The approach to Bok Tower Gardens is hidden away on the back side of Lake Wales and involves a winding, mile-and-a-half drive through a couple of orange groves. Central Florida's "Ridge" is an ideal place to grow citrus, and it is where gardens founder Edward W. Bok situated his 250-acre horticultural gem.
Bok Tower Gardens is perhaps the antithesis of the theme parks about an hour's drive north. It isn't exciting, or noisy, or crowded or commercial. Kids can go, but it's no video game. In some ways it is a throwback to the kind of attractions that defined Florida before Disney arrived.
I renewed my acquaintance with the gardens on a trip through the state in early June and was fortunate enough to arrive on a day when the temperatures were reasonable and the morning skies clear.
I didn't have the place to myself, but close enough. That suited me fine. One of the main reasons to visit Bok Tower Gardens is to restore a sense of inner tranquility and peace. It is easier to do in semi-solitude.
The winding path through the gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., gradually reveals the centerpiece tower Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
First, there are the gardens. They were built between 1924 and 1928 by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., who also designed Boston's metropolitan park system and Cornell University, among other places. (His father, Frederick Law Olmstead Sr., designed New York's Central Park.)
The gardens are full of subtropical trees and plants, including longleaf pines, towering magnolias, moss-draped oaks and a variety of palms. Lining the winding paths are a variety of shrubs, bushes and ground covers. One of my favorites is the imperial philodendron, a Jurassic Park-type plant with leaves several feet across.
Spring brings blooms to the trees. I was a little late for the azaleas, but some of the camellias were still showing, and the magnolias had plenty of huge, white blossoms. I didn't see any of the wild turkeys or sandhill cranes said to be in residence, but plenty of songbirds were on duty, including many flashy red cardinals.
The focal point of the garden is the 205-foot Gothic Revival tower made of pink and grey Georgia marble and coquina stone. Olmstead laid out the pathways so that the tower is initially hidden from those strolling the grounds, and then revealed in glimpses that grow increasingly dramatic. The tower is surrounded by a reflecting pond and contains a 60-bell carillon, one of only 185 in North America.
The 205-foot carillon tower is built from pink and gray Georgia marble and coquina stone, and has a frieze of Florida birds over the door Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
The bells sound on the hour, along with a short burst of music. Carillon concerts at 1 o'clock and 3 o'clock are live on Thursday through Sunday afternoons during the winter months and played from recordings at other times.
Carillons are especially popular in the Netherlands, where Edward William Bok was born in 1863. After immigrating to the U.S., Bok went into publishing and for three decades edited the Ladies Home Journal. After retiring in 1919, he began spending winters at the Mountain Lake Colony, a wealthy enclave adjacent to the gardens. Inspired by the view from one of the tallest points in Florida, Bok decided to build a place that would "touch the soul with its beauty and quiet." It was dedicated by president Calvin Coolidge on Feb. 1, 1929.
Although it is well off the beaten path and sedate by modern standards, Bok's legacy appears to be doing well -- far better than the last time I visited in 2004 after Hurricane Charlie.
A $16 million renovation and improvement project finished in 2019 added a new visitor's center, an al fresco patio for the cafe, a new oval lawn for special events and extensive upgrades for the mobility impaired, including a shuttle service.
A new 6,400-square-foot outdoor kitchen with farm-to-table dining was part of a $16 million renovation in 2019. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst
A new outdoor kitchen features 6,400 square feet of culinary garden-to-table activity and is outfitted with a wood-fired pizza oven, top-of-the-line outdoor appliances, festive cafe string lights, ceiling fans and vine trellises. An adjacent edible garden includes a fruit orchard, grape arbors and raised beds for herbs and vegetables.
Also added was a children's garden and a wild garden showcasing Florida native plants and wildlife, aided by a 170-foot boardwalk that meanders through a wetland prairie and overlooks a restored wildlife pond.
Somehow I had only reserved an hour that morning for soul restoration, but I could have spent all day. As I left, I made a mental note to return more frequently than once every 16 years.