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Good eats and cheap retreats

img_2542If you are exploring central Florida’s Polk County, look beyond the usual chain restaurants and fast-food joints to discover some independently owned gems, several of which have been in the same family for generations. Mostly frequented by locals, all these eateries are less than an hour’s drive from Orlando.

Harry’s Old Place in Winter Haven is lively, low-key, unpretentious and affordable, with excellent fresh seafood.

img_22363I tried one of Harry’s signature dishes called Harry in the Bag, which is a succulent piece of pecan-coated grouper (shown left) cooked, as you might suspect, in a brown paper bag and served to me there by Harry himself. One caveat: the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, and it does get busy.

Harry’s Old Place
3751 Cypress Gardens Road, Winter Haven

img_2299img_23091A charming spot for lunch and a local institution since 1969 is The Barn, the Stable and the Backporch Tearoom. There you can browse through rooms filled with antiques and home decor items, visit the garden shop with its funky yard art, then enjoy a casual, picnic-basket-style lunch that consists of your choice of homemade soup, salad, sandwich and dessert–all for under $8. (Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 to 4 from October until the last Saturday in May.)

The Barn, the Stable and the Backporch Tearoom
I-4, Exit 48, three miles south on Hwy 557 in Lake Alfred
www.barnantiques.biz (click on Our History)

img_2470Finally, nestled on 140 acres and steeped in ambiance (it’s on the register of National Historic Places) is Chalet Suzanne, a spot voted one of the top ten most romantic in Florida. Since 1931, the Hinshaw family has been welcoming guests (and many celebrities). The decor alone is worth a visit, for the place is jam-packed with beautiful old lamps, antiques, fabulous decorative tiles and stained glass. These were collected from around the world by Bertha Hinshaw, who founded and developed the business after her husband, Carl, passed away at age 47, leaving her with two small children and the pressing need to earn a living. The award-winning restaurant comprises five dining rooms. There are also 30 guest rooms, a landing strip for airplanes and more, as well as a soup cannery, which was begun in 1956 by Carl Hinshaw Jr. in his garage. Chalet Suzanne now produces 13 gourmet soup varieties and three sauces. The soups have been served in many places, including the spacecraft Apollo 13 and two other Apollo flights. To commemorate this honour, their signature romaine soup has been renamed Moon Soup.

img_24882There is also pretty little garden filled with personalized tiles, including some made by celebrities and astronauts. For a fee, you can create your own tile to add to the walls.

Chalet Suzanne Restaurant and Country Inn
3800 Chalet Suzanne Drive, Lake Wales

Cheap retreats On the last morning of our stay, we were to view a vacation rental property. I have to say my first thought was: “Uh oh. Will this turn out to be one of those swamp-land-in-Florida-type sales pitches?” In fact, we were taken to a very pretty and quiet upscale residential neighbourhood, where we toured a fully-equipped, five-bedroom home with ensuite bathrooms, several family and games rooms (in addition to a large living and dining room), laundry facilities and a good-sized, enclosed private swimming pool and spa. This house sleeps 12, and the cost to rent it per night is $150!

img_2586I don’t know about you, but this seems like an incredible deal to me. Think of the possibilities for a family vacation in the Orlando area (Disney World, Sea World, etc.) or a reunion, or just a nice escape from winter with friends. You can even hire a cook, a concierge, etc. Anyway, there are something like 25,000 vacation homes available in the central Florida area that range in price from $100 to $400 per night. If you want to find out more, you can look on the website of The Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association at www.vacationwithconfidence.com.

Next: Searching for signs of spring

Citrus groves and grapefruit pie

img_23272Do you ever stop to wonder at the contradictions in nature? For example, why do orange blossoms smell so sweet when the fruit they produce tastes tart?

Citrus is big business in central Florida, so a visit to the groves was a component of our tour. We were shown how oranges are washed, dried, polished and waxed before being packed for shipment. I was surprised to learn 95 per cent of Florida’s harvested oranges are earmarked for juice. However, enterprising Floridians figured out a use for all that leftover pulp and peel–it goes into cattle feed. I guess Florida cows don’t suffer too much from colds and flu.img_23331

One of the many interesting stops we made was to the Citrus Research and Education Center of the University of Florida. It’s been around for about 90 years, with a citrus library that’s open to the public. In addition to an overview of projects being carried out by graduate students and other young scientists, Wendy Meyer (with magnifying glass, right), an entomologist and research biologist, told us about some of the pests that are plaguing crops. One of the most serious of these is the Asian citrus psyllid (Diaphorina citri), an aphid-like insect that is a vector for the Liberobacter asiaticum bacterium, which causes deadly greening disease that can kill a tree in just five years.img_23141

