Rather than being grumpy all day at a crowded Florida theme park, invite everyone you love to Bok Tower Gardens. Then if they decline, you don’t have to feel guilty about the wonderful day you’re going to have, or sad about the crowds and noise they’ll have. I loved everything about this National Historic Landmark in Lake Wales, about an hour drive south of Kissimmee on Hwy. 27 (which has no tolls). The quiet of the woodlands, the beauty of the gardens, the birds in the wetlands, but most of all I loved the music.
Bok Tower Gardens
The Bok Tower Gardens experience begins as you approach the front entry gate, which provides a key-hole frame for viewing the protected inner garden.
I appreciated the many high-quality printed materials provided to identify every aspect of the Bok Tower Gardens. As we left the Visitors Center, before entering the River of Stone, a table holds glass vases of fresh blossoms of what is currently blooming in the gardens, all labeled. In addition, we were able to take with us a printed directory with names and photographs. For example, in February 18 kinds of Azaleas were blooming, 7 kinds of camellias, plus gardenias, magnolias, and a profusion of exotic plants and flowering shrubs.
The gardens are designed to preserve aspects of Florida’s varied eco-systems. Beyond the Visitor Center you’ll find a pollinator garden, an endangered ecosystem, a wild garden, a wetland with pond, bog, and boardwalk, and an endangered plant garden. For family enjoyment there is an outdoor kitchen garden and a children’s garden.
Route maps are available, as well as “A Guide to Birds Check List.” While we rested quietly in the blind watching the birds come and go, a group of “birders” excitedly identified an Eastern Towhee and checked it off their list. I’d need a bird-identification book in full color to do that!
Pinewood Estate on the far west edge of the gardens was built later, after the carillon tower, and by a different family. Bok Tower Gardens acquired it in 1970 as a valuable addition to the site. Mediterranean in style, the house employs beautiful tiles from Cuba and elegant carved wood. Every room is designed to open to an arresting view of the out-of-doors. The Foundation supplies visitors with informative pamphlets containing beautiful color photographs.
The famous Bok Tower Carillon was my initial reason for wanting to visit Bok Tower Gardens. “Tower,” of course, refers to the 205 foot structure that holds the 60-bell carillon. The architecture embodies a pleasing combination of Art Deco and Neo-Gothic elements. Built in 1930, the Foundation charged with the support of the grounds and tower have done a stunning job of keeping the exterior clean and beautiful for 88 years.
The bells play for a few minutes on the hour and half-hour strike from 9 AM until 5:30 PM, (the park closes at 6). But at 1 and 3 PM, outstanding carillonneurs play a live half-hour concert. Both the Resident and the Guest Carillonneurs are native Belgians with phenomenal technical facility and musical artistry. This carillon is the most beautiful I’ve heard, with subtly calibrated overtones.
The big black box in the photo above gives a closed-circuit real-time view of the carillonneur at his art. The playing mechanism resembles a rough-hewn organ. If you’ve never watched a musician strike the keyboard-like hammers with fists and sound the bass bells with feet on the pedals, you’ve missed an athletic event.
I was so enamored with the entire musical experience that I wanted to thank Jan Verheyen who played the week I visited. Physically, he’s the kind of man who would have a hard time floating in a swimming pool–all wiry muscle from continually pounding his instrument, I suppose. Have to admire his remarkable pairing of athletic and artistic skills.
Walking back to the Visitor Center through the gardens, I felt just a little melancholy. This is a place I would like to visit again and again. Yet I live more than a thousand miles away.