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Winter Park: chic and cultured in central Florida

The contemporary boutique Alfond Inn in downtown Winter Parkand.

pamela wright for the boston globe

The contemporary boutique Alfond Inn in downtown Winter Parkand.

WINTER PARK, Fla. — What a difference a few miles make. This small town may be only a quick 15-minute jaunt from bustling, over-the-top Orlando, but it’s nearly another planet. Upscale and cultured, this early haven for wealthy Northerners seeking sunshine has oak-shaded parks, lakes, stately homes, brick-lined streets, museums, and gardens. Chic new shops and restaurants abound, and the refined Alfond Inn, a new boutique hotel, is already causing a buzz. This historic city is fast emerging as one of the hottest destinations in the Sunshine State, with plenty to see and do.

ELEGANCE AND ETHOS:  The 112-room Alfond Inn (300 East New England Ave., 407-998-8090, www.thealfondinn.com, $159-$269), located in historic downtown, is a contemporary oasis filled with modern art. Rooms have a sophisticated brown, blue, and green palette, and feature high-tech amenities (iPod docking stations, flat-screen TVs, complimentary Wi-Fi), lush linens, and modern baths. Public rooms, also decorated with peacock-inspired hues, include a library with two computer stations, a bar and lounge area, a sunlit conservatory with a stunning, one-of-a-kind stained glass window, an outdoor pool and terrace, and a courtyard with two open fireplaces. Hamilton’s Kitchen, the on-site restaurant, is winning kudos for its farm-to-table inspired food, and is a fine place to grab breakfast before heading out to explore the town. And, you can feel good about staying here; all proceeds after net profits go to a Rollins College scholarship fund.

Tthe hourlong Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour.

Pamela Wright for the Boston Globe

Tthe hourlong Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour.

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ON THE WATERFRONT: “Don’t stand up and take a picture,” Charlie, our boat driver and guide, quipped. We were puttering down narrow Fern Canal, ducking under low-hanging tree trunks, on our way to Lake Virginia. The one-hour Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour (312 East Morse Blvd., 407-644-4056, www.scenicboattours.com, adults $12, ages 2-11 $6) departs from the shores of Lake Oseola and includes three lakes and two canals. You see the city’s most opulent homes, the historic buildings and tidy grounds of the college, centuries-old trees, and hundreds of roosting water birds.

After the tour, visit nearby Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens (633 Osceola Ave., 407-647-6294, www.polasek.org, adults $5, 12 through college $3), with over 200 works by the famous Czech-born American sculptor (1879-1965). The museum also offers guided tours of the Polasek residence and chapel, and the three-acre, waterfront sculpture garden with more than 50 sculptures and hundreds of plants, some of which were originally placed by Polasek and his family.

Chic new shops and restaurants line Park Avenue in historic downtown Winter Park.

Pamela Wright for the Boston Globe

Chic new shops and restaurants line Park Avenue in historic downtown Winter Park.

PARK AVENUE SHOPPING:  The historic downtown street, bordered by Central Park, is lined with more than 100 shops and specialty stores. Browse several high-end boutiques, including Charyli (400 South Park Ave., 407-455-1983, www.charylistores.com) featuring brands from top Los Angeles-based designers, and Sultre (290 North Park Ave., 407-699-9696, www.sultre.com), known for carrying fashions from talented, emerging designers. Bebe’s Baby Boutique (311 South Park Ave., 407-628-1680, www.bebesandlizs.com) has top designer clothes for children, and next door, Liz’s — same owner — offers trendy women’s clothing. Check out Penzeys Spices (102 North Park Ave., 407-788-7777, www.penzeys.com), with a selection of nearly 200 spices and rubs, and Spice & Tea Exchange of Winter Park (309 North Park Ave., 407-647-7423, www.spiceandtea.com), with more than 70 custom spice blends, gourmet teas, organic sugars, and exotic salts from around the world.

MUSEUM HOPPING:  The award-winning Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (445 North Park Ave., 407-645-5311, www.morsemuseum.org, adults $5, students $1, under 12 free) boasts the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including jewels, pottery, paintings, glass, windows, and lamps. Many of the stunning interiors from the chapel Tiffany created for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago are displayed, including the leaded-glass windows and mosaic altar. Also on display are more than 200 objects from Tiffany’s Long Island country estate.

It’s a short drive to Cornell Fine Arts Museum (1000 Holt Ave., 407-646-2526, www.rollins.edu/cfam, free), located at Rollins. The museum overlooks pretty Virginia Lake and is considered to have one of the most diverse and respected collections in the state, with more than 5,000 works of art spanning ancient times to present day, including works by Bierstadt, Matisse, and Picasso.

BEST EATS:  Even Saveur magazine has taken notice of Winter Park’s hot culinary scene, spotlighting seven of its local restaurants in a recent feature. Cask and Larder (565 West Fairbanks Ave., 407-321-280-4200, www.caskandlarder.com, brunch $10-$18, dinner $12-
$28) is the newest venture for James Beard-nominated chefs James and Julie Petrakis. Start with a cold glass of in-house-brewed Fickle Pickle, a dill-spiked wheat ale, or the spicy Bloody Larry made with pepper-infused vodka, and then order the fat ribeye hot dog smothered with smoked sauerkraut, the signature shrimp and grits, or the tender veal brisket.

For lunch, sit outdoors at Orchid (305 North Park Ave., 407-331-1400, www.orchidthaiwinterpark.com, entrees $14-
$28) to share an order of summer rolls or steamed dumplings, followed by Bangkok salmon with a house basil sauce, pungent Panaeng curry, or traditional Pad Thai.

Save one night for dinner at Luma on Park (290 South Park Ave., 407-599-4111, www.lumaonpark.com, entrees $12-$39), a regional forerunner in local, sustainable cuisine. There are tasty main dishes, like the Madeira Beach red snapper and 48-hour short ribs, but we prefer to order a selection of small plates that show off chef Brandon McGlamery’s talent, such as the memorable potato gnocchi with braised lamb and chestnut cappelletti, with cabbage, a Jerusalem artichoke broth, and shaved black truffle. And there is an extensive wine list.

Don’t leave town without tasting some of the best barbecue in Florida at 4Rivers Smokehouse (1600 West Fairbanks Ave., 407-474-8377, www.4rsmokehouse.com, $6.99-$21.99). There’s pulled pork and beef brisket, smoky, stacked sandwiches, and tender beef and pork ribs, and lots of sides. We love the barbecued baked beans, fried okra, and smoked jalapenos wrapped in bacon.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.
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