Since its initial discovery in Florida in 1998, the Asian citrus psyllid has spread throughout the state. Dr. Meyer reviewed various methods that are being used to monitor this pest, including putting out pheromone-laced yellow panel traps. Controls being tried include interplanting citrus with guava, which seems to act as a natural repellent. At present, there is no cure for this devastating disease. Greening could spell big trouble for the industry in the years ahead.

img_2409Next, we headed off for lunch to Lang Sun Country Groves in Lake Alfred, a family-run business since 1951. The massive Florida flame vine (Pyrostegia venusta) in front of the building dates from that time. Not only does Lang’s grow, pack, ship and sell oranges, grapefruits and other citrus varieties, but they also have the Taste of Florida Cafe, where they serve freshly squeezed juice, homemade soups, salads, sandwiches and especially, desserts. I sampled the signature grapefruit pie shown here (you can find the recipe on their website, below).img_2414

After lunch, we toured the packing facility out back, where fruit is sorted by size and packed by hand. It seemed a surprisingly small, low-tech operation for a company that ships citrus fruit far and wide. Lynn Miller, a second-generation member of the Lang family, proudly showed us a box of honeybell tangelos, a runaway Florida marketing success story. When I told him their shaped reminded me of the mineolas I bought at home, he grinned. It seems they are indeed the very same. The difference is they couldn’t give away mineolas in the U.S. until an enterprising grower changed their name to honeybells to reflect their bell-like form.img_2426


Next: Good eats and cheap retreats

Hollis Garden, Lakeland, Florida

Once the third largest city in Florida, Lakeland is a quiet, pretty place with three lakes within its downtown core. This is a college town, home to the University of Southern Florida and Florida Southern College, where the latter’s campus boasts a number of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. It’s also been the spring training camp of the Detroit Tigers baseball team for 70 years.

Known as the “city of swans,” Lakeland is also home to Hollis Garden, a formal, neoclassical-style beauty spot located on the shores of Lake Mirror and a very pleasant place to spend a few hours.

Established in just 2000, the garden has matured well and packs some 10,000 plants on its 1.2 acre grounds. There you will find Florida natives, as well as annuals, fruits, vegetables and herbs in some 16 garden rooms, along with water features, grottoes and more.

The garden has other, quirkier, charms. A number of offbeat sculptures keep the space from looking too prissy. And I was especially enchanted by the historical Trees of America section. There, pollarded to maintain a manageable size, are trees with a direct connection to their famous owners–some of them come from seedlings or the original trees found in their gardens. You can admire the Abe Lincoln overcup oak (Quercus lyrata), the Elvis Presley weeping willow, the George Washington tulip poplar and the Patrick Henry osage orange, to name just a few.

Seldom-encountered curiosities, such as this Buddha’s hand (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylus), above left, from China may also be seen. Yes, it’s a citrus and loaded with Vitamin C, but according to our guide Stacy Smith (shown in middle photo, above, with sugar cane) it must be cooked before it’s eaten. Another interesting plant is the popcorn cassia (Cassia didymobotrya), above right. Native to South America, it’s so named because it really does smell like buttered popcorn.

Once you’ve strolled around the garden, you might want to head over to the nearby Hotel Lakeland Terrace, which also overlooks Lake Mirror, for some refreshment. Originally built in 1924, the hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a member of Historic Hotels of America. Its impeccably restored interior, including the beautiful pecky cypress ceilings, makes it a fine spot for a relaxing drink or a full meal.

Some gardens need more space than a mere blog can give them. To explore central Florida’s historic Bok Tower Gardens, view Lorraine Flanigan’s slideshow.


Next: Citrus groves and more

Into the wild

Lying about 45 minutes or so equidistant from Tampa and Orlando airports, not far from well-known, man-made attractions such as Disney World, is the “other” Central Florida of Polk County–a place of pretty little towns, rolling hills, myriad lakes, orange groves, astonishing public gardens and mysterious natural habitats that are little known to the casual visitor. And that’s where we’re going on the next few posts of this blog.

