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Lots to love about Florida’s winters

The Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park, Fla., overlooks Lake Osceola. ELLEN ALBANESE FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/Globe Freelance

Oh, how we New Englanders love winter in Florida! There are, in fact, four winters in Florida, each with its own personality. Winter Garden, in addition to being a gateway to Disney World, has a charming downtown historic district. Winter Haven, home of the world’s largest Legoland, is also known as the “chain of lakes” city because of its 50 lakes. Winter Park is a European-style enclave, with scenic boat tours through the canals and great museums. Winter Springs is an agricultural community with pick-your-own citrus and strawberries. Here’s a look at each one to help you choose your favorite way to winter in Florida.

The vintage lobby of the 1927 Edgewater Hotel. Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe



On Lake Apopka in central Florida, about 30 minutes from Orlando, Winter Garden is a pretty, walkable town that celebrates the area’s citrus industry heyday. The Orange Belt Railway came through in 1886, and when farmers built a train depot in 1893, they named the stop “Winter Garden” because of the year-round growing season. Even today orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see on the outskirts of town.

The downtown district, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, includes two museums, a 1935 Mediterranean Revival-style theater, and the handsomely restored Edgewater Hotel, opened in 1927 to accommodate fishermen drawn by Lake Apopka’s reputation for largemouth bass. It’s also a stop on the West Orange Trail system, built on the old rail bed, which offers biking, walking, hiking, and equestrian trails. You can download a 40-minute audio tour of the town from the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation site (www.wghf.org/tours).

At the Heritage Museum (1 North Main St., 407-656-5544, www.wghf.org/wg) start with a video about the history of the citrus industry, then check out the tools, crates, labels, and other artifacts. Train buffs will enjoy the Central Florida Railroad Museum (101 South Boyd St., 407-656-0559, www.wghf.org/wg) with its collection of oil-burning hand lanterns, signs, badges, caps, ticket booths, tools, telegraph equipment, and china and silver from the Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific railroads.


Enjoy sandwiches and pastries at Sweet Traditions Cafe Bakery (126 West Plant St., 407-656-6338). The Edgewater Hotel (99 West Plant St., 407-654-6921, www.historicedgewater.com) now a bed-and-breakfast inn, is well worth a stop, and there are several appealing restaurants off its turn-of-the-century lobby. The Chef’s Table offers an upscale, prix-fixe menu by reservation only; the Tasting Room offers small plates in a more casual atmosphere. Catch a play, a concert, or perhaps a classic movie at the Garden Theatre (160 West Plant St., 407-877-4736, www.gardentheatre.org), where tiny fiber-optic lights in the ceiling create the effect of starlight.


Some 50 lakes either touch or are located within the city of Winter Haven, covering 5,200 acres. Twenty-four of the lakes are connected by a system of navigable canals known as “the Chain of Lakes.” Wildleigh Ecotours (717 6th St. SW, 863-412-7100, www.wildleigh.com) offers two-hour sunset cruises through the southern chain of lakes, where you may spot a variety of birds as well as alligators. If stand-up paddleboarding is more your style, Paddleboard Winter Haven (640 West Lake Summit Drive, 863-289-9502, www.paddleboardwinterhaven.com) offers rentals, lessons, and tours.

On the shore of Lake Eloise, LEGOLAND Florida (1 Legoland Way, 6000 Cypress Gardens Boulevard, 877-350-5346, florida.legoland.com) is the largest LEGOLAND Park in the world, with 150 acres, 50 rides, a botanical garden, a water park, and more than 58 million LEGO bricks. Recent expansions have created Duplo Valley, with toddler-size trains, tractors, and water play elements, and the World of Chima, where families board watercraft and battle with water cannons to reclaim the mystical energy source, chi. A LEGOLAND hotel is slated to open on the site this summer.


LEGOLAND’s Duplo Valley is geared to toddlers. Chip Litherland/Legoland/Legoland

The historical but sleepy downtown has several antiques stores, restaurants, and shops. We were impressed by the selection of cheeses in The Cheese Room (254 West Central Ave., 863-299-7000, www.thecheeseroomwh.com) — more than 50! — and also liked the slate boards made by New York’s Brooklyn Slate Co. Enjoy sandwiches, salads, baked goods, and coffee indoors or out at Richard’s (330 Avenue A NW, 863-291-3082, www.richardsfinecoffees.com), next to the striking, Mediterranean-style city library.


