When I was a kid and went on the driving vacations that were de rigeur every summer for boomers growing up in the sixties, I was always a sucker for any man made attraction that put up enough billboards to convince me they had something to offer - Storybook Village, Santa's Village, The Mystery Spot, you name it. I and my siblings would nag my parents until they gave in and inevitably the visit would be anti-climactic and could never live up to the expectations created by the advertisements. By the time I became a parent the fantasy marketers had upped their game to the point that any parent who didn't take their kids to Disney World or Universal Studios would be considered unAmerican or in my case unCanadian. God forbid anyone suggest going to visit something manmade that was not meant to terrify, titillate or stupify."Visit a garden? Are you nuts Dad?"
Well the kids are grown up and gone and over the past decade or so I began taking the time to visit some of great gardens and natural wonders of the world. So, a couple of weeks ago when crossing central Florida from east to west coast I just happened to be in Lake Wales and saw a sign for Bok Tower Gardens. I'd heard of Bok Tower, but never really put much thought into visiting it. This seemed like a serendipitous moment so we decided to visit.
The first thing the visitor to the Lake Wales area will notice is that there are hills - yes, real hills. Apparently when the rest of Florida was covered by ocean the Lake Wales area was an island and the highest point was Iron Mountain which rises to the amazing (by Floridian standards) height of 298 feet. Not surprisingly this was a popular spot for visitors to view the panorama of the surrounding countryside. In the 1920's Edward W. Bok, a classic rags to riches story worth of Horatio Alger, decided to buy the property and create a wildlife sanctuary and build, what else? - a gigantic tower with a carillon in it. Just what every mountaintop needs.Bok's intentions were philanthropic as he wanted the property to be open to the public, except for interior of the tower. That was to be for his enjoyment only.
The cost of admission is $12 which might seem a bit steep, but it's definitely worth it as you can easily spend a couple of hours here. Driving up the road from the ticket office you do get glimpses of a giant erection (pun intended). From the parking lot you have a choice of going straight to the tower or ambling about in the gardens before visiting the tower, but you should definitely spend some time at the visitor centre first. Here the geology and history of the Lake Wales area is explained as well as the story of Edward Bok and how he came to build this place. Also there is a very lifelike alligator that might scare you if you come upon it by surprise.
We chose to visit the gardens before the tower and spent a delightful hour following the many pine straw paths throughout the gardens to various specialty gardens including an endangered plant garden, the reflecting pool where images of the tower are reflected as expected, the window by the pond which is exactly what the name implies and the lovely gardens at Pinewood, the Bok home. It was not open the day we visited as it was being decorated for the holidays, but we could see from looking in the windows that it was going to look great for the next six weeks. Pinewood itself is quite modest by Gilded Age home standards and fits very well into the landscape without overpowering it. A funny incident occured just outside the window on the pond. A grey squirrel came up to us and stood as if he was posing for a picture, which I duly took. As soon as he heard the shutter snap he rushed over to stand under a bird feeder above our heads that we hadn't noticed. He clearly wanted us to tip the feeder so he could get some of the goodies he otherwise couldn't get at. One smart squirrel.
The time of year we visited was not prime bloom season which is the spring. We overheard one surly curmudgeon mutter that "I've seen better gardens in people's backyards." Trust me - not so. The many varieties of camellias in bloom was worth the price of admission alone, particularly the stunning tri-coloured variety Yesterday,Today and Tomorrow.
Coming at last to the tower, you realize just how huge it is and how beautiful. It is a unique architectural design leaning towards art deco with many notable features including the various Florida motif sculptures by the same artist who did the Atlas statute in Rockefeller Center. You will recognize the similarities in style. The parapet statues of eagles with folded wings are striking. While the many styles that are used in Bok Tower might have created an architectural mishmash, in this case they don't. This building really works as a piece of notable architecture. Circling the tower you come to the brass entry door which is reminiscent of the remarkable Florentine baptistry doors by Ghiberti. The resemblence is intentional as the Bok Tower door is adorned with scenes from the Bible. It is very unfortunate that you cannot get close enough to examine the doors in detail, as the entire entry way is roped off. Mr. Bok's grave is just in front of the door. Entry to the tower is permitted only a few times a year to members of the society that maintains the property. So if you think you are going to get to see the same view that Edward Bok got, you are forewarned.
Lastly, there are the bells or the carillon as it is properly called. The carillon plays a song every half an hour and if you visit in the afternoon you can hear concerts at 1:00 and 3:00. There is no doubt that the ringing of the bells adds a magic touch to the place, especially if you are just walking though the gardens and suddenly the carillon begins. It made me glad that I finally got to visit this wonderful attraction.
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