When it comes to road trips, I’m an “Are we there yet?” sort of person. But I keep seeing those travel guides at the bookstore: “Best Backroads of Destination X.” “Off the Beaten Path in Such-and-Such.” And my personal favorites: those that teach the school of “shunpiking” – avoiding interstates to get your kicks on forgotten highways.
On a recent jaunt from Orlando, I decided to take the advice I’d always been too busy to heed. I started south to explore an area known as the Citrus Ridge, along what locals call the Scenic Highway.
Driving west on I-4, morning traffic was already building near the exits to the theme parks. Overpasses and ramps curled out like concrete ribbons. I was thankful to be heading where the clamor of speeding cars and trucks is noticeably absent.
Absent from this two-lane blacktop east of Lakeland are fast-food chains, mega-stores and billboards. Mom-and-pop motels, fruit stands and neighborhood eateries instead dot the landscape.
Approaching Lake Wales, Bok Tower Gardens' bell tower is visible from a distance. I’ve visited before but stop again, to see the tranquil gardens and majestic tower.
As I settle into the drive, the road twists and turns for no apparent reason. Life here is slower, unpretentious and unstructured. Indeed, if you rush, you’ll find the curves more treacherous, the road bumps louder. Signs announce side roads (mostly dirt) with names such as Egg Farm Road. Mammoth Grove Road is aptly flanked by miles of citrus trees that finally give way to grazing lands for cattle.
At the 100-year-old fish camp now known as Camp Mack’s River Resort, I take a break from the road on an airboat tour of the Kissimmee River. Yes, we saw alligators, but the thrill was in relaxing – naturally. Leaving the resort, I put some country music on the car radio and cross the flat, open expanse that leads to Westgate River Ranch. This honest-to-goodness dude ranch covers 1,700 acres surrounded by 100,000 acres of protected wildlife preserve. Luckily, it’s Saturday, when cowboys (and girls) compete in a rodeo.
After October 1 (the beginning of citrus season), Florida’s Natural Growers’ cracker-style visitor center in Lake Wales opens its museum. Learn about the early days of citrus growing; then relax on one of Grove House’s front-porch rocking chairs as you sip a free sample of orange or grapefruit juice.
Any season is a good time to visit Lang Sun Country Groves, located between Lake Alfred and Haines City and family owned since 1951. The restaurant, open for lunch Monday through Saturday, features overstuffed sandwiches, homemade soups and farm-fresh salads. But what put Lang on the map (and on the Food Network and the Travel Channel) is its grapefruit pie.
Meander through Bok’s gardens to discover nooks like Window by the Pond, a cabin-style observatory with a picture window overlooking a bog. Sit on wood benches, listen to the carillon bells and watch birds, butterflies and reptiles in their natural habitat. A sign proclaims, “This is nature’s show, not ours. No scheduled performances.” Little foot traffic is visible on the footpaths – they curve to make visitors feel secluded.
The Depot Officially, it’s the Lake Wales Museum and Cultural Center, but locals call it The Depot. That’s because the building was originally the Atlantic Coast Line passenger station, built in 1928. A 1916 Pullman car, 1926 vintage caboose and 1944 diesel engine line the museum’s exterior. Inside the museum, artifacts and photographs tell the story of the early days of citrus growing, cattle ranching and lumbering.
Westgate River Ranch
Take a hayride or horseback trip; then follow the smoke to the ranch’s open-pit cookout. After supper, skedaddle over to the 1,200-seat stadium that’s home to the Americom Championship Rodeo. Bull riding, barrel racing and a cowboy galloping atop two horses through a ring of fi re create more mayhem than a three-ring circus.