Image: Harry P. Leu Gardens
Courtesy of Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Inc.
Harry P. Leu Gardens introduces guests to a 50-acre botanical garden featuring the largest formal rose garden and the largest camellia collection in the South
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updated 4/12/2005 7:01:03 PM ET 2005-04-12T23:01:03

Minutes from the heart of Orlando and the high-pitched entertainment that put this city on the map, it can feel like a century away. The other side of Orlando's world famous theme parks is calm, cultured and reassuring. Around nearby Winter Park, nature comes naturally, and culture is as prized as the real estate.

“Orlando is a sleeping giant of culture and the arts,” said New York musician David Amram when he opened the Annual Celebration of Culture & Heritage, Music & Books, in Winter Park in late April.

An oasis of serenity

Winter Park, a few miles north of downtown Orlando, spreads its lush interior of greenery and lakes like an odalisque in the shade.

Now Winter Park may be the true heart of the arts in Central Florida, but barely a century ago, the area was the rough riding land of cattle ranchers, then citrus farmers, and finally wealthy developers who at the turn of the century saw a paradise worthy of winter escapes.

Today, lakes, gardens, museums and year-round baronial homes are the stuff of this gentle enclave that has been home or resting place to banking magnets and industrial tycoons with names like Sinclair and Chase and authors named Carl Sandburg, Dorothy Parker, Zora Neale Hurston and Jack Kerouac.

Small wonder. When you're in Winter Park, you're in a world totally removed from the razzle-dazzle of high-rise Miami or the two-hour waits of theme land.

First of all, it's a town. But its 20,000 or so residents abide in the serenity of thousands and thousands of giant oaks draped in Spanish moss, tropical plants, 70 parks, 17 lakes and eight square miles of land. Everywhere you look, gardenias grow next to pine trees, ospreys nest in tall cypress, and cranes and water lilies fringe the endless shorelines of its lakes.

Culture is like air in this area. Everyone should start their visit with the Morse Museum. It houses perhaps the most important collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany glassware, ceramics, furnishings, pottery, mosaics and lamps anywhere in the world. Located right next to Central

Park in downtown Winter Park, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art also houses the breathtaking chapel that Tiffany created for the 1893 Chicago Exposition. This Byzantine-inspired chapel is about 800 square feet, a luminous masterpiece complete with pews for reflection or sheer awe.

“The Morse Museum brought us here,” said Helen Fricker who with her husband, Ken, moved to Winter Park from their home in Rhinebeck, N.Y., last fall. “After our visit to the Morse, we rode around and said, this is so beautiful, we could live here.” Nine months later, they switched from visitor to resident.

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“Even if they leave, they always come back,” says Mike Robinson, who grew up in Winter Park and as a boy romped through the occasional empty mansion by Lake Virginia or Lake Osceola.

Today, the best way to see these mansions — a melange of architectural styles including Georgian, Mediterranean and modern — is from the lakes around them. The Scenic Boat Tour of Winter Park is a must. For 60 minutes you glide across 12 miles of water on three major lakes and through the canals that connect them. Close to 50,000 people a year take these daily tours, according to owner Ron Hightower.

There's a small hotel next to Central Park that is a perfect downtown nest from which to foray to Winter Park's other gems. Built in the 1920s, the Park Plaza Hotel has a graceful charm, and most of its 27 rooms have their own wood floors and iron-rail balconies that overlook Central Park on one side or Park Avenue on the other. Motels can be found here, but nothing matches this hotel for a real-time feel for what it must have been like to be here in the 20s and 30s. The adjoining Park Plaza Restaurant is a culinary mecca for residents and tourists. Their Sunday brunch with all-you-can-drink mimosas is packed.

Museums and gardens

Either nature or the arts will lure you to this part of Orlando. The Bach Festival is held every spring at Rollins College, which sits at the end of Park Avenue. In Central Park, tens of thousands visit each March and October for the Winter Park Art Festivals. The Orlando Philharmonic plays free concerts in parks throughout the area all year.

Winter Park also offers the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Orlando Museum of Art, the Mennello Museum of American Folk Art and the Holocaust Museum. The Cornell Museum on the campus of Rollins College is the largest public museum in Florida.

The Orlando Museum of Art scored a coup recently with its stunning exhibit of Dale Chihuly's glass artistry. An exhibition of work by illustrator Clement Hurd will run from May 29-Sept. 5. The Mennello Museum heralds the paintings of Earl Cunningham and other self-taught American artists.

Of the Holocaust Museum, started in 1987 by Holocaust survivor Tess Weiss, she says simply, “It's a mission.” An impressive library of 6,000 books and changing exhibits focus on teaching visitors “not to be bystanders.”

Winter Park's gardens are its other cultural focus. The Henry P. Leu Gardens are manicured over 50 acres, and from October to March, camellias bloom like colored grass. There are also 10 demonstration gardens. More than 150,000 visitors walk the Leu Estate each year.

The Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens give you both worlds. Polasek's classical sculptures can be found inside and outside his Winter Park residence, where a sweeping front yard and gardens face Lake Osceola. At Polasek, you don't even have to pay admission to loll on the front lawn. “Just pop in your head and let us know you're here,” says curator Karen Louders.

Free havens of natural beauty include the Kraft Azalea Gardens, a lush forest of cypress and azaleas along Lake Maitland, and Mead Botanical Gardens with trails and birds and plants from around the world.

A literary past too

Winter Park was home of some of the 20th century's finest writers. The Zora Neale Hurston home in the Eatonville neighborhood just north of town acclaims this star of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and hosts rotating exhibits of black American artists. A more recent literary gem is the home where Jack Kerouac lived with his mother from 1957 to 1958 in the College Park neighborhood. The back bedroom, barely 10 by 10 feet, was where Kerouac wrote his book, “Dharma Bums,” in 11 days. The simple clapboard house is now site for the Kerouac Writer-in-Residence program where winning authors come to write for three-month stretches. Kerouac, the tour tells you, used to write all night, then sleep in the side yard come morning.

In the evenings, locals like to sit in Chapters Restaurant across from the Morse Museum. Surrounded by some 30,000 books (all for sale, mostly used), they debate why Winter Park is better than St. Petersburg or why Kerouac had to be so poor when he first arrived here.

What they don't debate is ever leaving.

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