Highlights of Highlands County, Fla.
By Gary McKechnie
There are two cities, one town, and 13 unincorporated communities in Highlands County… but there are hundreds of reasons why you should visit.
If you treasure the solitude found in a forest, you should go. If you have wisps of memories of Florida in the era of rolling citrus groves, you should go. If you love shopping or if you get a charge from the sound of revving engines, you should go.
If you ride a motorcycle, you should go.
If you’re in Florida, you should go to Highlands County.
Three for the Road
It would probably burn out the Internet to cover every angle of Highlands County, so assuming you’ll be there for a day or two (although you should really plan to stay longer), I’ll focus on the county’s three popular destinations and what you’ll find. As a bonus, at the end of this feature I’ll add some odds and ends that’ll enhance your trip even more.
Nearly every guest who visits Walt Disney World hears from cast members how Walt created the park’s famed ‘hub and spoke’ design, each spoke radiating off to a new and exciting destination. Well, he must have gotten the idea from George Sebring who, in 1911, created the circular plan as a focal point for this lakeside community.
“The City on the Circle” is a delight. When you walk downtown (and that’s the only way to see it) you’ll find a roundabout that encircles a flower-filled park. Huge oaks trees shade park benches, music plays over loudspeakers, and dappled sunlight shines brightly on public art displays.
Downtown is delightful, pure and simple. A Florida Heritage District, it’s old-fashioned, but not tired. Not at all. There are downhome restaurants like Dee’s Place and Sandy’s Circle Café and upscale fashion boutiques like Steve & Co. The Circle Theatre is here and around the corner is the Children’s Museum of the Highlands. Then there’s an art gallery and another gallery and then another, and an alliterative antiques dealer invites you into ‘Paula’s Place – Pieces of the Past’.
There’s a real barbershop, and at Dogtown USA there are gifts for your pet. If you poke your head into Linda’s Books (present location 10 years, in Sebring for 40) you’ll find more than 100,000 books filling the walls, shelves, and floors (note that the Friends of the Library also have a bookstore close by). Yes, words matter, especially to the Sebring News-Sun, “Your Hometown Newspaper since 1927.” They’re here, too, on the circle.
Also on the circle is the Sebring Chamber of Commerce. Open weekdays 10-4, it is a smart first stop before you begin your voyage of discovery.
Sebring reminds visitors to admire their displays of public art, but remember, too, to admire the historic architecture that creates this lovely district. Ask at the Chamber for a listing of historic buildings, each of which is worth a photograph. Based on the beauty of this area, it’s puzzling why some buildings are vacant. Maybe you’ll find an opportunity here.
From the circle, find your way down Center Avenue to the shores of Lake Jackson. Just as businesses circle the park, Sebring encircles Lake Jackson. In addition to lovely Arts & Crafts homes on Lakeview Drive, several condominiums and highrise towers give residents a stunning view of the water. For every Sebring resident, the point of pride is Sebring’s Alan Altvater Cultural Center on the shores of Lake Jackson. This is where you’ll find the Highlands Little Theatre, the Highlands Museum of the Arts, the Yellow House Gallery and Visual Arts Center, and the Sebring Historical Society and Public Library. Also here, the Sebring Rotary Park on Lake Jackson is a peaceful sanctuary where a pavilion on the water is a splendid place to stop and rest awhile.
Back in the 1930s at the dawn of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt launched the Civilian Conservation Corps. One way to help get people back to work was getting people working on places like the Highlands Hammock State Park.
Sometimes you need thrill rides and parades and characters to make a vacation memorable. Other times you need a place like this. This 9,000-acre park is one of the best, and the reason why is its simplicity. It’s all-natural with few artificial preservatives. What you do here is what people have done for centuries: You appreciate the world around you.
Near the entrance is a campground that accommodates primitive camping and RVs. A little further on a museum is dedicated to the CCC workers who helped create this and other state and federal parks (hours vary, call ahead). While Highlands Hammock hosts events such as Music in the Park as well as other festivals and tram tours, maybe the best way to see it is to do it yourself. The 2.5 mile loop road can be done on foot or bicycle, but it’s more convenient in a car.
The drive is very peaceful, almost zen-like, and along the way if you wish to stop there are parking areas by trailheads that lead deeper into the hammock via trails with names like Fern Garden, Hickory Tail, and Big Oaks. When you stop (and you should), shut off the car and shut off your mind. All you’ll hear is the sound of the wind in the trees and the sounds of birds and animals in the branches, woods, and waters around you. There’s hardly a way to improve upon this lovely Florida vignette.
