Travel, Etc. --> Winter Park
A Weekend in Winter Park
Orlando without the Mouse
Here's a "getaway weekend" blueprint for those of you who like to dine well, drink good wine and are as easily entertained by the "roadside attractions" as we are. ATA got us there in 2 hours for $179 and it's warm!
A few weeks ago we were lucky enough to miss a few snows by getting away to central Florida. And, in a testament to just how lousy this winter has been... it rained every day and we didn't mind because at least it was warm rain.
We flew into Orlando on a Saturday and drove to Mount Dora to visit family who had recently moved there. Mount Dora is a lovely, old, very quaint, touristy town with brick streets and lots of antique shops. It's kind of a theme park for the Mercury Marquis set. It comes complete with some pretty good restaurants, where you can't get a dinner reservation at 5:30 pm, but you can have the place to yourselves by 7:00. And, while an entire weekend in Mount Dora might be a little much, or at least until you're traveling in an RV, it is a great place to visit overnight, and we would suggest accommodations at the turn-of-the-century Lakeside Inn as an interesting place to stay. Part of its charm is its large pier extending out into Lake Dora. A great place for bird watching during the day and star gazing by night. http://www.lakeside-inn.com
On Monday, we moved to Winter Park for some much needed down time. If you're not familiar with it, Winter Park is an area just north of downtown Orlando. It's a very upscale neighborhood and shopping district next to Rollins College. It originally grew up around the train station that brought wealthy Northern folk south for the winter at the turn of the century. Imagine Broad Ripple with class, fill it with interesting high end retail, move it to the middle of Meridian Kessler, add some lakes 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. You can have lunch on the sidewalk at the Village Bistro, stop at "Vino" for a good bottle of wine or have a cup of real coffee at any number of nice little coffee houses. Add lots of great shopping, including a number of nice independent apparel stores (Linda found some great clothes) along side some of the more interesting high-end chains like Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware.
The Park Plaza Hotel - Our favorite place in Winter Park is the slightly quirky Park Plaza Hotel. Dating from the early part of the last century, it's a 40 room hotel located on a second story overlooking Park Avenue in the heart of the shopping district. A wrought iron balcony wraps around the building providing a sitting area for each room masked from the street by a garden of large ferns, potted plants and flowers. No two rooms are alike, but all the rooms facing the street are suites with pleasant sitting rooms that open onto the balcony. The hotel is filled with dark wood paneling, antique furniture, big brass or wood beds and ceiling fans that make you feel like you have stepped back in time. Even the elevator looks like it should have a historic register plaque on it (I recommend using the stairs). If Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway didn't stay here, they should have. Sitting on the balcony behind the screen of greenery, sipping wine and watching the world go by is fascinating. Sharing the complimentary continental breakfast with the birds on the balcony is also fun, but the coffee's a little weak. However, a trip 2 doors south to a great little coffee shop for carry-out solves that problem. And, just remember we said quirky. The plumbing ranks right up their with the other antiques and don't expect to turn around quickly in your bathroom (we actually think they may assign rooms based on height and weight). And, be forewarned, the train still runs through the center of town a couple of times a night. Information and rates at www.parkplazahotel.com
The Roadside Attractions
Winter Park is a pleasant island of tranquility in Orlando's sea of theme parks, thrill rides and the thousands of billboards that promote them. Besides the shopping, we found 3 fun "little attractions" that more than occupied two laid back days.
The Scenic Boat Tour - Don't laugh. They have been running this since 1938. It takes about an hour and you don't get wet. Best of all, there is no recording of "for your own safety, please keep your hands and feet inside the moving vehicle." Instead, you are provided great commentary and historical facts by a retiree who is having fun giving boat tours. The boat starts in lake Osceola and makes its way through canals to Lakes Virginia and Maitland. The real attractions are the magnificent homes that have been built around the lakes, starting with stately turn-of-the-century Victorians, up to some of the multi-million dollar monsters built during the dot.com boom of the 90's. 10 am until 4 pm daily - admission $8 - more information at www.scenicboattours.com
The Morse Museum of American Art - The biggest surprise in Winter Park is the Morse Museum collection of stained glass by artist Louis Comfort Tiffany. This is a world class exhibit of Tiffany's work.. the largest anywhere. It includes a bunch of stained glass lamps, art deco vases, art glass and jewelry, as well as most of the large windows that Tiffany designed for his own estate on Long Island, Laurelton Hall. They have even restored and designed a room around the Byzantine-Romanesque stained glass and mosaic chapel that Tiffany designed for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This is an amazing exhibit with 19 galleries and one of the largest museum shops I have ever seen, filled with wonderful reproductions of Tiffany's work (bring plenty of money) . Many of these windows and objects have be reproduced and photographed so many times that they are familiar and it's almost startling to be confronted with the originals. Allow yourself a few hours and be sure to watch the video that details how the stained glass windows and chapel were rescued after a fire destroyed Laurelton in the 1950's. Admission is only $3.00 - 445 N. Park Avenue (407) 645-5311 www.morsemuseum.org
Audubon Florida Center for Birds of Prey - This fascinating place is a little off the beaten path in Maitland, about 5 minutes from Winter Park. It is a raptor trauma center and working rehabilitation facility for birds of prey. Most birds are tended and returned to the wild. Since 1979, they have treated over 8,000 birds and reintroduced over 3,500, including 225 Bald Eagles. However, many of the birds cannot be released because of their injuries. Those are the birds kept in flight cages around the property. Some are so tame that they are cabled to perches, set in the ground. And, while you still can't get too close... it is the first time I have never been eye to eye with a bald eagle. In addition to the Eagles, they have Kites, Falcons, Osprey, Hawks and more varieties of Owls than I knew existed. They even had a number of Cormorants, who inhabit the Orlando area in large numbers. In fact, one gave us a real "Wild Kingdom" moment on our scenic boat tour when he buzzed the boat with a foot long fish wriggling in his talons. Cool place...allow about an hour ... Admission $5 - more information and a map at Audubon of Florida.
