West Central Florida
West Central Florida
We followed Rt. 98, The Florida Cracker Trail, through the small towns and villages of Central Florida. The Cracker Trail honors the contribution of the cattle industry to the history of Florida. Central Florida for our purposes is between Southern Lake Okeechobee and Ocala. One town is Lorida. Lorida, Florida is a cute town, and has such a whimsical sound. Past pasture, homestead, swamp, and wilderness we drove.
In Sebring, we stopped at the Sebring International Raceway, the oldest American permanent road racing track. Mario Andretti and A. J. Foyt have raced there. http://www.sebringraceway.com/
Near Sebring is Highland Hammocks State Park, the first state park in Florida, opening in 1931. The park has many nature trails, a 1,000 year old tree, cypress swamps, a CCC Museum, and wildlife. The Civilian Conservation Corp built the park in the 1930s; the restaurant and museum were built by the CCC. Our knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide taught us about the CCC in Florida. Young men between the ages of 17 and 26 were put to work in construction and conservation for a dollar a day and all they could eat. In addition, they received a basic education if needed. The park itself is a beautiful jungle, home to black bears, panthers, otter and many other animals. Camping, picnicking, and playground make this family friendly. Allow at least an hour, but if you are a camper and/or hiker, you could spend days. Admission is $5 per person. As in any park, please remember to take only memories and pictures and leave only your footprints. http://www.floridastateparks.org/highlandshammock/default.cfm
Downtown Sebring is a charming “Main Street America” town built around a circular park. greatersebringchamberofcommerce.org For lunch, we went to the Sandy’s Circle Café for a hot and delicious cup of homemade veggie soup. Greg added a tuna salad sandwich and MaryJo had a chicken salad. Two soft drinks, and the bill before tip added up to $14.
In Avon Park, we toured the Depot Museum with the director, Elaine Levey, a woman who clearly loves her job! She showed us the dining car, which is often used for luncheons. The station houses several displays, including a 2 person switchboard used by the phone company until 1985, a 57 pound bat given to Babe Ruth by his Avon Park fans, an orange crate label collection, and a 1920s kitchen. We enjoyed seeing all of it! Allow 30 minutes. No admission fee!
Continuing north, we came to Lake Wales, where Bok Tower Gardens provides beauty and serenity to anyone who comes there. At the top of Iron Hill, the highest point in central Florida, the gardens offer lovely views. The walkways meander along, allowing us to spend hours delighting if we chose. The tower is 205 feet tall and constructed of St. Augustine coquina and pink and gray marble from Georgia. It houses the carillon, which provides music to visitors. A carillon consists of bells played on a keyboard. The gardens are named for Edward Bok, a Dutch immigrant, author, and publisher who followed the saying of his grandmother: “Make the world better or more beautiful because you have lived in it,” creating the gardens in the 1920s. A small café offers food. Admission is $10 per person. Allow at least 2 hrs. www.boktowergardens.org
The Lake Wales Depot Museum has a grand quilt display, prompting us to think about our friend Pat, who is a quilter. Wish she could have been there! Old quilts, new quilts, baby quilts, dollhouse quilts, and doll quilts. Patterns included Drunkards Path, Wedding Ring, and Log Cabin. Quilts were often made to commemorate a birth, engagement, or marriage. An expansive miniature train display captivated us. There was a Native American display, celebrity doll collection, and more. For a small museum, there was an eclectic mix of history. Allow 30 minutes. It’s free.
That made a full day, time to find a hotel and a meal. We had supper at Saltwater, a picturesque neighborhood place. MaryJo’s meal was a Shrimp Florentine with pasta, while Greg chose a Shrimp Linguini in New Orleans sauce. A glass of merlot and one of hard cider completed the meal. The food was very tasty, portions plentiful, and service quite good. Our tab before tip was $35.
Did you know that the water ski capital of the world is Polk County, Fl? Or that the Water Ski Museum is in the same county? Offthetrails didn’t, either! But now we do, and so do you! The Water Ski Museum exhibits Ralph Samuelson, the “Father of Water Skiing,” the early pioneers, and the champions. Artifacts from the first water skis to the latest, cutting edge skis are on display along with a 1954 boat, handles, ropes, costumes, etc. There is a Wall of Fame and several videos to watch. The first skis were 2 pine planks tied on Ralph Samuelson’s feet with leather cords when he was 18 in 1922. How the sport has evolved! The museum is on Holy Cow Road in Polk City. Admission is $5 per person. Allow 30 minutes. http://www.waterskihalloffame.com/
Just minutes away is Fantasy of Flights, not only a huge airplane collection but an experience in time and flight. A collection of 160 airplanes ranging from the early 1900s through WW II is sure to enchant anyone interested in flight. Further, visitors can enter some of the displayed planes and play with the controls. A virtual time tunnel takes the tourist to the trenches of WWI and the air battles of WWII. A tram tour takes the sightseer around the complex for a fascinating behind the scenes glimpses of the restoration and history of the aircraft. Other tours are offered, including Restoration Shop and Wood Shop. Exhibits include one honoring the WASPs – Women’s Airforce Service Pilots – pioneers during WWII! All this for the price of $29.95! Lunch or snacks are served in the Compass Rose. We chose tuna salad and tuna salad sandwich with beer for $22 pre tip. Allow at least 2 hours, but this could be an all day event. http://fantasyofflight.com/
Driving through the back roads, we saw several oil wells with the name Green Swamp Oil and Gas on them. We didn’t know there were oil fields in Florida! So we learned something else! We also saw many other interesting sites, some of which we include in our photo gallery.
Did you know that in prehistoric times, millions of years ago, mastodons and camels roamed Florida? They did! Did you know that once Florida was covered by a sea? It was! Down the road in Mulberry, the Phosphate Museum helped us understand the what and how of phosphate through displays. We saw fossils of ancient sharks, skates, fish, whales, camels, mastodons, and giant sloths! Phosphates are often thought of in negative terms, but there are positive aspects! The industry creates jobs. The best part was digging for fossils afterwards! We uncovered shark teeth, vertebrae, and other bone fragments! The museum is free. http://www.mulberrychamber.org/attractions.htm
We had dinner and a visit with son Jesse in Tampa. Our favorite restaurant is Café Don Jose. Jesse ordered the Snapper en Papillot; MaryJo had the Rainbow Trout; Greg chose Cazuela, a seafood casserole; and we all shared a pitcher of Sangria, a delectable concoction of red wine and fresh fruit. Fresh bread and salad come with the meal. Total for the special occasion dinner, sans tip, was $93. We all enjoyed the food very much! www.cafedonjose.com