Anyone who follows racing recognizes the name Sebring. That’s why it’s hard to believe that the legend is based on what happens here 12 hours a year.
Sebring International Raceway is about nine miles from downtown, but it’s where the racing world goes each March to stare awestruck at the speed and handling of 1,000 horsepower cars hurtling around the track. Part of the prestigious American Le Mans Series, the speedway’s main event, Twelve Hours at Sebring, may be the annual highlight each March, but the track that was created from a former WWII air base is getting a workout throughout the year.
Manufacturers like Audi, Porsche, Ferrari, Jaguar, Audi, and BMW are bringing test cars here to check their agility. Car clubs, too, come here and, for about ten grand, will rent the track for the day and give their members a chance to take on the tight corners (including Turn 17, the “most difficult turn in racing”). Be sure to check out the gift shop by the entrance. Unlike most gift shops, they sell real racing equipment to real race car drivers (check out the $5,000 Stilo helmets).
For my money, one of the most dramatic views in Florida is in Lake Placid where, on the east side of U.S. 27, there’s high ridge and a lovely lake that seems as if it would be at home in the Adirondacks.
The views get even better a few blocks away in historic downtown Lake Placid. If you’re wondering if you’re in the right place, just look for the murals here. Dozens and dozens of wonderful murals – some as large as 175 by 30 feet and others filling several stories on downtown buildings – are painted throughout the community.
Pick up a guide ($3) to all of these murals then take a leisurely drive or casual stroll to see the story of cattle drives, of Lake Placid’s pioneers, of Indians who lived here 10,000 years ago, of sandhill cranes and the citrus industry and larger-than-life local residents like lady rancher Jennie Reninger, who was so good with a bullwhip she could snap a cigarette out of your mouth from 10 feet away – one of the earliest stop-smoking campaigns.
Exploring Florida is something every resident should do, and when you find a small town like Lake Placid where they decided to “paint the town” and create what’s essentially an outdoor art gallery, it makes you really proud. If you love art, history, and small towns, you’ve got a trifecta right here.
If you’d like to know what Florida looked like in the 1940s, you could look at archival photos – or you could visit Avon Park. On a typical day, kids and families are swimming in Lake Verona, which lies between Highway 64 and a cavernous Avon Park Shuffleboard Courts.
Taking things even further back is the Hotel Jacaranda that spins the wheel of time back to 1925. A complete surprise, not only are guests still checking into its authentic retro rooms, they are dining in the hotel restaurant, enjoying its spacious lobby, and catching a lift with an honest-to-goodness elevator operator. Really.
A few blocks west by the railroad track, the Depot Museum and Avon Park Historical Museum celebrates the town and the glory days of Florida’s passenger train service (although a gleaming stainless steel “California Zephyr” is the focal point of the facility). At the South Florida State College Museum of Florida Art & Culture, the theme is Florida (always a good topic) and the center is the permanent home to the Florida Masters Collection that features contemporary Florida regional art, including work by Christopher Still, Clyde Butcher, John Costin, and Robert Butler.
For more information, drop by the Avon Park Chamber across from the park.
Odds & Ends
Lorida. Heading east from Sebring on Highway 70, look for the road sign for this unincorporated community. If you travel with an extra ‘F’ you can pose by the sign and create a new state. Or without. What the F?
Route 621. A wonderful road that arcs around the eastern and southern shores of Lake Istokpoga, Florida’s fifth-largest lake, is especially great on a motorcycle. Narrow and sharp, it releases you into the countryside where, occasionally, a side road leads to waterfront fish camps like Mossy Grove and Henderson’s. In season, the scent of orange blossoms from the surrounding groves is magnificent. At the southern shore, be sure to stop by the spillway that feeds a canal – it’s a popular spot for fishing.
Highway 17. Between Avon Park and Sebring, this two-lane road is a thrill whether you’re riding a motorcycle, driving a convertible or even if you borrowed your parent’s station wagon. Punch the gas, twist the throttle – just travel safe and enjoy the sights and scents of the orange groves that surround you. Dirt roads, small lakes, remote neighborhoods, and general stores offering another nostalgic visit to Florida’s past.
If you go…
Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA, except where noted.