Our comfortable hotel, the Holiday Inn Winter Haven, is the jumping-off point for our adventures. Although I’d be a liar if I didn’t tell you there’s the usual share of what our “Gardens and Groves” tour leader Georgia Turner dubbed “Generica” here–that endless permutation of suburban strip mall/big box store/motel-and-fast-food-joint that seems to be found most anywhere you land–it’s well worth looking beyond that to discover what’s special, such as the Circle B Bar Reserve located between Bartow, Lakeland and Winter Haven.

A long allee of live oaks, beautifully festooned with Spanish moss, line the road to the newly opened Polk’s Nature Discovery centre at the edge of the reserve, where we learn more about the area and pick up our two volunteer tour guides, Ray and Herman. Then off we go into the wild.

It’s hard to believe that prior to 2000, the Circle B Bar’s 1267 acres of marsh, cypress swamp and oak hammock were mostly a working cattle ranch. Since that time, wildlife and nature have been allowed to take over and it’s now a haven for some 172 species of birds and numerous plants, many of them unique to this part of the state. Neither the lake nor the land have been stocked in any way, and Herman and Ray explained that wildlife and plants came back on their own after just five years.

A breeze ruffles my hair and the spring sun feels warm on my back. I am in heaven. The silence is broken only by the cries of birds and the rush of their wings. Wild turkeys, bald eagles, palm warblers, moor hens, pie-billed grebes, coots and especially the famous rare white pelicans (seen at the top of the page) are just some of the species to be found around Hancock Lake.

A big green water snake and a couple of alligators glide by. (The big old fella seen here smiled obligingly for my camera–or maybe he was just sizing me up for a snack.)

Next: Hollis Garden

Seedy Saturdays heads-up

The days are getting longer, there’s new warmth in the sun and soon it’ll be time to start a few seeds indoors to get ready for the gardening season ahead (hooray). So before I embark on writing about my Florida trip (the first post will be online later today and I promise there won’t be even a whiff of winter), I wanted to give you a quick heads-up about Seedy Saturdays. These offer gardeners a chance to exchange or buy seeds–often heirloom or hard-to-find varieties. Even if you don’t have any seeds to swap this time, it’s perfectly fine to go along and see what’s what and a great way to connect with other plant-mad folks in your community.

A number of events are taking place tomorrow (February 28) with more to follow. To find information on what’s going on near you, contact your local garden club or the Master Gardeners group in your area, or log on to the Seeds of Diversity website at http://www.seeds.ca/ev/events.php

Too many cooks?

Days of being cosseted and pampered in Quebec (if I were a poodle, my name would be Fifi) came to an abrupt end at the luxurious Ripplecove Inn and Spa in the Eastern Townships. As we pulled up to the picture-postcard-pretty site, I felt I was arriving on the set of a charming and wholesome Hollywood movie, such as Father of the Bride. General manager Michel Vauclair showed us to our rooms–mine was #36, with a balcony, a pot-bellied stove and a stunning view of Lake Massawippi. (All the rooms in this much-vaunted and very romantic inn are unique, and you can look on their website to choose the room that best reflects your taste.) As beautiful as Ripplecove Inn is in winter, I’d love to come back in the summer to see its English gardens, which were tough to spot under the mountains of snow.

Once we’d freshened up and changed, we were invited down to the library for a glass of champagne. Then Mr. Vauclair led the way down to the dining room and lowered the boom: we had to work for our supper. Chef’s whites were passed out and donned, and the agenda was laid out. We were to eat dinner at a table specially set up for us in the kitchen, but first, we had to help the chef and his assistant by setting the table, announcing the various courses, serving the meal and bussing dirty plates.

In short, we had become waitresses. But luckily, only for each other.

Of course, my tongue is firmly in cheek as I write this, for it wasn’t an ordeal at all. It was all great informal fun, and involved minimal effort on our part. Sommelier Patrick Jackson joined Mr. Vauclair at our table, and we had a wonderful time sampling various delicious Quebec wines, as well as delectable food from a special menu fit for a rajah. Chef Maxime Theriault tempted our taste buds with locally cured smoked salmon, followed by medallions of rabbit in a port wine sauce with cipollini onions, and a beef filet so tender you really could cut it with a fork. This meat was enrobed in a very thin pastry crust with a side of celeriac puree and wild huckeberry. Dessert consisted of various takes on maple and all thoroughly delicious, somehow made even more so by the fact that we were eating it in the kitchen.

Afterwards, sommelier Jackson led us on a tour of his wine cellar, and showed off his most expensive bottle–a 1957 number that sells for $1000.

