There’s more to Florida than Orlando...so why not head to Polk County for lake views and much more
You will drive past the theme parks of Orlando on your way to a thriving area of Florida that is gathering momentum as a tourist destination.
Until now, Polk County has only tended to get global attention when the US elections are in full flow and CNN’s John King is telling us about voting habits for those who live in central Florida.
Yet a visit to the fascinating Sunshine State needs to include a few days in a region that is emerging as a new powerhouse for tourists.
The recently opened Peppa Pig Theme Park and the vast Legoland complex positioned alongside it, are focal points for tourism in this area of Florida.
Rides and attractions cater to both children and adults if you spend long enough in Legoland, which is built on the site of the old Cypress Gardens theme park.
The on-site hotel is a joyous fantasy land for kids who love Lego, with even the most reluctant parents certain to be drawn into brick building if they stay long enough.
While it may seem as if that hub is the main area for tourism in Polk County, peel under the surface and you will find so much more. Top of the list should be a visit to Lex Salisbury’s remarkable Safari Wilderness.
Watching dolphins dance with footballs as impressively as Cristiano Ronaldo at Orland’s theme parks may be entertaining, yet this safari experience takes you into a world you would not expect to see in Florida.
As you bounce around a vast expanse of open wilderness in your open-top safari vehicle, llamas, ostriches, zebras and water buffalo are among the animals that can be found within the site.
If anything, the llamas and ostriches were a little too close for comfort at times, as they were eager to jump in our safari truck and join us for the ride.
“There is a good thing about having some animals in captivity as it means you are keeping some species alive that wouldn’t otherwise be here. And we are helping that at Safari Wilderness,” Lex told SundayWorld.com.
“There are so many species that would be extinct if it wasn’t for zoos, and while there are some issues about keeping animals in captivity, the set-up we have here is wonderful for the animals.
“We have 310 acres and this is about as natural as it can get. The animals are free to do whatever they want here and we are proud of how we look after them.”
Safari Wilderness is one of the many surprises in Polk County, with a visit to Bok Tower Gardens another must-see experience.
Here you will find vast expanses of ferns, palms, oaks and pines offering a lush backdrop for flowering foliage and the spectacular seasonal colour of azaleas, camellias and magnolias showcasing an ever-changing work of art.
At the centre of this tourist attraction is the 205ft singing Bok Tower, which plays music to visitors, adding to the entirely relaxing experience.
The city of Lakeland is a great spot to base yourself in for a trip to Polk County, with the stunning Terrace Hotel a treat to stay in. Recently renovated, this historic hotel overlooks Lake Mirror and the promenade and is positioned in the heart of a thriving community.
Just around the corner, you will find a central square packed with bars and restaurants, with the magnificent Nineteen61 offering a menu that would not look out of place in a restaurant of the year awards.
Harborside Restaurant is another impressive eatery, perched next to a vast lake and serving up all kinds of delights, including battered alligator bites.
A wonderful hidden gem of Lakeland is the welcoming Swan Brewing. Perched on the side of the road in what looks like a warehouse, this is a home brewing company that offers a menu of beers and ales that all need to be tasted.
The trouble is, some of them are a little stronger than you might expect and once you start, you might never stop. Throw in the sight of the endless stunning lakes that surround this county and the occasional sighting of an alligator, and it is clear that Polk County offers up a different slice of this state that certainly needs to be consumed.
POLK COUNTY, FLORIDA See visitcentralflorida.org
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