Romance in central Florida's Lakes Country.
Secrets: privileged information that couples whisper, friends share and everyone loves to discover. My husband and I stumbled upon one we will forever cherish. We followed roads less traveled to a magical land of sparkling lakes, rolling hills and sprawling orange groves; Victorian dreams, feathered treasures and fragrant flowers. Come with us as we divulge the details of the beautiful bed-and-breakfasts in the heart of central Florida, a secret garden where romance is always in bloom.
From the time I was a little girl, I was entranced by Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky's beloved ballet in which swans turn into beautiful princesses at night. No wonder Lakeland tugged at my heartstrings within moments of our arrival. Here, birds of a feather really do flock together. The queen of England presented the town with a pair of swans in the 1950s; now, swans flourish, and they have become the symbol of the city. Stroll the historic district and you'll inevitably come to a lake where the creatures gracefully glide, inspiring nature lovers and artists alike. See the painted, larger-than-life replications that dot downtown Lakeland.
The royal descendants swim by the hundreds at Lake Morton, a tranquil bird sanctuary in the center of the city. It's an easy walk to a refuge of a different kind, Lakeland's Lake Morton Bed & Breakfast. Former innkeepers Bryce and Mary Ann Zender (the B&B was sold to current owners JoAnna and Daniel Jimenez in 2010) restored the 1920s bungalow and added period antiques. The inn offers old-fashioned hospitality with every modern convenience. Each of their four suites has a bath, kitchen, bedroom and living room, as well as cable TV, telephone, Internet access, climate controls and private entrance.
From here, you can walk to Florida Southern College to see the world's largest one-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. Or peruse antiqueshops and galleries downtown, stopping in a quaint café or upscale restaurant.
Hollis Garden is a must-see. The formal neo-classical garden shares the shores of Lake Mirror with Barnett Family Park and Kryger Overlook Park. While its beauty is strikingly apparent, its story is not, unless you take a free guided tour. Ours guide had a passion for the plants and history this collection represents. The music of Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi accompanied us as our guide described the surroundings. Cascading spring water in The Grotto symbolizes the lifeblood of the land during Florida's primitive age. Herb and vegetable gardens signify the agrarian era, and floral rooms burst with color and represent refinement. The Trees of Americana are truly living history; each was planted from seeds or cuttings of those owned by Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King and more, and new memories are made at The Gazebo, amphitheater and reception halls where weddings occur weekly.
Brides often stay at The Shaw House bed and breakfast, conveniently located across the street. Owned and restored by former City Commissioner Tom Shaw, the four-bedroom century-old home faces the spectacular gardens and lake and has a shady deck in the back for reading or grilling. The interior walls are graced with what appear to be original Van Gogh paintings. Originals they are, by Tom himself.
Tom's charming enclave is not far from the Terrace Hotel; it's just a walk, limousine or horse-drawn buggy ride away and a popular venue for wedding receptions. Also overlooking Lake Mirror, the luxury hotel has a combination of nearly 90 spacious rooms and suites, banquet facilities and conference rooms. The atrium lobby alone is worth a peek; from black and white ceramic tile to nostalgic wicker furnishings and hand-painted murals, it's a 1920s treasure lovingly restored. We took it in over a midday repast at the hotel's lovely Terrace Grille. Generous portions of crunchy calamari and meaty crab cakes made it difficult, but not impossible, to squeeze in dessert from the "Sweet Endings" menu.
A leisurely drive later we found a place of sweet beginnings, where weddings are picture-perfect and romance is in the air. Town Manor Bed and Breakfast is unassumingly tucked off the beaten path on Lake Juliana in Auburndale. Think hearts, flowers and lace, bicycles built for two and consummate beauty in every direction. All-inclusive, turn-key wedding coordination services have resulted in Town Manor voted “Best Wedding & Reception Venue” by Brides Choice. Hosting wedding couples and their guests from all over the world, this is where fairytales begin. Our room was a carriage house-turned-love nest with marble-tiled floors, a loft-like ceiling and a bed with gossamer netting and fluffy, feather pillows. A Tivoli-lit silk tree created a soft glow over the claw-foot Jacuzzi tub, where heart-shaped soaps in silky satchels sat on a marble stand along with luxury lotions and other thoughtful bath amenities. A shiny, restored Model-A Ford was parked outside.
The Estate Main House, Carriage House, and Crystal Ballroom are all feasts for the senses. Owners Nandy and Don Town filled the rooms with rare antiques and intriguing surprises in every corner. Here, weddings are pulled off without a hitch.
Auburndale is midway between Tampa and Orlando, convenient to attractions in either city. But once you step foot inside this fairytale, you won't want to leave. Swing on the hammock, swim in the pool, or sip wine at sunset in the gazebo on the lake. Breakfast is a special occasion, also served by candlelight — a beautiful way to begin a day or a lifetime of marriage.
Nearby Lake Wales boasts Bok Tower Gardens, where carillon bells often signal love's first blush.
Noah's Ark Bed & Breakfast is also popular for weddings as well as receptions, bridal showers and rehearsal dinners. The former "speakeasy" is tastefully furnished in 19th century antiques and houses a collection of Noah's Ark memorabilia from all over the world.