I am one of those rare creatures called a Native Floridian. In fact, at least five generations of my family have called the Sunshine State home. But until this year I had never visited one of Florida’s oldest attractions that lies a mere 43 miles from my comfy crib. And although I have now visited this lovely place twice in the past year, even my first visit was not planned . . . .
Jerry and I originally planned to attend a hometown sunrise service on Easter Sunday, but for some reason we decided on the spur of the moment to attend the service at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. After all, the entry was free, and after the service we would be able to tour the gardens the rest of the day.
Dawn was breaking as we wound our way through expansive orange groves up Iron Mountain. At 295 feet in elevation, a dubious record for sure, it stands as one of the highest points in the state. We parked and began a further ascent on foot toward the iconic tower. The dissonant tones of the tower carillons in concert with a brass ensemble welcomed us to join hundreds of worshipers already gathered beneath the moss-ladened grandfather oaks. The cool of the morning air united with the hope of the new day gave an ambience of peace and comfort that could not be denied by a believer of any faith.
Bok Tower Gardens was the dreamchild of Dutch-American publisher and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward W. Bok. His desire was to create an outdoor sanctuary that would “touch the soul with its beauty and quiet” as a gift of appreciation to the nation that had afforded him so many opportunities. To design the sprawling gardens, Bok enlisted the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., whose designs also grace the Biltmore Estate, the National Mall in Washington, DC, and various National Parks across the nation. Later, Bok commissioned a 205-foot gothic revival and art deco “Singing Tower” of marble and native coquina designed by architect Milton B. Medary to become the centerpiece of the gardens. The tower would house a 60-bell carillon set whose discordant tones would echo throughout the property. Dedicated in 1929 by President Calvin Coolidge, the site is now a National Historic Landmark and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The carillons play at 1:00 and 3:00 PM daily.
Following the Easter service, we enjoyed a modest breakfast buffet at the onsite Blue Palmetto Café. Then, with property map in hand we set out to explore every inch of trails throughout the gardens. It didn’t take long for us to realize that Edward Bok’s dream had become a reality. Far beyond the beauty of flowers and foliage and architectural feats was an undeniable supernatural sense of joy and peace that hovered over the gardens. Without getting overly-sentimental, even today, looking back, Jerry and I agree that there was something special about that day filled with serendipity, synchronicity, and a sense of divine appointment.
We returned to Bok Tower Gardens later in the year during the Christmas season. This time Jerry’s daughter Brandy joined us, and once again we passed an incredibly peaceful and relaxing day. And even though our admission was not free like it was on Easter Sunday, we did save on one adult admission with a BOGO coupon from the Polk County, Florida, edition of the Enjoyment Discount Coupon Book.
In addition to the garden walks and carillon concerts, we were able to tour Pinewood Estate, a 1930s Mediterranean-style mansion located on the property. Each room was decorated by a local designer or design team in a variety of holiday themes. Following the tour, we took a break at Pinewood Place, a concession stand on the estate grounds offering a menu of light snacks, wine, and other beverages.
You should begin your visit to Bok Tower Gardens at the Visitor Center where you may view a brief orientation video, collect a garden map, and peruse the historical museum. The Visitor Center complex also houses the Blue Palmetto Café and the Tower & Garden Gift Shop. When you do your tour of the property, in addition to the Singing Tower, Olmsted Gardens and Pinewood Estate, be sure not to miss the Endangered Plant Garden, Sunset Overlook, and a personal favorite the Window By the Pond.
So when is the best time to visit Bok Tower Gardens? In a news release from a previous year, Director of Horticulture Nick Baker said, “We expect azaleas to peak the third week in February and continue through March.” Although the gardens are beautiful any time of year, the landscape is especially lovely in the early spring.
A new book calls Bok Tower Gardens “America’s Taj Mahal.” When I first read the subtitle I did not understand the meaning. I knew the Taj Mahal was a lovely piece of architecture, but I also knew it was a tomb. This did not fit the Singing Tower. Then it struck me! Just as the Taj Mahal was a gift of love from Emperor Shah Jahan to his cherished wife, so Bok Tower is a gift of love from Edward Bok to the American people.
Edward Bok’s grandmother once told him, “Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.”
I think he did . . . .