you’ll see bird-of-paradise, bananas, bromeliads, heliconias, and other tropical beauties. If you’re looking to momentarily escape the Florida heat you’ll want to linger the peaceful paths here. There’s an abundance of shade in this garden. There’s also a sparkling little stream that winds its way into Lake Rowena.
The Lake Rowena overlook was beautiful and relaxing. The boardwalk and gazebo are named for John Wyckoff, one of Leu Gardens original board members. This is one of the newer additions to the Gardens. Take a walking break and enjoy the stunning vistas here. An aquatic wetland garden contains mostly native plants. And… have your camera ready — I’d be surprised if you don’t see heron, turtles, and an occasional alligator!
Peak Season Pops — A Refreshing Respite
Although Leu Gardens does not currently have a cafe on site, frequently there are visiting approved vendors that offer sandwiches or snacks. Hubby was hoping for a hot dog stand, but got to try some popular popsicles instead. Peak Season Pops are gourmet ice pops that are all-natural and handmade with local seasonal ingredients. We met the owners who are an awesome husband and wife team. Honestly… they were the best ice pops I’ve ever had! I’m not usually a popsicle person, but it was very hot and they looked so refreshing. I had the Autumn Roasted Peach and hubby had the Pineapple Lemongrass. Both were outstanding. If you’re in the Orlando area, check out Peak Season Pops for delivery options, special events, birthdays, etc. I highly recommend them. Brooke Chen (owner) was telling us they just did a wedding wherein the bride and groom opted to serve gourmet popsicles instead of traditional wedding cake! Apparently this trend is catching on here in the Sunshine State. For additional information visit the Peak Season Pops website.
*TIP… If you’re planning to be at Leu Gardens for a while, small bag lunches are allowed on the patio of the Garden House Welcome Center. Beverage vending machines are also available in the lobby of the Welcome Center.
Beyond The Gardens — Educational Classes And Workshops
It’s very difficult to see the entire 50-acre botanical Garden in less than 2 hours. We did a leisurely stroll for more than that, yet still managed to miss a few key points of interest. We did not view the Mizell Cemetery or the Idea Garden. The world famous Camellias (largest documented collection in Eastern North America) were not in bloom so we didn’t spend much time in those areas. A 2 hour window is recommended for adequate viewing of the Gardens. We’re planning a return trip, but possibly in the spring, hoping for significantly more color.
Visit the Leu Gardens website for a calendar showing what plants are in bloom in any given month. There’s also information on upcoming events and classes — things like monthly outdoor movie night, monthly storytelling for young children, seasonal concerts, annual plant sale, seed swaps, gardening for honey bees, aroma therapy for intestinal health, bats of Florida, the Leu House holiday lecture, wreath making, mini gardening and fairy gardens, casual Tuscan cooking, and on and on and on! The diverse educational offerings are impressive at Leu Gardens.
*TIP… Bring (or purchase) bottled water, apply insect repellant, and wear comfortable shoes!
UPCOMING SPECIAL EVENT:
Dinosaur Invasion — January 13 – April 30
A one-of-a-kind, outdoor exhibit featuring life-size prehistoric creatures throughout the 50-acre botanical gardens
Price: Included in the daytime Garden admission of $10 (adult)
Leu Gardens is an urban display of botanical beauty just a short drive from the “happiest place on earth!” It’s not nearly as magical, mind-blowing, or mesmerizing as ‘the Mouse,’ yet memorable in many ways. You’ll experience a sense of serenity that is instantly calming as you intentionally distance yourself from the insanity that sometimes exists in Central Florida tourist areas. Wildly tropical with formal gardens. I know, sounds like an oxymoron, but at Leu Gardens they co-exist in perfect harmony. So go ahead and do your crazy theme park thing, then swing by here for a perfect portrait of what Florida used to be!
Question: Have you been to Leu Gardens? If you have visited this Central Florida attraction, please share your experience & helpful information with our readers by replying in the comment section below!
Murder Mystery Dinner Train: A Unique Dining Experience
The Murder Mystery Dinner Train in Fort Myers, Florida was one of my best birthday dinners ever! Partly because it was a gift from my best friends who were visiting from Pennsylvania, and I got to spend my special day with them — and partly because it was very different from the usual dinner-at-my-favorite-restaurant and flowers which are to be expected every year. I have to admit, in over half a century I had never been to a murder mystery dinner show. And, the fact that this one was on a train was extra special and unique. Here’s my review of this special occasion gift…
The Fort Myers Murder Mystery Dinner Train has been running for about 25 years, since the early 1990s. The popular Southwest Florida attraction is operated by the Fay family who runs up to 4 railcars during each excursion. They had purchased and refurbished vintage sleeper coaches that each hold 50 passengers, for a total of 200 when the train is at capacity. Our tickets were for the Sanibel Car, which my friend Donna is introducing in the photo above.
Upon boarding we were escorted to our reserved table which displayed the menu for the evening along with the first of our five course dinner. The appetizer was a Hand Crafted Cheese Selection with Crackers and Seasonal Fruit. It was strategically placed in the center of a setting that rivaled most fine dining white tablecloth restaurants — right down to the fresh cut single yellow rose. Since it’s the unofficial flower of friendship, it was perfect for our long-standing foursome friendship. I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting such elegance.
While perusing the menu to select our dinner choices, I captured this picture of Ron and Donna, our best friends for decades — almost as long as the Murder Mystery Dinner Train has been operating. Cultivating a long-distance friendship is a beautiful thing, even if there is 1200 miles between us. You can imagine how much we look forward to our yearly visits — sometimes in Florida, sometimes in Pennsylvania, and oftentimes somewhere in between!
