By Peter Couture
Winter Park, just minutes from downtown Orlando, rewards both day-trippers and weekenders.
The best way to enjoy either type of visit is to use the menu method: Choose at least one museum, one restaurant and one attraction you must experience, then fill in any blanks as time and your wallet allow.
For the Day Tripper
A weekend stroll through Central Park in the city’s core — it sits across from the trendy shopping and dining of Park Avenue — is enough to put one in the mind of a Seurat painting: artists’ easels, young families and t'ai chi practitioners dot the landscape.
But take also the advice given to us by an enthusiastic and helpful staffer at the Winter Park Welcome Center, who tells visitors that if they have only one day to spend in town, then there’s one must-see attraction in The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art — “The Morse” to most everyone — and one must-do activity in the Scenic Boat Tour of the Winter Park chain of lakes.
Both the museum and the points of interest glimpsed on the boat tour owe their existence to the Northern tycoons who helped found the town as — what else — a winter retreat. Combine both activities, throw in lunch, and visiting families can still get back to their hotels in time for the kids to log some pool time.
For the Art Lover
Winter Park residents like to boast that their art-loving community has three museums and “two are cheap and one is free.” So true. If, like me, you think of lamps when you hear the name Tiffany, then The Morse will be nothing short of a revelation.
The museum holds the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Sure, the jewelry and those leaded-glass lamps are there, but the chapel interior from Tiffany’s installation for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
It’s hard for visitors not to reflexively remove their hats and speak in hushed tones while viewing it. Better yet, admission is not in Tiffany-price territory ($6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $1 for students with I.D.)
In the mood to stretch your legs? Less than a mile from the Morse is the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, which is on the campus of Rollins College, the “oldest recognized college in the state.” Cornell exhibitions have ranged from thought-provoking looks at race to the rise of modernism.
So maybe you’d like to ponder what you’ve seen at the Cornell? Then take a stroll through campus. Rollins has been recognized by the Princeton Review for its beauty. (The reserved scooter parking for school president Grant Cornwell is a nice touch.) One other thing about the Cornell — it’s free, but donations are welcomed.
Nearby, the lakeside Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Garden welcomes you into the world of the acclaimed Czech-born American sculptor. The museum includes Polasek’s home, galleries and sculpture garden on Lake Osceola. For those who like visually adventurous works, the museum also brings in visiting exhibits in other mediums.
For the Hotel Lover
The gorgeous, Tuscan-designed Alfond Inn is a destination in and of itself. If you enjoy the finer things: art, luxury accommodations and contemporary cuisine, then the Rollins College-owned boutique hotel is a must — even if you don’t stay there. It contains The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art, which draws works from the permanent collection of the Cornell that are displayed in the hotel’s lobbies and hallways.
We sipped cocktails near a large work by the Chilean artist Afredo Jaar that instructed in neon: “Be afraid of the enormity of the possible.” Indeed. A stay at the Alfond will make you a believer in that edict. Plus, the hotel has a philanthropic mission that benefits Rollins students.
The hotel’s restaurant, Hamilton's Kitchen, serves Florida-inspired cuisine. Even if you don’t dine there, appetizers from the restaurant — try the Hamilton’s Meatballs — make a fine accompaniment to a happy-hour drink on one of the Alfond’s scenic patios as you unwind from your Winter Park explorations.
For the Culinary Tourist
And speaking of those who like to nosh, Winter Park salutes you. The eateries, which make an effort to stock their menus with local ingredients, run the gamut from the nationally acclaimed, such as The Ravenous Pig, to the laid-back Floridian fare of Atlantic Beer & Oyster.
The Pig should satisfy the meat-lover in your family; I can vouch for the housemade charcuterie. Even the Pig’s take on classic cocktails keeps the meat lover in mind: The Old Fashioned dunks a strip of candied bacon in the cocktail. Yum.
And there’s always a good chance that you’ll run into a food-tour group — as I did — as you explore Park Avenue, where it pays to explore the labyrinth of courtyards off the main strip. That’s how we found ABO’s excellent gulf oysters, local craft-beer selections and gulf oysters.
Elsewhere, the eclectic mix on and near the avenue include restaurants such as Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine and the Italian/Brazilian Braccia, both of which like to entice passers-by with free samples. Sadly, I never made it back to Park Station for the “Avenue’s best chicken-pot pie.” Next time.
A great perk on Park: Many restaurants set out water dishes for Fido, and the dog-watching may be even better than the people-watching for those dining at one of the many sidewalk tables.
For the Shopper
Start with the quaint and just-the-right-sized Winter Park Farmers’ Market, which is held on the site of the restored train depot — a historic landmark. The market takes place every Saturday, except on the third one in March when it's time for the popular Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival.
The Avenue welcomes window-shoppers with a lineup of chic clothing and home-goods retailers such as Lilly Pulitzer, Lululemon Athletica and a unique Pottery Barn location in the former Colony Theater that retains the theater’s vertical sign.
And if you like nostalgia and crave just the slightest bit of touristy Florida, visit the Rocket Fizz Soda Pop & Candy Shop, where confections and kitsch collide. I especially liked the collection of international candies. Japanese Kit-Kats, anyone?
For the Florida Historian
As the Welcome Center advises, the Scenic Boat Tour should be on everyone’s agenda. The tours, which use open pontoon boats (remember the sun screen), leave on the hour from a dock just a pleasant five-minute walk from Park Avenue.
The hour-long tour navigates two narrow man-made canals that connect three of the local chain’s seven lakes and offer views of the estates of the wealthy founders (and occasional NBA star) who built lakefront estates. The canals that snake through residential neighborhoods are worth the price of the tour ($14) alone.
“If I should say quack-quack, what are you going to do?” our guide and captain, Wendell, asked as we cruised under some of roadway overpasses.
The answer of course: “Duck.” Wendell kept up a constant patter that was part local history and part comedic one-liners that made the tour a welcome throwback to Old Florida tourism.
Winter Park makes for a rewarding detour off I-4 that has something for everyone, no matter your interest or itinerary.
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