The Impulsive Traveler: Lake Wales, a high point on a visit to Florida

Florida is the flattest state in the union, so it’s funny to think that it has any high points .

But it does. And on a warm, sunny afternoon in early December, I found myself atop one of them. I was standing 298 feet above sea level on Lake Wales’s Iron Mountain, one of the highest points on the Florida peninsula, mesmerized by the sounds of one of the world’s great carillons, its bronze bells housed in the soaring 205-foot Bok Tower, a neo-Gothic and art deco masterpiece of pink and gray marble.

  • ( ALAMY ) - Pinewood Estate at fountain at Bok Tower Gardens National Historic Landmark, Lake Wales, Fla.
  • ( ALAMY ) - The Singing Tower at Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales, Fla.

( ALAMY ) - Pinewood Estate at fountain at Bok Tower Gardens National Historic Landmark, Lake Wales, Fla.

At the base of the tower, a pair of swans floated in a reflecting pool. Stretching out in every direction were stunning vistas of citrus groves, nature preserves and woodland gardens designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.

Also known as the Singing Tower, the National Historic Landmark in this central Florida town was built in 1929 by Edward W. Bok, a Dutch immigrant and philanthropist who became the editor of Ladies’ Home Journal. He fell in love with Iron Mountain while wintering in Lake Wales and bought the property to create a place that would “touch the soul with its beauty and quiet,” according to the Web site for Bok Tower Gardens.

I looked over at my cousin and her 4-year-old son. Jennie was lying on a bench, cradling little Frankie and staring up at the tower as the bells produced their enchanting tones. I felt as though I were in an outdoor cathedral.

After the 30-minute concert, carillonneur William De Turk sprang out of the tower like the Wizard of Oz emerging from behind the curtain. Though he looked tired, he held court next to the reflecting pool, drawing a small but inquisitive crowd.

“How much maintenance is involved?” one woman asked. The carillon has more than 60 bells ranging in weight from 16 pounds to nearly 12 tons.

“Things get out of alignment,” De Turk said. “It’s all open to the elements.”

“Do you do the maintenance, too?” asked a man.

De Turk chuckled and shook his head no. “You don’t want musicians climbing in there with a coat hanger,” he said.

Just then, a squirrel began dropping nuts on my cousin’s head. We took that as our cue to leave and hopped on a golf cart to Pinewood Estate, the winter home of C. Austin Buck, an early vice president of Bethlehem Steel.

The 20-room Mediterranean-style mansion was built in the early 1930s. Strolling through the lush gardens, we came across a Spanish frog fountain leading to a grotto in front of the house. We admired the Oriental moon gate outside the dining room. Frankie particularly enjoyed the rolling lawn leading to the lily pond. Before we knew it, he was sprinting toward a row of pine trees.

The interior of the house was just as luxurious as the grounds. The entrance foyer, decorated as it would have been in the Victorian era, was laden with crystals and pearls. We walked through a servant’s pantry as big as my bedroom. The ample living room held plenty of chairs and musical instruments. “This was essentially a party house,” a guide told us. By the looks of it, Buck must have thrown some great parties.

Upstairs, we studied the carved woodwork and the wrought-iron details in the thick walls and doors. Some of the doors seemed like works of art themselves. Even the floor tiles were interesting: Buck, who admired Latin architecture, had brought them back from Cuba.

Breaking for lunch, we went to Lake Wales’s other famous house: the Chalet Suzanne, a whimsical, pastel-colored country inn. The original main house, which included several dining rooms, had burned down during World War II. After the war, the owners set out to rebuild it. But with money and building materials in short supply, sections of the property were added separately, so now its dining rooms occupy 14 different levels.

We sat in a room overlooking a pond with turtles. “I feel like I’m on a boat,” Frankie said.

“In reality, we’re on a screened-in dock,” our waitress informed him.

Strolling through the rooms after lunch, we came upon such odd items as a statue of a Japanese Samurai on horseback enclosed in a glass case outside a room dubbed the Swedish cocktail lounge.

As we pulled out of the parking lot in our rental car, a plane was landing on the property’s private airstrip. Apparently some people like eating at Chalet Suzanne so much that they actually fly there to do so.

There were other odd sights to behold.

Take Spook Hill, a small incline rumored to possess a supernatural force that makes automobiles move uphill. Legend has it that a great Indian warrior killed a giant alligator there and later was buried on the north side of the hill. A sign instructed us to pull up to the white line at the bottom of the hill, place the car in neutral and let it roll. If the legend was true, we’d move up the hill. But the car kept rolling backward, not forward. “Of course it’s going to roll back,” said Jennie, exasperated. “We’re uphill.”

We tried four times, but we never moved uphill. Maybe we were doing it wrong. We pulled over and watched a line of cars try. They all seemed unsuccessful, too. We gave up and drove away.

The Grove House, the visitors center at the Florida’s Natural orange juice plant, was far more interesting. We watched a video about the history of Florida’s citrus industry, then sampled juice and other, more unusual citrus-based drinks. Orange chocolate coffee was actually yummy.

To learn a little more about Lake Wales itself, we hit the Lake Wales Museum and Cultural Center, more popularly known as the Depot Museum. It held an eclectic collection that included furniture from the city’s original post office, the original city seal, old typewriters and a model train in an Alpine setting. Frankie was disappointed that the train, having recently derailed, wasn’t operating.

We stopped to talk to Mike Daily, a museum worker who was setting up a new exhibit of dollhouses. This is an important year for the community of about 12,000, he told us, because the city will be celebrating its centennial. He proudly showed us pictures of the four local businessmen known as Lake Wales’s founding fathers.

Few people know about this little museum, housed chiefly in a brick and pink stucco building constructed in 1928 as a passenger station on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. “We don’t do a lot of advertising,” Daily said. “A lot of it is word of mouth.”

Which, it seems, would describe all of Lake Wales.