Think of Orlando and the top places to visit, and Disney World or Universal Islands of Adventure are more than likely the first tourist spots that spring to mind. Yes, theme parks are intrinsically linked to the city but, while it is home to some 12 high-adrenalin theme parks, that’s not all there is to the Florida destination. From charming cities to tranquil lake adventures, here are a few of the destination’s hidden gems to take you off the beaten track.
1. Sail around Lake Osceola, Winter Park
Taking you past towering cypress trees, through lily pad-covered waters and brushing past nodding ferns, a boat tour of Lake Osceola immerses you in the wildlife and nature of the quaint city of Winter Park. Made up of seven lakes connected by narrow canals, the Scenic Boat Tour takes you across three of the lakes, with the captain pointing out Anhingers, or snake birds, which submerge themselves under water and rear their heads like snakes, and Ospreys swooping overhead. As you glide along, you’ll spot verdant banana trees growing on the banks, colourful azealeas flourishing in the lakeside Kraft Azelea Park and centuries-old oak trees covered in moss.
For ‘Through The Keyhole’ moments, the lake is also known for its multi-million-dollar mansions, set within sprawling estates, with some dating back to 1885. Having first become popular in the late 19th century as a resort town for New Englanders to spend the winter in, properties were originally built on the inexpensive land around the lake, with many designed by the prominent architect James Gamble Rogers. Now, times have changed, and the same houses are in demand by billionaires, such as celebrated sports stars and CEOs, who want a slice of the serenity found here. Also found on the banks of the lake is Rollins College, a prestigious, private liberal arts college, which is often voted as having the prettiest campus in the whole of the USA. It was founded in 1885 by New England Congregationalists who wanted to bring their style of liberal arts education to the Florida frontier. For those wanting a place to stay nearby, head to Alfond Inn, owned by the college, and home to a $10m collection of art.
2. See the Tiffany glass collection at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park
Home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of the works of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), including a selection of his famous Tiffany lamps, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art details the history and works of the artist. As well as leaded glass windows, jewellery and paintings, there is an incredible restored Byzantine-Romanesque chapel interior that Tiffany designed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Morse is also home to a nearly 6,000 square foot, permanent exhibition of surviving art and architectural objects from his celebrated Long Island estate, Laurelton Hall.
3. Explore Downtown Winter Garden
Winter Garden – as opposed to Winter Park (which is found to the north of Orlando) – is a small city located to the west of downtown Orlando, on the banks of Lake Apopka. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the cobble-stone streets ooze old-fashioned charm and are lined with artisan shops and boutiques. A thriving farmers’ market is a highlight of the town, taking place every Saturday, and featuring many local producers selling home-made foods and crafted items – from fresh herbs to hot sauces; jewellery to lemonade. (Look out for Grit & Grace, which makes beautiful gilded and hand-painted dishes out of oyster shells.) Meanwhile, dating back to 1935, the Garden Theatre is the place to watch a live show or watch a film, while at the Winter Garden Heritage Museum you can get a snapshot of the history of the town, which is immersed in the citrus industry. Inside, you’ll find photographs and memorabilia dating back to the pioneer days, Native American artefacts and a replica of a citrus packing house.
4. Eat at Plant Street Market, Winter Garden
For breakfast, lunch or dinner, Winter Garden is also home to Plant Street Market, a hub of artisan food stalls, centred around a local craft brewery, the Crooked Can Brewing Company. Whether you opt for sushi at Norigami; handmade chocolates at David Ramirez; Ecuadorian empanadas at Empanada & Co or Alpine raclette cheese wheels at Morthan Cheese – you’ll find something for everyone with some 20 vendors found in the indoor market.
5. Cruise the wetlands of Kissimee
When you arrive at Lake Tohopekaliga, you might notice a sign that says ‘Do Not Feed The Alligators’, but don’t let that put you off. A cruise with Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures takes you through the untouched marshes of the Central Florida Everglades. As you rush through the waters – the airboat gives the sensation of flying – you’ll slow down to spot alligators hiding in the rushes (from a safe distance), or watch bald eagles glide overhead. Back on dry land, there is a butterfly garden to explore, a fossil and gem mine, where you can find precious gems and fossil fragments and a replica of a Native American Village. It is overseen by Little Big Mountain, a fourth-generation Native American who teaches visitors more about his culture and how his ancestors used to live off the land.
For more information go to: visitorlando.com