It was a memorable evening punctuated by much laughter, and the seven journalists who had started out on this getaway together as strangers had become friends. And so to bed, knowing the next day we would be leaving the Eastern Townships and Quebec and returning home. (www.ripplecove.com)

Next: fabulous gardens and more in surprising central Florida

Good-for-you spa-a-ah

Jocelyna Dubuc is a woman ahead of the curve. More than 30 years ago and long before it became fashionable, she began composting, practicing water and energy conservation, planting organic, pesticide-free gardens and observing many other eco-friendly practices at Spa Eastman. Located in the gorgeous Eastern Townships of Quebec, an easy drive from Montreal, this destination spa–dedicated to the pursuit of relaxation, fitness and a healthy lifestyle– was recently named “Best Affordable Spa” in the 6th annual Spa Finder.com readers’ choice awards.

Along with the six other journalists invited on our Girlfriend Getaway, I spent a tranquil 24 hours in this lovely place. There I enjoyed the delights of its 315 wooded acres, the wide array of delicious and wholesome food choices at mealtimes, locally sourced as much as possible (in the photo: rabbit and an array of veggies).

I love good food (um, perhaps just a tad too much), and can report there’s nothing miserly or holier-than-thou about the size of portions here. Organic wine is available as well.

At the spa, I was treated to lymphatic drainage as well as a demonstration of watsu underwater massage, which felt a bit like returning to the womb. (Guilty treat: I also plumped for a 1/2 hour numerology consultation–a first for me. And hey, my numbers are looking good!)

Several of us also went on a head-clearing anti-stress walk with Ms. Dubuc (she’s the one to my left in the white parka, above) and all of us attended two interesting symposia. The first was given by Edith Smeesters, a biologist who has been at the vanguard of the anti-pesticide movement in Quebec. The founder of Nature-Action Quebec and the Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (CAP), Ms. Smeesters led a workshop titled “One Step at a Time to Save the Planet,” a useful overview of the many simple ways we can all work together to make this a better and healthier world.

The second (and far less familiar to me as a topic) was aimed at helping people understand stress, emotions and health. Ilona Barbara Dowgiallo, who is on staff at Spa Eastman, earned a doctorate in physics and spent 15 years in a department of nuclear medicine specializing in cancer research before pursuing her interest in the role proper nutrition and the body’s energy circuits play in health. She has studied acupuncture and is a certified naturopath. What followed was an absorbing 1 1/2 hours, during which Dr. Dowgiallo outlined which emotions affect what parts of the body (for example, anger affects the liver and sadness affects the lungs, while anxiety affects the digestion and stomach), and put forward her support for natural healing by eating for your blood type, unblocking the body’s energy circuits, meditating, getting some sunshine daily to stimulate the pineal gland and using Bach Flower Remedies (devised in early 20th century England by Dr. Edward Bach) to help alleviate various problems.

Then again, as gardeners, we know all about the power of flowers, don’t we?

“Eat Right 4 Your Blood Type” by Dr. Peter d’Adamo (also: www.dadamo.com)
Info on Bach Flower Remedies: www.bachcentre.com/centre/remedies.htm
More info on emotions and organs: www.shen-nong.com/eng/principles/bodyorgans.html

Next: kitchen duty at a top notch resort-hotel

Romantic Quebec City

My brother Pete says, “sometimes, the best view of home is in the rearview mirror.” This is especially true in midwinter, when we flower-starved gardeners need a little gingering up to keep us going through the cold, dark months. What to do?

How about luxury, fine dining and fun in Quebec City, one of the most romantic in North America? Our journalists’ Girlfriend Getaway included plenty of both.

First up was champagne and schnibbies in the Princess Grace suite of the historic Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac hotel. This was followed by a special menu in their restaurant created just for our group, and accompanied by lovely wines. In the photo is my appetizer: lobster salad with milkweed, pan fried scallops, caviar cream and ginger. Yum, yum, yum. Yes, it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. (www.fairmont.com)

Our sleepover host was the Hilton, which has a handy location right on the edge of the old city. My comfortable, newly renovated room looked down on Bonhomme Carnaval’s ice palace, with the mighty St. Lawrence river in the distance. (www.hiltonquebec.com)

The city is beautiful–the old part has a very European flair and its centre is very walkable, and around every corner you see lovely architecture and interesting sights. For example, I spotted all kinds of ingenious mini-toboggans, some with little canvas igloos on top, on which well-wrapped-up babies were being pulled around the streets with ease (sure beats trying to push a pram through the snow).

