One of my husband’s favourite places is Florida, since he is an avid golfer and likes to get away from the cold Canadian winter for his birthday in early December.
For a while now we had planned to visit Orlando, but neither one of us are into theme parks. So there was the challenge for me: would we be able to visit Orlando without setting foot into Disney or Universal Studios? For someone as curious as me this was a suitable challenge and I had been doing weeks of searches on the Internet and communicating with the Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau to find out about interesting destinations off the beaten path.
Carillon tower in the Historic Bok Sanctuary
Well, I am happy to say, we arrived back safely yesterday from our trip, and the trip itself was quite an adventure since we decided to drive from Toronto to Orlando, about 2100 km each way! Actually, the drive was not as painful as I expected. The drive through Pennsylvania and West Virginia was nice and hilly, and I particularly enjoyed coming over the ridge of the Appalachians, right where Virginia and North Carolina meet, where you get a beautiful view of the piedmont area around Winston-Salem that spreads out towards the Atlantic in front of the mountain chain.
And I am even happier to say that in the 14 or so days that we spent in Orlando, not only did we get to play a lot of golf (to make my husband really happy…;) – including Mystic Dunes, Champions Gate, Royal St. Cloud Links, Hawk’s Landing and Timacuan Golf and Country Club, not to mention the Walking Hall of Fame experience of the PGA Father Son Challenge at Champions Gate, but I also got to explore some really interesting places, destinations I would not have expected in Orlando and its surrounding region. I also had a chance to do an interview with GolfOrlando to get a much better idea of why Orlando is called “The Ultimate Golf Theme Park”.
We started off our first week with a visit to the Orange Country Regional History Center, which gave us a suitable historic background of Orlando and Central Florida. Then, for some sociological and cultural insights, we visited the Well’s Built Museum for African American History and Culture in Orlando. To top off our first day of exploration we enjoyed a walk around picturesque Lake Eola in downtown Orlando.
Downtown Orlando’s Lake Eola
The next item on my off-the-beaten path agenda was a discovery of the City of Winter Park, a beautiful suburb of Orlando, reminiscent of Old European towns. I also went on the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour, which was an entertaining, informative and visually appealing excursion.
The adrenaline revved up significantly on our next outing: a very high-speed airboat ride at Boggy Creek, that was followed up by a much lower speed swamp buggy ride in a custom-built monster truck that took us through authentic Florida landscape.
After our golf outing at the Royal St. Cloud Golf Links we enjoyed a wonderful picnic by the waterfront in sunny downtown Kissimmee. Then, on a beautiful Sunday morning we drove about an hour outside of Orlando to reach the quaint town of Mt. Dora, where I hopped on the “Herbie Express”, part of the Mt. Dora – Lake Eustis Scenic Railway.
Scenic Mt. Dora
From midweek in the second week onwards the weather took a turn for the worse. While planes were sliding off runways in Chicago and record temperatures were registered in the mid-western states, we were freezing in Florida where the mercury hovered around 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (around +20 degrees Celsius). So I bought a rain jacket, and determined not to let the freezing cold interfere with our plans, we headed out to continue our explorations.
On a day that was forecast to be rainy, but just ended up being a bit grey and clammy, we went out to discover Loch Haven Park, Orlando’s center of science, art and culture. We then continued our explorations further south to discover some of Orlando’s historic neighbourhoods and parks such as Lake Cherokee and Lake Lucerne.
As the drizzly weather continued, we went on to visit Florida’s Natural Visitor Center in Lake Wales, about an hours drive south of Orlando, where I got a really good understanding of Central Florida’s citrus industry. I spent the afternoon in another famous attraction in Lake Wales which holds two National Historic Landmarks: the Historic Bok Sanctuary, where I got to see the beauty of the Bok estate and its historic carillon tower, combined with a tour through the historic Pinewood Estate, which was decked out in full Christmas decorations.
Sandhill cranes on the Timacuan Golf Course
During these 2 weeks in Florida, we got exposed to a lot of its plants, flowers and wildlife, much of which you run into casually even while playing golf or picknicking by the waterfront. Florida has a surprising amount of natural diversity and I enjoyed watching the various types of birds, lizards, and squirrels. The only thing we didn’t get to see was a live alligator (with the exception of the well-hidden rear end of a small alligator during our swamp buggy tour – unfortunately I couldn’t even get a good picture of that one..). Apparently winter time is too cold for these creatures to come out of the water…
On our drive home, on a bright sunny day (of course…), we stopped off in St. Augustine, a historic town founded by the Spaniards in the 1500s, and the oldest continuously inhabited town in the United States – a mighty photogenic place, I should add.
Cathedral of St. Augustine
So, you ask, is it possible to spend 2 weeks in Orlando without even setting foot inside a theme park and still have a good time? Well, based on the above itinerary I’d say that my plans to explore Orlando off the beaten path came to full fruition.