Lake Wales – As the songs of the carillon bells filled the blue sky and filtered down through the majestic oak trees, David Buchman leaned back into an Adirondack chair and closed his eyes. A soft breeze stirred a sea of green grass below him and swayed the Spanish moss in the branches overhead.
While visitors may come here from around the world every year, Buchman considers Bok Tower Gardens in Central Florida to be therapy in his own backyard – particularly after a recent overload of teaching college classes and studying for a doctoral degree.
"It just feels like the stress is sucked out of you here," Buchman, 49, of nearby Kissimmee, said of the National Historic Landmark.
Bok Tower Gardens – halfway between Orlando and Tampa in Polk County – consists of carillon bells in a 205-foot Singing Tower, landscaped gardens that are home to wildlife and 126 different species of birds, and a 1930s-era Mediterranean-style mansion.
At the Window by the Pond – an observatory that overlooks a bog, birds, reptiles and butterflies – he feels as if he's in another world, Buchman said after he returned to an iron bench near the Singing Tower, where partner Don Cupo, 50, waited with his mother, Jean Cupo.
The bell tower – made from a combination of Florida coquina stone and Georgia pink and gray marble and surrounded by a 15-foot-wide moat – holds the carillon made up of 60 cast bronze bells weighing from 16 pounds to almost 12 tons. Every half hour, brief recorded carillon music from the tower echoes over the grounds. Longer live concerts of carillon music are held daily at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.
The founder, humanitarian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Bok, had been inspired to replicate carillon music from his native Netherlands when hiring a landscape architect in the 1920s to transform the property into a lush setting of camellias, magnolias and azaleas amid ferns, oaks, palms and pine trees.
The property – sitting near Iron Mountain and at almost 300 feet above sea level one of the highest points in Florida – offers sweeping views of a valley of towns and orange groves below.
"You forget where you are," said Jean Cupo, who recently moved to Florida from New Jersey.
Aside from the grounds and music offered every day of the year, Bok Tower Gardens also features tours of Pinewood Estate – a 20-room Mediterranean-style mansion that had been the winter home of Bethlehem Steel executive C. Austin Buck and was acquired by the Gardens in 1970.
Activities at various times throughout the year at the Gardens include: moonlight carillon concerts, sunset and symphony concerts with the carillon and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, family hikes, Valentine's Day dinners at Pinewood Estate, photography workshops in the gardens, plant species research projects with universities, and educational programs for children. Bird watchers come to the Gardens as a stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail.
Trish Driscoll of nearby Lakeland knew that her mother, an avid gardener, would love the place, so she held off coming until her mother could visit her from New Hampshire.
"I said, 'I'm going to wait,'" Driscoll said. "She got off the plane two days ago."
Her mother, Ann Hinman, has fallen in love with Florida's beaches in the past. Now, sitting under moss-draped oak trees on a bench down a trail from the tower after a carillon concert, Hinman looked out over the hillside and the valley below and was enraptured by a different aspect of the state.
"This is absolutely amazing," Hinman said.
If You Go
- Where: Bok Tower Gardens is located in Central Florida at 1151 Tower Blvd., Lake Wales. It is 55 miles southwest of Orlando and 60 miles east of Tampa.
- Hours: Open every day of the year from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the last admission occurring at 5 p.m.
- Cost: Admission is $12 for adults and $3 for children ages 5 to 12, with children under 5 able to enter for free.
- More information: Call 863-676-1408 or visit boktowergardens.org.