Travel, Etc. --> Chalet Suzanne
A Visit to Chalet Suzanne
A Getaway Weekend in Central Florida without Mickey
I don't know how many of you might have had the pre-mouse Florida experience as kids. I did! I will never forget that trip in dad's brand new 1960 Chevy station wagon, the one without air conditioning. We visited places like Silver Springs and Cyprus Gardens and stayed in motels without swimming pools. I do remember our being threatened with bodily harm if we asked "when do we get to the beach" one more time. Twenty Five years later, I survived a trip to Disney World with my kids. It wasn't until just a few years ago that I really learned how to enjoy Central Florida. Linda and I discovered a very quirky little Inn with a Mobile Guide 4 star restaurant called Chalet Suzanne and got in touch with the real Florida. Here is a "getaway weekend" blueprint for those of you who like to dine well, drink good wine and are adventuresome enough to enjoy a few classic roadside attractions.
Our last trip to central Florida was a getaway after the Christmas rush two years ago. We took two nights and three days, flew into Orlando, rented a convertible and hit the road. We began our weekend by satisfying Linda's need to shop with a trip to downtown Winter Park. Winter Park is a very upscale neighborhood and shopping district next to Rollins College, just north of downtown Orlando. Imagine a Broad Ripple with class, fill it with interesting stores, move it to the middle of Meridian-Kessler and then shove Butler University up next to it. Sprinkle it with nice restaurants, park a few Ferraris on the street and you have the idea. Try lunch on the sidewalk at the Village Bistro and be sure to stop in at Wine Country and pick up a few nice bottles to have in your room at Chalet Suzanne.
From Winter Park it's a quick 60 miles south past the Mouse and 40 years back in time to the real central Florida. Chalet Suzanne is just off US Hwy 27 near Lake Wales. The property is nestled on a small lake and looks like a miniature Swiss village with palm trees that are lit with thousands of twinkle lights every evening.
And, it gets stranger... The Hinshaw family founded the Restaurant back in 1931 and soon became famous for their soups which they still produce and can on the property. In the 1960's the Inn became a getaway spot for the NASA astronauts and other folks at Cape Kennedy. They even added a landing strip so guests could fly in for dinner or a weekend. In fact their "Romaine" soup proudly proclaims that it went to the moon aboard both Apollo 15 and 16.
And, stranger... The 30 room Inn was slowly built over the years by Carl Hinshaw and decorated by his wife so no two rooms are alike. Our very pink, second floor room had been built on over the kitchen and had six foot ceilings and a tiny bathroom done in homemade multi-colored tiles. It featured a round bed with a lace canopy and white French provincial furniture (we assume that that last time they re-decorated was in the late 50's and Mrs. Hinshaw had seen too many Doris Day movies). French doors opened onto a small balcony with a table and chairs that overlooked the main dining room complete with a dumb waiter. Breakfast on the balcony was kick, especially the looks you get from the patrons in the dining room below when they finally look up and notice you. A back door to the room opened onto the roof where we found a couple of patio chairs and a great view of the lake and the thousands of large turtles that live in it. As quirky as it sounds, sitting in a deck chair, sipping a glass of nice Chardonnay while watching turtles is very relaxing. Sipping wine and watching the stars after dinner also had the same soothing effect.
Dinner is another unique experience, food is served on a mix of antique dishes along with bowls and cups that they make in their own ceramics shop. The wine list is impressive and has won a number of Wine Spectator Awards. Allow at least two hours for the six course dinner that begins with broiled grapefruit, topped with brown sugar and chicken liver (sounds awful, tastes great). This is followed by the romaine soup (no lettuce, it's made with spinach and mushrooms), a generous salad, sorbet and one of their nine entrees followed by a homemade dessert. I have sense that this menu is chiseled on stone tablets in the kitchen and has not changed since Duncan Hines gave them a rave review back in the 40's. This is not "Peter's", it's a fine dinning experience from the past and the food is very, very good. Try the Lamb, the Lobster Newberg or their signature chicken. I'm sure it's all just as good and exactly the same as it was when the Astronauts used to come here in the sixties.
What to do when you're not eating? No problem, this area is filled with roadside attractions. Cypress Gardens opened in 1936 and it's still there. And, it's only 10 minutes away. It could still be 1962 inside their gates. No interactive rides here - just gardens filled with flower sculptures, water ski shows, animals and boat rides. As long as you go with the right attitude and don't lose it when you realize that, aside from the grand kids, you are the youngest people in the park, you will have a good time.
Just five minutes east of Lake Wales is one downright dramatic roadside attraction that should not be missed. Standing on the highest point in Florida, the Bok Tower is a magnificent 205 foot carillon (bell tower) built from pink and turquoise marble and covered with intricate art deco carvings of native Floridian birds and flowers. The tower is framed by reflecting ponds and surrounded by a 157 acre garden that was designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (Central Park, Biltmore Gardens). The well groomed gardens give way to nature trails that explore a pristine Florida woodland. The tower plays on the half hour with a recital every day at three. We were fascinated by the Tower and Gardens and spent the next day pondering the mystery of why in 1922, Edward Bok, a Dutch immigrant, spent a substantial part of his fortune to build such a magnificent structure in what was, and still is, absolutely the middle of nowhere! Maybe it was one of those Florida land scams and he thought he was buying ocean front property in Palm Beach.
We completed our day of roadside attractions with a visit to the amazing "Spook Hill" in Lake Wales. Don't laugh, it's free and the city has put up signs to direct you to it. The two block detour through Lake Wales made us understand the attraction. If you had to live in Lake Wales, it wouldn't take much to amaze you either.
Linda and I are born tourists and have a pendent for seeking out off beat destinations when we travel. So, if you ever to decide to take any of our are suggestions be sure to take along your sense of humor, these are pretty goofy places.
A couple of thoughts. If you go...
1.Southwest can get you there in two hours — cheap!
2. Pick up your rental car at the airport garage. Avis is on property, Hertz is not.
3. Never drive I-4 through Orlando at rush hour. It makes driving in Chicago seem like driving in Zionsville.
Chalet Suzanne is not cheap, but certainly no more expensive than a weekend in downtown Chicago. They always seem to have weekend packages available, check their web site www.chaletsuzanne.com
March 15, 2000