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by modernerabaseball.com

Headed to spring training in Florida?

You won't want to miss this trek off the beaten path. No, it's not Mickey Mouse; Madonna's hideaway pad on Collins Avenue in South Beach; and it most certainly isn't the venue of the infamous Pee Wee Herman incident in Sarasota.

No, kiddies, it's a quiet, charming little place in the country - and one you must visit if you'll be heading to the Sunshine State soon, you dig?

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LAKE WALES, Fla. - - Florida, AKA the Sunshine State, means many things to many different people.

To non-Floridians, AKA tourists, Florida is all about sunshine, Mickey Mouse, theme parks, screaming kids and nasty sunburns or mosquito bites if you happen to foolishly expose yourself to the elements without the proper protection. To residents, Florida is a state of tremendous diversity - from the tropical climate of South Florida to the varied terrain of the northern part of the state to Central Florida, home to Mickey and Minny.

Central Florida is where the tourists and residents find common ground. No, not at Disneyworld. No, there's common ground because - for the most part - these two groups know very little about the hidden gems in the central mid-section of the state.

Sure, Orlando has much more to offer than theme parks, and yes Tampa-St. Petersburg is beautiful with its white sandy beaches. But in between these two cities lies Polk County, a mostly rural area that invites residents and visitors alike to discover Florida the way it used to be.

Quiet. Peaceful. Without neon signs.

Take Bok Tower Gardens for example in historic Lake Wales. Back in the early 1920s, before Orlando even had a paved road let alone an attraction, Edward Bok decided to create a peaceful sanctuary for birds and people in the Sunshine State. He acquired a large tract of land in this rural hideaway full of sandy soil and covered with pines and palmettos. Bok then decided to add a carillon tower as a centerpiece of the garden.

The tower, built of pink and gray Georgia marble and St. Augustine coquina stone, would sit atop Florida's highest point. Bok's vision of the bells of the tower ringing amongst a blooming garden were music to his ears.

Some seven years after breaking ground, Bok Tower opened with President Calvin Coolidge on hand to commemorate the event as a national historic landmark. In the height of the Great Depression - 1929 - Bok Tower served as an escape from the every day rigors of life for Floridians working in the fields of rural Central Florida.

Working the orange groves is tough enough. Working the orange groves in the Great Depression had to have just been the worst.

More than 40 years later Walt Disney would purchase some land himself, about 60 miles east of the gardens. It would be the dawning of a new era for Central Florida. Yet through the growth of Disneyland and the Orlando region, Bok Tower has remained a constant pillar of the community.

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the gardens feature more than just a variety of flowers. Adjacent Pine Ridge Nature Preserve Trail provides visitors with a hike through a native longleaf pine forest where they came come and explore a longleaf pine-turkey oak ecosystem.

Meanwhile, the Exedra and Sunset Overlook offer a view west, which overlooks land that was once the floor of a shallow sea two million years ago.

Animals - particularly squirrels - are frequently seen within the gardens. They're joined by neighbors such as rabbits, cardinals, blue jays, Indigo snakes and water snakes, among others.

A stop to Bok Tower also is not complete without taking in the Reflection Pool. Finally, you can visit the tomb of Bok and thank him for creating this oasis.

Bok Tower is just one of many hidden gems in Polk County. Part of the majesty of this unspoiled rural county is finding your getaway self-exploring on your own.

If water sports are your fix, Polk County offers a wealth of lakes to choose from. If towns like Lake Wales and Lakeland don't emphasize the point enough, Winter Haven also has its share of lakes including Lake Howard, just on the outskirts of downtown.

Known mostly for being a haven for seniors, Polk County continues to diversify as the central Florida region grows and evolves. New housing developments have sprung up in the far eastern and western parts of the county in the last 10 years, yet the area has been able to keep its quiet, idyllic charm in towns like Dundee, Auburndale and Haines City, among others.

Lakeland - the county's largest city - is home to Florida Southern College, which was designed by Frank Llyod Wright. His architectural influence can be seen throughout this lovely private school campus which overlooks - you guessed it - a lake, Lake Hollingsworth.

GETTING THERE: Most of Polk County is just an hour's drive from downtown Orlando, Orlando attractions and Tampa-St. Petersburg. Cities in southern Polk County may add 15 minutes to a half-hour to your trip. Either case, it's well worth it. In fact, we recommend you spend the day in the county taking in as much as you can.

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Apr 02 2002, 15:36:21
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