We’re floating through a narrow, winding canal beneath tropical foliage in Central Florida. Sunlight filters through palm fronds, and the air smells earthy and primeval. Here and there cypress knees poke out of the water, and colorful red and yellow blooms brighten trees and shrubs.
Soon we emerge from the jungle, blinking in the bright sunlight. As the boat speeds up, water splashes on my husband, Peter, and me, sitting in the back—a refreshing sensation on this unseasonably warm spring afternoon. We’re skimming across Lake Virginia, part of Winter Park’s Chain of Lakes, on the city’s Scenic Boat Tour, Florida’s oldest continuously operating tourist attraction. The sun shines down on our topless pontoon boat, but the cool breeze, shady canals, and occasional clouds keep us from getting too warm.
Tom, our guide, welcomes us and tells a few corny jokes. While in the canal, for example, he points out a drooping red flower with its petals closed. “It’s the sleeping hibiscus,” he says. “They always sleep because we’re in a no-wake zone.” Corny jokes aside, Tom fills us in on Winter Park’s rich history, its flora and fauna, and the city’s famous residents, many of whom lived on the shores of these storied lakes. The hour-long tour is informative, relaxing, and fun.
Peter and I are enjoying a short break in Winter Park, just a few miles north of Orlando. It’s the perfect place to escape the frenzy of Central Florida and experience the coziness of a small town with a decidedly slower pace. Winter Park is one of Florida’s earliest planned communities, established in the late 1800s by two men from up north who saw the area’s potential as a winter haven for Northerners. Before long, wealthy families from New York and Chicago flocked to this tropical paradise, studded with lakes and offering warm temperatures even in winter.
Folks are still flocking here today.
QUEST FOR BEAUTY
Winter Park (pop. 29,000) centers around Park Avenue, a tree-lined street with shops and restaurants. Peter and I stroll along the shady street, window shopping and people watching. At one end, we discover Morse Museum, recommended by a friend for its astonishing collection of Tiffany glass. Just our luck, we happen to be in town for one of the museum’s open house events, which means extended hours and free admission!
Peter and I wander through multiple galleries containing colorful Tiffany lamps and panels, each room more dazzling than the last. Morse Museum is also home to the Tiffany Chapel, first exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. After gracing Laurelton Hall, Louis Tiffany’s Long Island estate, for many years, the chapel was dismantled and parts were sold. Fortunately, Hugh and Jeanette McKean of Winter Park purchased what remained of the chapel from Tiffany’s estate and spent many years acquiring the parts that had been sold. After being painstakingly restored, the chapel was opened to the public in 1999 at Morse Museum, founded by the McKeans. It’s a breathtaking example of Tiffany’s finest work.
The chapel’s Byzantine motifs, mosaic columns, and ruby red arches inspire awe. Overhead a 10x8-foot chandelier in the shape of a cross features emerald green Tiffany glass pieces and white lights and weighs 1000 pounds. The altar is made of marble and mosaic glass, and to the right a dome-shaped baptismal font sits in front of a Tiffany window depicting a pastoral scene so beautiful, it’s like paradise.
Peter and I wander further and discover galleries containing Art Nouveau pieces from Tiffany’s estate, as well as an exhibit called Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Life and Art, which includes archival photographs and art pieces from his early years as a painter to his renowned career making stained glass.
As part of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Tiffany used nature as a source of inspiration, and colorful flowers, plants, butterflies, and insects decorate his stained glass pieces. On his 68th birthday, Tiffany said his life was dedicated to a “quest for beauty,” and Morse Museum overflows with beautiful things. I buy a postcard book in the gift shop, although the cards just don’t do justice to the glowing colors of Tiffany glass.
Back out in the balmy evening, we walk down Park Avenue, which throngs with activity. An inviting green park adjoins the main street, where families play and folks relax on benches. Soon a train comes to a stop at the Winter Park train station in the middle of the park. Central Florida has a state-of-the-art public transportation system made up of trains and buses that criss-cross the region, providing an alternative to the traffic snarls on Orlando’s I-4.
Bikes offer another option for getting to know Winter Park, especially if you want to admire the city’s stately homes or explore the campus of Rollins College, a liberal arts college that consistently ranks as one of the country’s best private colleges. Founded in 1885, it’s also recognized as Florida’s oldest college. Rollins’ tree-lined campus borders Lake Virginia and features Mediterranean architecture. Its alumni include Fred Rogers, Anthony Perkins, and Buddy Ebsen from The Beverly Hillbillies.
HAPPY HOUR OYSTERS
As the sun settles in the west, pink clouds glow in the sky. Peter and I decide it’s the perfect time to try another of Winter Park’s restaurants. Earlier we lunched at The Ravenous Pig, a gastro-pub owned by acclaimed chefs James and Julie Petrakis. I tried their Farmer Salad—bitter greens with house-smoked bacon, shaved parmesan, and an organic soft-boiled egg dressed in a Caesar vinaigrette—and ate every bite. Peter sampled their tacos, featuring crispy rock shrimp topped with avocado, cilantro, and tangy slaw. We loved the restaurant’s tasty fare and urban-chic vibe.
Since we had a late lunch, we decide to eat a light dinner and choose Blu on the Avenue, which features a happy hour and outdoor seating. Peter orders an Old Fashioned, one of Blu’s signature cocktails flavored with house-made orange and rhubarb bitters (priced at $5 during happy hour!) and he’s very happy. I opt for a Sea Breeze made with pulpy pink grapefruit juice. Soon our server brings us a dozen creamy oysters on the half shell (just $10). I’m disappointed that they’re sourced in Connecticut instead of nearby Appalachicola, but enjoy their salty sea flavor, nonetheless.
Afterwards we head back to our lodgings, The Alfond Inn, a luxury property just a few blocks from Park Avenue, which is owned by Rollins College. In fact, the inn’s profits fund Rollins College scholarships—over a million dollars was donated last year, our bellhop told us. We love The Alfond Inn’s classic architecture and interior spaces, where we discover museum-quality artwork on display. No wonder we're impressed! The art exhibited at the inn comes from the Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College.
As we approach the property, we hear the sultry sounds of live jazz. Turns out the inn hosts a special event called “Get Your Jazz On” once a month with live music, wine tastings, and roast pig in The Alfond’s courtyard under the stars. Peter and I wish we’d known about this event earlier since it’s almost over—and after listening to a tune or two, we head to our cozy room for a little relaxation. It’s the last night of a busy week zipping around Florida, visiting friends, and we are happy to spend it in the charming city of Winter Park. Next time we pass by, we’ll plan a longer stay.
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