By Cynthia McFarland
“You’ve got to visit Winter Park!”
This oft-repeated declaration from my in-the-know girlfriends should have been reason enough to get me in my truck and down the turnpike long before now. I’d heard all about the fabulous shopping, great dining, and marvelous museums, so, after clearing my calendar for a day, I invited a friend to come along for the short, but long-overdue jaunt to this inviting town just north of Orlando.
Billed as “Florida’s premier urban village,” Winter Park is home to some of Central Florida’s most distinctive retail shops, galleries, and eateries. Once a booming citrus community where the famous Temple orange was first cultivated, by the late 19th century Winter Park was known as a winter getaway for well-to-do northerners. Today, tourism continues as the town’s vital asset and the area entertains many visitors looking for a change from Orlando’s fast-paced attractions. The town is also home to Rollins College, founded in 1885 and one of the top-rated private liberal arts colleges in the country.
The array of stores lining Park Avenue alone would pleasantly challenge the most steadfast of shoppers with more than 140 shops, boutiques, and galleries. Prominent retailers such as Restoration Hardware, Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Douglas Cosmetics, and Nicole Miller anchor this shopping paradise.
For unique art, creative jewelry, and contemporary crafts, don’t miss Timothy’s Gallery. The Golden Rabbit is the spot for unusual fashion accessories and amazing designer knockoff handbags and jewelry. Visit The Doggie Door to find great gifts for the four-footed members of the family and check out Bliss for faux flower arrangements that are so lifelike you’ll swear they’re fresh cut. Funky gifts and original stationery await at Red Marq, and the shoe-obsessed will delight in the various shoe boutiques.
As you stroll the avenue, don’t miss the walkways that lead back to courtyards and still more tantalizing shops and eateries. One such treasure is Palmano’s Roastery & Espresso Bar, a tucked-away gem that offers a spot to rest a bit with a coffee and pastry while you contemplate your next shopping choice.
If you’re in town on Saturday morning, don’t miss the Farmer’s Market at the corner of Lyman and New York Avenues. From just-baked breads to the freshest produce and local plants, you’ll find plenty to cart home.
Venture beyond the downtown district to Hannibal Square just west of Park Avenue for more art and numerous restaurants. Several blocks further west is Winter Park Village, which offers additional upscale entertainment, dining, and shopping.
All this shopping is bound to stir up an appetite. When that happens, make your way to Chef Justin’s Park Plaza Gardens for lunch inside — or al fresco if you can find an open seat at the sidewalk tables. Even indoors, the live trees draped with twinkling lights make it feel as though you’re dining in a courtyard setting.
On the appetizer menu, seafood lovers simply must order the garlic-intense Jumbo Prawns Provencale. Salads are oversized and variety abounds on the entrée menu. We dove into the Smoked Turkey, Apple, Brie, and Bacon croissant sandwich and the Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes. Don’t skip dessert, even if you have to share. The Caramel Candy Cream Tart has a fabulous presentation and tastes even better than it looks. Park Plaza Gardens is also a great spot for dinner or Sunday brunch.
If you’re in town for dinner, Luma on Park is a must. This elegant restaurant features fine contemporary American cuisine in a luxurious setting, complete with an open kitchen and chef’s table. A dramatically varied wine list (nearly 7,000 bottles on hand!) and the unique culinary creations of Executive Chef Todd Immel make Luma a serious dining experience.
One of the best ways to get a good look at Winter Park is via excursion boat, thanks to Scenic Boat Tours, a tradition in town since 1938. Captain Jim piloted our vessel, a sturdy pontoon boat outfitted with comfortable bench seats, for the hour-long tour, which encompasses Lakes Osceola, Virginia, and Maitland, as well as several winding, scenic canals.
The City of Winter Park now maintains the canals, originally built in the 1800s to accommodate the logging industry. It was a treat to slip down the quiet canals where sunlight dappled the still waters and lush greenery surrounded us. Bird life is plentiful and the captain pointed out blue herons and anhingas (“snake birds”) as we passed by.
After casually assuring us that we weren’t going to encounter any sharks or whales, Captain Jim peppered his narration with interesting facts and trivia about Winter Park. We learned about some of the area’s famous residents and saw many magnificent waterfront homes. The 12-mile-long boat tour also glides by Rollins College, the Kraft Azalea Gardens, and the Isle of Sicily, home to several stunning residences.
Scenic Boat Tours operates every day of the year but Christmas, and tours leave on the hour from 10am through 4pm.
Remarkably, the world’s most comprehensive collection of the works of artist Louis Comfort Tiffany is on display in Winter Park at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. The museum was founded in 1942 by long-time Winter Park resident Jeannette Genius McKean. Mrs. McKean and her husband, Hugh F. McKean, spent more than five decades collecting the tremendous array of artwork contained here. Some of it was acquired directly from Laurelton Hall, Tiffany’s Long Island estate.
Tiffany was one of the most prolific designers of the late 19th century and this fact is emphasized by the outstanding variety of his works at the Morse Museum. Many people don’t realize that Tiffany, who was renowned for his glass creations, was originally trained as a painter. He also worked in enamel and pottery and designed fanciful jewelry and intricate desk sets. The impressive leaded glass windows are presented in lighting designed to make the most of the rich colors. Of course, the lamps so readily identified with Tiffany are also on display. But clearly the most dramatic Tiffany creation here is the grand Tiffany Chapel, an impressive combination of glass and mosaic, first displayed at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Just minutes from the Morse Museum lies the former home of Albin Polasek, one of America’s most prominent 20th century sculptors, now a museum and sculpture garden open to the public. Born in 1879 in what is now the Czech Republic, Polasek immigrated to the United States at age 22.
Known for his monumental sculptures, Polasek moved to Winter Park in 1950 and shortly thereafter suffered a debilitating stroke, which confined him to a wheelchair and paralyzed his left side. Undaunted, he continued to sculpt, paint, draw, and carve until his death in 1965.
Revolving exhibits by other artists are displayed throughout the year. The picturesque sculpture gardens on the shores of Lake Osceola make a perfect backdrop for special occasions such as wedding receptions and garden luncheons.
Another museum to visit is the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College, housing the oldest collection of art in Florida. It’s scheduled to reopen January 22, 2006, following renovation.
For local history, check out the Winter Park Historical Museum, located in an old railroad freight depot.
Because there’s simply too much to do in one day, your best bet is to book a room at one of the local hotels. Elegance and personal service are trademarks of the Park Plaza Hotel, located right on Park Avenue. If you don’t mind the whistle of the train passing through town, this spot is ideal and puts you right in the middle of the action. Other accommodations include the Best Western Mt. Vernon Inn and the Thurston House Bed & Breakfast in nearby Maitland.
Having visited Winter Park at last, I can only say that one day is not nearly enough time to truly enjoy this intriguing destination. Do yourself a favor and mark off at least a couple in order to savor all the town has to offer. I know I’m already planning my next trip!
Getting to Winter Park:
From Interstate 4, take the Fairbanks exit (Exit 87) east and head straight to Park Avenue. Rollins College is on the right. Turn left onto Park Avenue.
Want To Know More?
Winter Park Chamber of Commerce
Noteworthy Annual Events:
• Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival (third weekend in March)
• Florida Film Festival (Spring)
• Concours d’Elegance exotic car festival (October)
• Autumn Art Festival (second weekend in October)
By Cynthia McFarland