A suburb of Orlando, Winter Park has a distinctly European feel. Restaurants and shops line a wide, treed main street, and there’s lots of outdoor dining under flower-filled hanging baskets. A system of canals links the city’s lakes, and boat tours pass lush gardens and grand homes. Museums and cultural centers celebrate art and the city’s African-American heritage.

Keep your hands inside the boat on the Scenic Boat Tour (east end of Morse Boulevard, 407-644-4056, www.scenicboattours.com). At times on this 12-mile cruise through the Winter Park chain of lakes the boat is just inches from the canal’s edge. Four narrow canals, overhung by oaks dripping Spanish moss, connect five lakes, ringed with trophy homes. Lake Osceola, our captain said, was “old money,” while Lake Maitland was for the nouveau riche.


The city’s premier museum is the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (445 North Park Ave., 407-645-5311, www.morsemuseum.org), noted for its extensive collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany; his chapel interior from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago alone is worth the trip. Also worth a stop are the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens (633 Osceola Ave., 407-647-6294, www.polasek.org) — to get a sense of this Czech-American sculptor’s talent, check out the detailed wood nativity he carved as a teenager — and the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College (1000 Holt Ave., 407-646-2526, www.rollins.edu/cornell-fine-arts-museum), with its eclectic collection of American and European art.

Just west of downtown, the Hannibal Square Heritage Center (642 West New England Ave., 407-539-2680, www.hannibalsquareheritagecenter.org) celebrates the city’s African-American community, most of whom came to Winter Park in service to the wealthy Northerners who flocked to the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The center’s permanent exhibit is a wonderful collection of photographs and oral histories of residents that brings the area’s history to life. Visiting exhibits change every three months and usually feature folk art.

The only hotel on Park Avenue, the Park Plaza Hotel (307 South Park Ave., 407-647-1072, www.parkplazahotel.com) has an Old World lobby with oversized leather furniture, leaded glass lamps, and lots of plants. Balcony suites overlook the avenue.


The choice of restaurants is mind-boggling. There’s always a crowd at lunchtime at 310 Park South (310 South Park Ave., 407-647-7277, www.310parksouth.net), which describes its fresh salads, sandwiches, and entrees as “new American” cuisine. At Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine (108 South Park Ave., 407-644-8609, www.bosphorousrestaurant.com), the house specialty is pleasantly spicy Chicken Adana, chopped chicken seasoned with garlic, peppers, and parsley and grilled. For a special occasion, make dinner reservations at Luma (290 South Park Ave., 407-599-4111, www.lumaonpark.com), a farm-and-sea-to-table restaurant. Barbecue fans rave about 4Rivers Smokehouse (1600 West Fairbanks Ave., 407-474-8377, www.4rsmokehouse.com), the flagship that launched eight Florida locations.

Soggy Acres Pomelo Grove.Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance


We picked our first pomelo in Winter Springs. These bowling-ball-size fruits, which can weigh up to 6 pounds, are similar to grapefruit, with thicker skins and, we thought, a sweeter taste. At Soggy Acres Pomelo Grove (100 Tuskawilla Road, 407-443-3808), pink and white varieties are available, typically from mid-November through mid-January. Pick first, then drop your money in the honor box on the way out. If you love fresh-picked strawberries, grab a tray and head to the fields at Pappy’s Patch U-Pick Strawberries in neighboring Oviedo (700 Florida Ave., 407-366-8512), where you’ll pay by the pound. Should you encounter a cool day, hang out with the butterflies at Lukas Nursery Butterfly Encounter (1909 Slavia Road, Oviedo, 407-365-6163, www.lukasnursery.com), an indoor butterfly garden where it’s always tropical.

The 23-mile Cross Seminole Trail winds through Winter Springs, with trails for bicycling, walking, jogging, and riding. Access the trail at the Black Hammock trailhead (1571 East State Road 434).

And if you’re lucky, by the time you return home, winter in New England will be long gone.

Ellen Albanese can be reached at ellen.albanese@gmail.com.