My mind is filled with fond memories of the family vacations of my childhood; the attractions we visited, the diners where we ate, the excitement of new towns and landscapes that came and went. On these trips I always felt I was in the best place ever because I was somewhere else.
Those early travels became an essential part of who I am… but would our kids, Danny, 9, and Crissy, 7, share the same sense of discovery that first captivated me? Family travel had been postponed by the pandemic, but after launching a few successful day trips from our home in Tallahassee we were ready to travel beyond the horizon.
We were heading to a destination I recalled from my past.
Lakeland/Winter Haven, FL
Leaving early on Thursday, the four-hour drive along remote two-lane highways through Florida’s Big Bend led to a land sprinkled with pristine lakes and views triggering the first of many treasured memories. Not only was this one of America’s finest regions for freshwater fishing (there are 550 named lakes in the area) it was on Lake Howard that dad helped me catch my first fish. And it was on Lake Eloise that I recall watching the dazzling shows of Cypress Gardens’ athletic skiers. It was this classic attractions’ breakthroughs in speedboats and ski equipment that helped make this the waterski capital of the world– a title Winter Haven retains to this day.
Although Cypress Gardens is gone, the world-class LEGOLAND Florida Resort is in its place. Also new since my teens are many of Polk County’s 40 golf courses, three of which are ranked among Florida’s Top Ten by Golf Week magazine. For now, fishing, golfing, and skiing would have to wait because our first afternoon was meant for us as a family.
In Auburndale we checked in for the first of three nights at Camp Margaritaville RV Resort and Cabins, a sparkling clean 66-acre resort with 183 RV sites and eleven Super Premium RV sites. We discovered the 60 cabana cabins are completely-equipped modern units with a spacious living room, a king bed for us, a queen-size pullout for the kids, free WiFi, and a full kitchen. After heading out to discover the resort, it happens we were about to re-discover each other.
As we challenged each other to miniature golf, spent time in the arcade, aimed for accuracy on the cornhole boards, and climbed into an octagonal ring for a round of gaga ball (new to me, Danny was a pro), our laughter grew. Afterward, we told the kids they’d been so good we were giving them bonus time to splash in the pool and ride the curving water slide (in reality, this was an excuse – Nancy and I needed a rest.)
That night we joined others for an old-fashioned, outdoor dinner at the community fire pit; it was an ideal finale to a perfect day that ended with all of us sleeping like logs. It turns out we’d need every ounce of energy for the days ahead.
Bells, Boats, and Floats
Friday morning began with a beyond satisfying breakfast at Winter Haven’s Egg Haven. Knowing we’d snack at lunch in order to indulge ourselves with a big dinner, we filled up on pancakes, omelettes, biscuits and gravy, eggs benedict and then added a few cinnamon rolls to go. Spotting nearby Haven Coffee Roasters, I checked online and saw their craft-roasted coffees are from farms all over the globe. We dropped in for a few cups of medium roast Colombia huila el tiple since it’s a scientific fact that cinnamon rolls go better with coffee. We were well-rested, well-fed, and ready to go.
The sky was clear and weather brisk when we boarded the Living Water Boat Cruise Tour where those memories flooded back again. Lake Shipp is a major link in a chain of 18 lakes connected via picturesque canals, and on the journey the greatest discovery wasn’t only the blue herons, pelicans, anhingas, white ibis, and osprey we saw. It was watching the expressions of our kids who were fascinated by the natural wildlife around them.
Afterward we found a quiet area on the shore where we enjoyed a picnic snack and watched people on the sun-sparkled waters in canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards. I wanted that experience for my own family. Sneaking away, I quickly found an outfitter online who could help me out. Within an hour we were on our family’s first-ever kayak excursion.
For me, the day’s top destination was Bok Tower Gardens because it was here dad once taught me an important life lesson. He shared the story of Norwegian immigrant Edward Bok who came to America in 1869 and later made his fortune as an editor and author. Dad explained that Bok lived by the adage “Wherever your lives may be cast, make the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” Edward Bok did exactly that by constructing a fantasy-like bell tower on the highest summit in Lake Wales. As we explored the surrounding botanical gardens we could hear the afternoon’s carillon recital flowing through the flowers and down the hills. Crissy was so enchanted by the dreamlike setting that we couldn’t leave until she had visited the children’s garden, Hammock Hollow.
It was only fitting to finish this very full day by filling up and, naturally, it was a place I’d visited as a kid. Andy’s Igloo and Drive-In has been here since 1951 so it felt right to fall back in time as my own family – our family – sat together, laughing as we enjoyed the old school diner with a menu that featured roast beef, open-faced turkey, seafood baskets, hot dogs, and hot soups. We settled on an old-fashioned dinner of cheeseburgers, fries, onion rings, and a dessert of floats and hand-dipped milkshakes.
Back at Camp Margaritaville, we fell into our beds before falling into one of the most restful sleeps ever.
Saturday, in the Parks
Saturday morning found us anxious to experience something new, and that included a run to Lakeland’s Born and Bread Bakehouse to sample some of their specialty muffins and scones and pick up a few loaves of their “slow dough” hand-crafted breads and cakes to take back for friends.
Friday revealed the kids loved wildlife, which led us to the Safari Wilderness Ranch, a 260 acre preserve where we took a guided tour to see zebras, ostriches, llamas, camel, and waterbuck. One noticeable difference here is that unlike themed attractions, there are no lines, crowds, or scripted presentations. It all unfolds naturally and at a casual pace that matched the setting.
With time to spare we stopped at Lakeland’s Hollis Garden in the city’s Lake Mirror Promenade, where thousands of flowers are featured in a beautifully manicured and maintained botanical display garden. Crissy adored the colorful, patterned flower beds and ornamental fountains which she told us was a fairyland. After taking a closer look at the flowers and neo-classical architecture, we agreed. (Should you receive one of our family Christmas cards, you’ll know where we took the picture.)
Our last stop was linked to my passion for aviation history. The Florida Air Museum sparked my imagination by sharing the stories of early pioneers who pushed the envelope in aviation. It also showcases early air racers that look like they’re in full flight even when sitting on display. There’s something special about these flyers and their aircraft that captured Danny’s imagination as well. I could see that adventure intrigued him.
That night we’d celebrate by going whole hog (no pun intended) at Peebles Barbeque, an Auburndale legend that’s been serving platters of ribs, chopped pork, sausage, chopped chicken, and beef sandwiches since 1947. Add to this baked beans, cole slaw, collard greens and, for dessert, banana pudding.
There’s no plate like home cooking.
It’s a Wrap
Sunday morning began with a quandary: Leave early and be home by noon, or stretch out our vacation’s last hours as far as we could? We took a vote.
Stretching won by a landslide.
We put the plan into motion by starting with breakfast sandwiches and omelettes at Lakeland’s La Imperial Bakery, a family-owned scratch bakery and kitchen where we made another important decision: We’d turn over the day’s decisions to the kids. While that explains how we arrived at the Polk Museum of Art, it’s hard to explain how fascinating it was. The varied collections of well-known modern and contemporary art to local student showcases was appreciated by the whole family.
By mid-afternoon we were heading home. When the kids began to recap the past three days with amazing clarity, Nancy and I realized they actually shared our sense of discovery. That was it. Within minutes, Nancy was on the phone to book our summer vacation: A full week at the Westgate River Ranch Resort with days set aside for Legoland, fishing, and golf.
I discovered that I’d been missing us traveling together, as a family.
What we discovered is a destination that would become our family’s favorite getaway.