If 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.
I 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
A 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)
Finally, 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.
There 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!
I 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