Allegria Wine Bar Cusina - This latest addition to the Winter Park dining scene is a definite "Must Do!" Two short blocks from the hotel, the Allegria has very nice outdoor seating on a reasonably quiet side street. The dining room, of which we availed ourselves of on a wet evening, is elegant and a little quieter and less crowded than the usual Trattoria-style restaurants. We relaxed with glasses of sparkling Mionetto Proseco, our November wine club selection, while we reviewed the menu and very extensive Italian wine list. The list contains well over 100 selections, is fairly priced and is scattered with many of mine, and Robert Parker's, favorite Italian wines. This is a great wine list! A few excellent choices include the Anselmi Soave at $25 (Wine Advocate 88, $13 at GVC), the 1998 Zenato Rippasa $38 (Wine Advocate 90, $19 at GVC) and our choice the Allegrini La Grola 1999 at $44 (Wine Advocate 91, $20 at GVC).
It was delightful to find fresh tomatoes with Buffalo Mozzarella and authentic Bruschetta for starters. The menu was also filled with wonderful authentic Italian dishes, but we both succumbed to the evening's specials. Linda choose slow-cooked, marinated pork tenderloin that sliced with a fork and melted in your mouth. My rack of lamb had been crusted with pistachios, roasted to rare perfection and served with a slightly sweet reduction. The meats were served with excellent roasted garlic mashed potatoes and coarsely mashed carrots that were fabulous, but defied description until our server finally explained that the seasoning was tarragon. Both entrees paired well with the dense richness and soft texture of the Allegrini La Grola....so well that I am contemplating a label for the wine that says "Do Not Serve Without Roast Lamb." Unable to face dessert we opted to return to our balcony overlooking Park Avenue and savor some of the Luna Pinot Grigio we had found at "Vino" that afternoon and watch the world go by. Suffice to say that we can recommend Allegria highly. 115 East Lyman Avenue (407) 628-1641 Allegria
Park Plaza Gardens - The building beneath the Park Plaza Hotel contains Winter Park's finest restaurant, the Park Plaza Gardens. Very French in character, they have a small sidewalk cafe where they serve a very nice lunch. From the cafe you enter a long, narrow, darkly paneled, very clubby bar, that opens into a atrium that houses the restaurant. The dining room is a New Orleans style patio, with brick floors, live trees and tropical plants. The style is white table cloth, and very elegant but a new chef, Christophe Gerard, has really livened up the menu since our last visit. The traditional continental cuisine has been replaced with a lighter and more interesting selection of dishes without crossing all the way over to the kind of "erector set" cuisine you seem to find in the finer trendy restaurants. I appreciate it when my entree respects the space occupied by the accompaniments. and I don't have to remove the meat before scraping the mashed potatoes off my asparagus.
The wine list is adequately sized and contains the usual number of pretentious selections like Cakebread and Far Ninete, but also a number really excellent wines, all priced fairly. The find was the Guenoc Langtry Meritage 1997 at $69 (Wine Enthusiast 92, $44 at GVC), a great price on an incredible bottle of wine.
We began the meal by sharing a salad and an appetizer. First came a well made Caesar salad that contained just enough anchovies and large home made croutons in a fairly authentic dressing. (And, yes I know that the raw eggs are dangerous... but does anyone else miss table side Caesar salad?) The salad was followed by two crab cakes that had been pan fried and served with a spicy chipotle mayonnaise, very nice. In honor of the huge Langtry Meritage, red meat was in order. I went with the special, an 8 oz Filet served with a light Tarragon glaze that provided the flavors of a béarnaise without the weight. Linda opted for a Maytag blue cheese crusted Filet with a Cabernet reduction that certainly sounded like too many flavors in one place but tasted wonderful. Both dishes were served with garlic mashed potatoes and crisp asparagus. Both were perfectly prepared and as I mentioned before, respected the other food's space. We topped off the meal by sharing a slice of excellent homemade key lime pie. I don't think we could have found two better meals in Orlando than we enjoyed during our short stay in Winter Park. And, best of all we were able to walk to dinner both nights. 319 South Park Avenue (407) 645-2475 Park Plaza Gardens
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.
4. Linda and I are born tourists and have a penchant for seeking out off-beat destinations when we travel. We cannot guarantee your experience...we can only describe ours. So, if you ever to decide to take any of our suggestions, be sure to take along your sense of humor (or sense of adventure).
March 19, 2003