Published: November 2011
Surprising Polk County, Florida  

By Sharon Spence Lieb

“Polk County Florida encompasses 2,000 square miles,” Commissioner Jean Reed tells me. “Although we’re near The Magic Kingdom in Orlando, visitors are surprised by our 554 lakes, unique attractions, and abundant wildlife and nature. Not to mention delicious food. Can you tell I love it here?”

We’re dining at Texas Cattle Company Restaurant in Lakeland. Right on cue, our waitress delivers Jean a beautiful juicy steak. My plate overflows with buttery crab cakes and enormous grilled shrimp, accompanied by sweet potato fries. Life in Polk County is very tasty.

From airboat rides to ogle twenty-foot gators, nature centers teeming with sand hill cranes and roseate spoonbills; and ivory swans in the lake near our Terrace Hotel, wildlife abounds. Who knew Polk County, Florida has so many surprises?


A mammoth gator suns on the muddy banks of the Kissimmee Waterway.

Our airboat motors to the bank for a closer look. His monstrous jaw juts open.

Two-inch razor sharp teeth grin “Hello folks. You’re just in time for my afternoon snack.” The beast slithers off the bank into the water. Towards me.

“Can this ‘gator jump into our boat?” I call to Captain Ben Heilman.

“Probably,” he answers. “But we’re not stickin’ round long enough to find out.”

Captain Heilman expertly guides our airboat through floating water lilies, past black and white cows languidly chewing grass, and snowy white egrets flapping six-foot wings.

“Here at Westgate River Ranch Resort, everything is a bit wilder,” he grins. On 1700 acres of Florida cattle country, Ranch guests can be cowboys or cowgirls,

joining in cattle drives, horseback rides and barn dances.

There’s more wildlife at Polk’s Nature Discovery Center at Circle B Bar Reserve. Kids scramble up the tree house built inside the Visitor’s Center to learn about

The animals they’ll see on 1200 acres of marsh, oak hammocks, and a cypress swamp.

On our marsh walk, we saw flocks of white pelicans, roseate spoonbills, sand hill cranes, anhingas, great blue herons, snowy white egrets and eaglets learning to fly.


At Fantasy of Flight, we amble through open-air hangars housing over forty restored rare airplanes. One of my favorites: a reproduction of Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis,” that changed world history with his 33 ½ hour flight from New York to Paris on May 10, 1927.

Owner Kermit Weeks, who has assembled one of the world’s greatest vintage aircraft collections says, “Since the dawn of time, man has been fascinated by flight. That fascination is a physical reflection of what we long to return to. We all fly in our dreams and when we awake…we long for that inner freedom.”

At Bok Tower Gardens we learn that Mr. Edward Bok, former Editor/Publisher of Ladies Home Journal, lived his dream to the max, creating an astonishing 128-acre garden, which became a National Historic Landmark in 1929.  On the Florida’s peninsula’s highest point, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead designed Bok Tower Gardens. Meander quiet trails among yellow snapdragons, rose columbine, and delicate nun’s orchids.  The 205-foot neo-Gothic and art deco Singing Tower houses one of the world’s finest Carillons. Concerts from the 60-bell carillon fill the garden daily with inspiring music.

Frank Lloyd Wright fans stroll among the largest collection of his architecture in the world at Florida Southern College. On the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970’s, Wright’s twelve structures for the campus were built between 1938 and 1958. The “Child of the Sun” Visitors Center showcases photos, furniture and drawings depicting Wright’s relationship with Florida Southern College. Learn why Wright is considered “A visionary who could think in three dimensions. Charming, yet cantankerous, his ego was a 25 on a scale of 1-10.”

Any family vacation to Polk County should include Florida’s first theme park: Cypress Gardens. Lush gardens feature fanciful topiaries and Southern Belles pose for photos. Water ski shows showcase local talent, and the Water Park keeps kids cool, sliding through curving tubes into swimming pools.


Polk County’s restaurants range from charming mom and pop bistros, to elegant

fine dining.

At Lang Sun Country Groves, we toured a citrus packing operation, then lunched at Taste of Florida Café on chicken salad sandwiches and their signature dessert, grapefruit pie. We raved over the strawberry shortcake, a heavenly concoction of sweet berries under mounds of whipped cream.

Antiquarian is an arty bistro, with stunning photomurals and comfy seating, serving cheesy quiche, fresh salmon, and decadent chocolate cake. Another day, we lunched on fresh grouper sandwiches at Westgate River Ranch Resort, and then worked up appetites for scallops on spicy linguini at Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille.

We stayed at The Terrace Hotel, a 1924 gem that gleams after a $13 million

renovation. The formal dining room is resplendent with jasmine flowers, glittering chandeliers, and soft candlelight. We recommend the wood grilled chicken breast with spinach mozzarella ravioli, and tangy key lime pie.

Chalet Suzanne Restaurant and Country Inn is a Swiss styled village on a 70-acre estate, surrounded by orange groves. Each year since 1977, Florida Trend Magazine has bestowed Golden Spoon Awards to Sunshine State restaurants offering outstanding food, service and décor. Chalet Suzanne has received countless awards and was recently inducted into the Golden Spoon Hall of Fame. Antiques and historic photos take you back in time, but the cuisine is thoroughly modern and fabulous. Chef Philip Mitchell dazzles guests with Alaskan king crab claws poached in butter, farm fresh asparagus, and decadent carrot cake. Chalet Suzanne is perfect for a romantic night out or an elegant evening with friends.


In Polk County you’re always near a sparkling lake, colorful gardens, flocks of birds, and scrumptious cuisine. History, culture, adventure and nature are at your beck and call. Even though Mickey and Minnie Mouse are minutes away, we’ll just have to visit them another time.


For more information, visit or call toll free, 1-800-828-7655.