One of the highlights was a visit to the observatory, which is the city’s tallest building, with panoramic, 360 degree views, as shown by the photo at the top of this post. (www.observatoirecapitale.org).

And there are plenty of lively dining establishments to try, some with entertainment. One of these is the Voodoo Grill, which not only has an eclectic menu I’d describe as mediterranean-indo-chino-fusion, but also African art and belly dancers–one of whom shimmied around with a crown of lit candles on her head. (www.voodoogrill.com)

As someone who can barely be trusted to safely carry a lighted candle from point A to point B, I found this pretty impressive.

Tomorrow: off to the Eastern Townships

The Ice Hotel and a Nordic spa

For someone who hates the cold as much as I do, the very idea of an ice hotel sent shivers of horror down my spine. But the reality was quite magical and airy, less an igloo than perhaps what the palace of the Snow Queen in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale might have looked like.

A mere 30-minute drive from Quebec City, the Ice Hotel is redesigned and rebuilt each winter, and it’s quite the project. Some 15,000 tons of snow and 500 tons of ice are used in its construction, and the process takes about a month. There are 36 rooms where you can stay, a chapel (where some 30 weddings are celebrated each year) and a bar. Fun place. This year, the Ice Hotel will be open until March 29. To find out more, visit www.icehotel-canada.com.

Across the way is the station touristique Duchesnay, not only a hub for many area activities, but also a place where you can enjoy good meals and deluxe recreational amenities. Accommodation is available in cabins and lodges and in the Auberge Duchesnay, with its view of Lac St. Joseph, and you can opt for a combined package with the Ice Hotel. www.sepaq.com/duchesnay.

Nearby you’ll find the Tyst TrädgÃ¥rd (which means quiet garden) Nordic spa. There, dressed in bathing suits and terrycloth robes, with sturdy Crocs on our feet and hats on our heads, the Girlfriend Getaway gang, amid shrieks of high hilarity, gingerly made our way across an expanse of snow and ice to a deliciously hot therapeutic pool. A few steps away was a cold pool, and the idea was to alternate between some minutes in the hot water and a quick, bracing dunk in the cold, to rev up the circulation.

No dice, sister. While some intrepid souls complied, I contented myself with wallowing in the warm, merely standing up once in awhile for good form. I did lean into a snowbank to see what it would feel like (verdict: incredibly cold, followed by a ferocious burning sensation when I immersed myself back into the hot water). Next we went into a dry sauna, with an optional walk through a lukewarm waterfall. I actually braved this, and it really was lovely. Mother would be very, very proud.

Finally, swaddled in thick, polar fleece blankets, we relaxed in hammocks by a warm wood stove. Bliss. Tyst Trädgård also offers services such as massages, facials and lymphatic drainage. www.tysttradgard.com

Tomorrow: romantic Quebec City

Family fun on the Plains of Abraham

Once the site of the eponymous 1759 battle between the French and the British, the Plains of Abraham are transformed during Quebec City’s Winter Carnival into a centre of family-friendly activities. A widely sold $10 pass will let you in on all the action, both there and at other Carnival venues.

The bolder among you might want to have a go at snow rafting and zip-lining. Good luck with that. Timid Tillie that I am, I confess I was content to simply walk around and take in various displays, such as the international ice sculpture competition, and observe people having fun. Other attractions that might tempt you (though not necessarily me) include snow slides, demonstrations of dog agility, a sugar shack, sleigh rides and various competitions such as tugs-of-war, giant soccer and skijoring, which teams cross-country skiiers with dogs.

Later that afternoon, my new pal Mary (one of the journalists on our girlfriend getaway) and I walked down into town and tried poutine at a fast food place called Chez Ashton. This was my first taste of Quebec’s famous comfort dish–french fries with gravy and cheese curds–and it was delicious (the cheese curds were so fresh, they squeaked). Okay, I know it’s not exactly health food, but it is mighty satisfying on a cold winter’s day (the restaurant is also famous for its winter promotion based on the outdoor temperature. It was -19 degrees Celsius, so we saved 19 per cent).

The 55th edition of the Quebec Winter Carnival ends this Sunday. Yet another great experience to cross off my “100 things to do before you die” list. Joyeux carnaval!
Tomorrow: The ice hotel and a nordic spa

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