You’re in gator country: Florida’s ‘lake district’ offers a taste of the real Sunshine State – but be careful where you dip your toes…
- Tom Chesshyre visits Polk County’s ‘lake district’, with its 550 or so lakes
- ‘It’s a mere 30 miles south of Orlando, but this is the real Florida,’ he writes
- READ MORE: Coolest neighbourhoods in the world for 2023 named by Time Out
Don’t go swimming in Florida’s ‘lake district’ – although the alligators floating past the jetty at the Harborside restaurant on Lake Shipp would be delighted if you did.
The warning sign by the jetty also advises: ‘DO NOT FEED THE GATORS.’ But here, at Harborside, it’s the other way round. Sitting on the terrace, it’s not long before we’re tucking into plates of the scary creatures.
Its menu offers alligator served two ways: as gator bites – breaded and fried tail served with a creole remoulade – or kung pao gator – sauteed with red cabbage, pineapple salsa and rice. The bites, I can report, are tasty little snacks, with a texture that’s a cross between chicken and octopus that goes perfect with a bottle of Bud.
Few tourists visit the 550 or so lakes that make up this district, found within Polk County. It’s a mere 30 miles south of Orlando, but this is the real Florida, away from holidaymaker hordes flocking to theme parks.
It’s a world of pick-up trucks, old-fashioned diners, ‘guns & ammo’ shops and rodeos.
Tom Chesshyre explores the ‘lake district’ in Florida’s Polk County. ‘Few tourists visit the 550 or so lakes that make up this district,’ he writes
Just about every other house has the Stars and Stripes fluttering outside. Billboards feature messages of the ‘LIFE IS AN ACT OF GOD’ and ‘JESUS SAVES’ variety. All of which is quite a departure from the rollercoasters and Disney characters not so far away to the north, and it sheds light on a side of the Sunshine State that not many get to see.
‘This is out in the boonies here,’ says one local – a shortening of the American slang word ‘boondocks’ that refers to an out-of-the-way rural setting.
We arrive at the farm shop of Ridge Island Groves, where baskets are overflowing with oranges, peaches and melons, and visitors can order freshly squeezed drinks. Wooden shelves are stacked with great jars of orange-blossom honey and cherry jam. Bottles of gator hammock chilli sauce are available, as are mounted alligator heads with jaws propped opened and shiny rows of teeth on display.
Inviting danger: Tom recalls seeing alligators ‘floating past the jetty’ at the Harborside restaurant on Lake Shipp (file image)
Tom reveals that Harborside, pictured, serves alligator two ways: as gator bites or kung pao gator. ‘The bites, I can report, are tasty little snacks,’ he says
Snappy: Above is one of the signs warning of alligators in Polk County
This type of independent business is par for the course around the Polk County lakes, especially in the city of Lakeland, where the place to stay is the central Terrace Hotel.
It faces Lake Mirror and is close to the railway station. Around the corner are little bars and restaurants frequented by locals, dusty antique emporiums, bookshops, vinyl record retailers and burger joints with pool tables.
Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille, on the edge of Munn Park, is almost always busy with clientele in baseball caps swapping stories and tucking into draught beers and shrimp tacos.
Baseball games flicker on screens, music plays and the good times roll. A neighbour, on hearing us talking about eating alligator, says: ‘There’s a shortage of the meat. Suppliers for Gucci and Louis Vuitton bought some of the local farms and the tails are used for handbags.’
Lakeland is the most populated place in Polk County, which is about 50 miles across as well as top to bottom, with 115,000 residents. Many are students or employed at Florida Southern College, which to our surprise turns out to be the biggest attraction in town.
You might not expect a university campus to be a tourist sight, but much of this one was designed by the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s the biggest collection of his work and there’s a visitor centre with his statue wearing a broad-rimmed hat and clutching a stick.
Outside Lakeland, just to the north, a great day trip is to be had at Safari Wilderness Ranch, with its ostriches, antelopes and lemurs. Another interesting stop-off is near the city of Lake Wales at the Bok Tower Gardens. This extraordinary structure was built in the 1920s by an eccentric Dutch immigrant and ‘world peace advocate’ named Edward Bok. At regular intervals, bells inside the peculiar tower play jolly tunes.
Lakeland (above) is the most populated place in Polk County, which is about 50 miles across as well as top to bottom, with 115,000 residents
Above is Florida Southern College in Lakeland, which was designed by the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright
Polk County does have a theme park: a Legoland beside Lake Eloise. Yet it’s very different from the one in Windsor.
This is on the former site of Cypress Gardens, which was Florida’s first theme park, back in the 1930s, where water-skiing shows were once the big draw. There are still demonstrations on this crocodile-free lake, as well as rides to enjoy and beautiful old gardens to explore.
It all makes for a new take on Florida. Just watch out for gators.
Heathrow to Orlando return flights cost from £480 (virginatlantic.com). Doubles at the Terrace Hotel in Lakeland from £136 (hilton.com). Further information: visitcentralflorida.org.
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