LAKE WALES, Fla. — Keira Kaste, 9, was swinging in a rope hammock tied between two trees, a warm breeze beginning to dry her soaked clothing, when I asked what she thought of the new children’s area at Bok Tower Gardens. Just as she flashed a broad grin and a thumbs up, her brother, Daniel, 11, ran up shouting, “Look! The water is coming out harder!” The pair then ran off for more of the wet stuff at a grouping of fountains, spray jets, misters, and foggers, all embedded in a natural-looking fern-edged rocky outcrop.
Bok Tower, open since 1929, is well known for its lush gardens and 60-bell carillon atop a 205-foot beautifully constructed structure covered with Georgia marble, Florida coquina, and floral ceramic tiles. It was built by Dutch immigrant and philanthropist Edward Bok, a former Ladies Home Journal editor, and sits on peaceful “Iron Mountain,” a 295-foot peak on Lake Wales Ridge that still contains rolling orange groves. Bok’s audience grew from the days of President Coolidge, who dedicated the gardens — and now longtime patrons’ great-grandchildren have a place to call their own. Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden opened late last year as part of a $16 million expansion and restoration campaign that also added an edible garden and cooking area; increased accessibility throughout the gardens; added 8 acres of habitat, with walking trails throughout; and restored the tower and core garden.
When I visited on a Sunday in December, Hammock Hollow, Bok’s public garden for the next generation, was a huge draw. A dozen or so multigenerational families parked themselves under the shade of live oaks while children scampered around the 2.7 acres of nature-
inspired play areas that also are interesting for adults. Beautiful pebble mosaics of animals dot the walkway throughout the area, which includes a cypress boardwalk, spider climb, oversize acoustic instruments, and a Florida homestead area with an outdoor kitchen and vintage water hand pump.
Adjacent to the Hammock Hollow is the Edible Garden and Outdoor Kitchen, where public and private cooking demonstrations and meals are scheduled. The garden includes a fruit orchard, grape arbors, and raised beds for herbs and vegetables.
A short walk from the Edible Garden is the new Wild Garden, an 8-acre area showcasing Florida native plants organized in various ecosystems, including a pine forest, oak hammock, wet prairie, wetland, bog, pine flatwoods, and pond. I’m not sure visitors would realize this, as I didn’t see any labels, but it’s a lovely natural-looking addition in contrast to the more-manicured historic gardens. The pond can be crossed via a 170-foot boardwalk that leads to “Window by the Pond,” a small observatory space that looks onto a Florida bog ecosystem. The walk takes visitors into the historic gardens through the original 1929 entrance, which had become overshadowed by newer entry points.
One visitor I spoke with applauded the improvements at the destination he said partly inspired his and his wife’s decision to retire to Lake Wales from Maine two years earlier.
“I like that more children are exposed to environmental things, and more mobility options make it more relevant to all ages,” said Rudy Engholm, who joked that he was a “one-man chamber of commerce” for Bok Tower and its small-town surroundings. “We only live five minutes from this beauty and solace.”
BOK TOWER GARDENS 1151 Tower Blvd., Lake Wales , 863-676-1408, www.boktowergardens
.org. The visitor center, gardens, and trails are open daily year-round, with live carillon concerts at 1 and 3 p.m. Admission: $12 adults, $3 children 5 to 12. (LEGOLAND Florida ticket holders receive free admission for children under 12.)