This was our 5 Course Seasonal Dinner Menu with 3 entree selections to choose from. I chose the Dijon Salmon, Donna had the Chicken Cordon Bleu, and our hubby’s both opted for the manly portion of the Chef Carved Imperial Prime Rib. The Soup du Jour was Creamy Potato Leek. We all chose the Fresh Florida Caesar Salad instead of the Fruit Cup with Toasted Coconut and Raspberry Drizzle. Add warm Fresh Baked Rolls to all of this and we were almost too full for dessert… almost. It would have required more willpower than I had to resist the Ghirardelli’s Spring Surprise.
The portions were generous and the quality exceeded our expectations. In fact, hubby commented that the prime rib was the best he had in a while. Whenever I’ve been to any kind of dinner show the food was always secondary to the entertainment, but not so here. It’s cooked fresh onboard, with quality ingredients, which matters. At times the train ride was a bit bouncy while eating, but they do stop during the main course.
Our 5 course meal was perfectly timed between acts during a 40-mile round trip that lasted just over three hours. You can see from the map that the train begins and ends in Fort Myers, at Colonial Station. There were a few scenic points along the route, my favorite being the crossing of the Caloosahatchee River. Since the inception of the Murder Mystery Dinner Train, more than 70 original scripts have been produced and dramatized. They like to change them regularly for the sake of their repeat patrons, which is a large part of their business. I, myself, am looking forward to doing the Murder Mystery Train again in the near future.
The name of the show we attended was “A Hard Day’s Death” with excellent and professional-quality acting. In the early days of the Murder Mystery Train they contracted an acting troupe for the shows, but now the railway employs its own crew of actors. (The wait staff is employed by Seminole Gulf Railway as well.) A Hard Day’s Death had the perfect mix of intriguing murder, dark secrets, and humor. For me, it was a highly enjoyable ‘who done it?’ murder mystery with well-developed characters. Rock ‘n’ Roll fans, specifically fans of the Beatles, laughed out loud at the satirical take on the classic, “A Hard Day’s Night.” It was most certainly a humorously exaggerated imitation of the vintage hit. The various references to the iconic British Band and their music showed creative genius on behalf of the play writers. Kudos to them!
Here’s how it works: Each person is given a ‘Clue Sheet’ like the one shown above. The goal is to play the role of detective and solve the crime. As a savvy sleuth, you must not only gather information to determine who the murderer is, but your analytical mind must figure out the motive as well. Once you establish who done it and why, you must put your answers on the Clue Sheet, along with the vital clues that helped make your decision. Then, there is one bonus question given and used as a tie-breaker, if necessary. Prior to the final act the Clue Sheets are collected and judged. A winner is chosen from each train car, and given a prize. Here’s my friend Ron completing his Clue Sheet — with confidence that he has solved the crime…
Cast Of The Murder Mystery Dinner Train Show
A Hard Day’s Night had so many twists and turns in the story line, it was quite challenging solving the crime. Every one of those incredible actors convincingly conveyed their alibi. For me, it was difficult accusing any one of them “beyond a reasonable doubt.” At times, the evidence strongly suggested they were all innocent… other times they all seemed somewhat guilty. A well-written murder mystery will cause your analytical mind to work overtime — and this one succeeded! No one in our train car correctly guessed the murderer and the motive… bar one ‘Perry Mason’ onboard. Yep, my friend Ron! He was presented the Murder Mystery Dinner Train “Super Sleuth Award” by one of the cast members, along with his super sleuth prize, a commemorative mug with the name and logo of the event.
Murder Mystery Dinner Train: The Perfect Special Occasion Gift
What a unique and enjoyable way to spend my birthday! I highly recommend the Murder Mystery Dinner Train in Fort Myers, Florida. It’s great for birthday’s, anniversaries, first-dates, date night with spouse, group events, or… simply because you happen to be in Southwest Florida.
The experience is not inexpensive — $75 Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday, and $79 on Saturday (taxes and gratuities not included), but you are getting dinner, a play, and a train ride. Ala carte, you would pay much more for a triple header like this. Like many of my fellow Floridians, I welcome the opportunity to visit attractions that are off the traditional ‘tourist track’ of the hectic Central Florida theme parks, and I certainly found a little gem with the Murder Mystery Dinner Train. I would love to return, next time seeing one of their popular holiday-themed events such as “A Merry Little Murder” at Christmas or the train’s “Sweetheart Express” special event with a strolling violinist around Valentine’s Day. For more information, reservations, or answers to frequently asked questions, you can visit the Murder Mystery Dinner Train website here or call 239-275-8487.
Upcoming Special Events On The Murder Mystery Dinner Train…
EASTER SUNDAY WITH WHAA HOOO MURDERS
WHEN: April 16, 2017 – 5:30 PM
WHERE: 2805 Colonial Blvd Fort Myers, FL 33966
PRICE: Starting at $79.95/person
MOTHER’S DAY WITH IT’S MY FUNERAL
WHEN: May 14, 2017 – 5:30 PM
WHERE: 2805 Colonial Blvd Fort Myers, FL 33966
PRICE: Starting at $79.95/person
FATHER’S DAY WITH IT’S MY FUNERAL
WHEN: June 18, 2017 – 5:30 PM
WHERE: 2805 Colonial Blvd Fort Myers, FL 33966
PRICE: Starting at $79.95/person
Have you been on the Murder Mystery Dinner Train in Fort Myers? Or perhaps you’ve attended another Murder Mystery Attraction in Florida? We welcome your comments, or suggestions for additional off-the-beaten-path Florida experiences!