Florida's serene garden sanctuaries

Looking for tranquility amid the thrill-seeking crowds of Orlando? Here's a trio of options.

Finding tranquility near Orlando's tourist tangle seems as unlikely as stepping into a mousetrap at Walt Disney World.

The town's reputation justly stands upon scream-inducing thrills aboard Hollywood-inspired rides and jaw-dropping adventures in simulated oceans or African game country.

But when the relentless fun and hubbub wear thin, I abandon crowded fantasies for the natural serenity found in two romantic gardens and a prehistoric landscape – all less than two hours from leaping whales, attacking sharks, and bobbing mouse ears.

The closest escape lies a few miles up Interstate 4 at the Harry P. Leu Gardens, just north of downtown Orlando.

Mr. Leu, a successful Orlando businessman, and his wife, Mary Jane, created the gardens in the 1930s and filled them with plants that handle central Florida's long, torrid summers and occasional winter frosts.

The result is a wish-upon-a-star backyard – complete with a staff to lovingly maintain the whole thing.

Several theme gardens are featured – areas of vegetables, herbs, camellias, palms, and arid plants, as well as a garden of plants that attract butterflies.

A passion for horticulture, however, is utterly unnecessary to savor the serenity.

Peace descends after passing through the visitors' center, which evokes an antebellum mansion. The sloping lawn, accented with massive oaks wearing long tresses of Spanish moss, enhances the effect.

But after you've strolled only a short while, the scene changes to a tropical garden so crowded with broad banana leaves and droopy palm fronds, there's barely a glimpse of the gurgling waterfall below the footbridge.

Pleasing aromas await in the rose garden, where a fountain splashes and gazebos make pleasant, shaded places to gaze at the colorful scene.

Perhaps the most inviting garden seat of all is the porch swing beneath a vine-covered arbor in the Home Demonstration Garden, where inspiration can be found for small home landscapes anywhere in the country.

My autumn visit was only slightly marred by a rose garden wedding rehearsal. The otherwise decorous bride wore a white veil and the groom a black top hat – each headpiece sporting round mouse ears.

So I sought refuge even farther afield at Historic Bok Sanctuary in Lake Wales.

A tourist draw since its dedication in 1929, the sanctuary's focal point is the Singing Tower, which houses a carillon.

It sits atop Iron Mountain and is visible for miles. (Don't worry about altitude, though, the "mountain" is only 298 feet high.)

Some have called the Art Deco tower America's Taj Mahal, which is overblown boosterism, perhaps. This elegant work of engineering and art is enhanced by a serene landscape serving as an open-air theater for carillon concerts at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. daily.

Before venturing up the hillside, linger at the handsome visitors' center to gain perspective about the tower's builder, Edward Bok, who was editor of Ladies' Home Journal from 1889 to 1930. There's a cutaway carillon model, which is a plus because the tower's interior is off limits to visitors.

If you have youngsters along, be sure to pick up a map of "secret gardens" and other activities for children.

A relaxing landscape

Then explore the landscape, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., whose work includes the White House grounds. His naturalistic plan is recognized by the American Society of Landscape Architects as a national landmark.

The relaxed arrangement invites pleasant meandering. Breezes wafting up the hillside tousle the Spanish moss hanging from oak trees shading lawns that are bordered by azaleas, ferns, and subtropical plants.

From the tower's base stretches a vista of groves – polka-dotted with plump orange and grapefruit trees – and vast cattle ranches spreading to the horizon. No wonder philanthropist Bok enjoyed viewing sunsets from the summit.

In addition to enjoying the manicured landscape, visitors can experience a sampling of Florida terrain – including pine woods, citrus groves, and a marsh – as they drive and walk the sanctuary's roads and paths.

Marsh life is most easily viewed at Window by the Pond, something of a giant nature photographer's blind. From benches, visitors gaze upon the waterlily-filled pond that often attracts herons, egrets, and other creatures.

Be warned, though: Because nature scripts the show, no guarantees are given for a Kodak moment, much less a photo worthy of National Geographic Magazine. Even without taking home a photo, it's a spot you'll enjoy – and remember.

Pinewood, a winter house that became part of the sanctuary in 1970, is a 1930s Mediterranean Revival-style manse with screened porches that allow insect-free savoring of the bosky environs. Wrought-iron balconies and thin columns supporting graceful arches suggest a movie set about pirates.

And why not? Theme-park designers weren't the first to celebrate Florida's romantic history and semitropical clime.

Highlands Hammock State Park

Placid as Bok's former estate may be, almost total silence can be found about 30 miles south at Highlands Hammock State Park near Sebring.

In places, the park's roads lie between columns of cabbage palm trunks and arches of oak branches suggesting a cathedral aisle. And beyond the car windows, a cathedral-like hush soothes visitors.

The park was as still as pond water when I toured on a balmy mid-November afternoon. Few human visitors roamed the three-mile loop drive. Only chirping crickets, buzzing mosquitoes, twittering birds, chattering squirrels, and rustling armadillos broke the silence.

Deer and alligators live here, too. The best chances for gator spotting are along the cypress trail and on tram rides that take place daily except Mondays.

But a few of the park's stars always shine.

Thousand-year-old oak trees overshadow some of the sandy trails that wind through tangled stands of palmettos, ferns, and short grasses. Like long dinosaur necks, palm trunks twist through the sinewy oak branches toward the sunlight far above.

The most popular walk is the cypress trail, which includes a boardwalk through a dim cypress swamp and across Charlie Bowlegs Creek.

Cypress roots produce "knees" that look more like twisted wooden fingers rising from the swamp and creek. Careful observers may spot bumps that move – submerged alligators floating in the dark water as silently as the clouds above.

Use the benches along the boardwalk and absorb a primeval atmosphere unmatched by any theme park artifice.

Real Florida at last.

Oases in central Florida

Harry P. Leu Gardens, 1920 N. Forest Ave., Orlando, Fla. Telephone: (407) 246-2620. Website: www.leugardens.org. E-mail: rbowden@cityoforlando.net.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Christmas Day. Last admission is at 4 p.m. Leu House Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with tours every 30 minutes.

Historic Bok Sanctuary, 1151 Tower Blvd., Lake Wales, Fla. Telephone: (863) 676-1408.Website: www.boksanctuary.org. E-mail: info@boksanctuary.org.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Last admission at 5 p.m. Visitor Center hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

Highlands Hammock State Park, four miles west of Sebring on Fla. Route 634 (5931 Hammock Road). Telephone: (863) 386-6094. Website: www.floridastateparks.org/highlandshammock. E-mail: highlands.hammock@dep.state.fl.us.

Hours: 8 a.m. to sundown daily. The tram tour takes place at 1 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The tram does not run on Mondays.

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