Gardens, Gables, Gazpacho, Ghosts…and Bells

Author: Alecia Pirulis  

Bok Tower

It’s one of the best places to visit in Florida.

Most people would guess Disney World, but that isn’t the place I’m thinking of. Yes, Disney is great – but growing up an hour from the theme parks, I spent a lot of time there: class trips to Epcot, band trips to participate in Disney parades, and of course, it is the place to take out-of-town visitors – Orlando is hands-down The Florida Tourist Hotspot.

But the place I’m thinking of is a little more off the tourist-beaten-path. It’s rich with history and significant for its geography. It’s a place you can visit a hundred times and never think, “This — again?” The one place that I never grew tired of was beautiful, historic Lake Wales. Lake Wales is literally the heart of Florida. Right in the center of the state, Lake Wales is located along a ridge so it is the highest point in Florida – which, I know, still isn’t very high. But it’s impressive nonetheless.

Lake Wales is a great little city with a historic downtown and plenty of shopping. There’s a monthly car show and annual art shows. A must-do in Lake Wales is Spook Hill. Pull up to the white line, put your car in neutral, and you’ll be pulled back up the hill by the spirit of an Indian chief who wrestled with an alligator and (as a consequence) is buried nearby. That’s the legend, anyway. When settlers first came to the area, it is said they were puzzled by why their horses would labor down hill and have no trouble going up hill. Rumors and legends began to fly – truthfully, it’s a very cool optical illusion. (Or spirits – you be the judge.)

After puzzling over Spook Hill, head toward Bok Tower Gardens. This National Historic Landmark is an amazing place. The centerpiece is a tall, pink marble bell tower. The Singing Tower, the reflection pool (a spot where my then-two-year-old son loved to scoop out tadpoles and carry them around with him), and the gardens were built in the 1920s by Edward William Bok, editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal in the late 1800s and a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Bok loved the Lake Wales area and wanted to preserve this delicate habitat. Bok is buried at the base of the tower.

The gardens are gorgeous and the carillon music is magical – it is played twice a day. My son loved the swans (and tadpoles); I loved the peaceful, winding paths and amazing collection of azaleas and camellias. We both loved the music echoing out of the 205-foot art-deco tower. Be sure to pack a picnic lunch and plan to spend the day – the place is large and you’ll want plenty of time to explore.

On the way home, we always stopped at Chalet Suzanne, a quaint historic chalet complete with a helipad. The antiques are stunning – even in the bathrooms. The chalet was built in 1928 and is a beautiful building with gables and towers…but I went for one thing only: the soup. It’s expensive, and you may pause a moment and wonder if a bowl of soup could really be worth that price … yes, it definitely is!

Since we moved from Florida to Georgia, I haven’t been to Lake Wales in years, but some of my fondest memories involve ghostly legends, the music of bells, fanciful gardens, and storybook gables. Lake Wales is south of Kissimmee on beautiful Lake Wailes. (Yes, with an “i.” The reason the town doesn’t have the “i” is another great story … for another time.)