Living Luxe / Summer 2020
By Kelly Merritt
Oh, Orlando. How you’ve changed.
Once upon a time, your claim to fame was tourists and conferences, costumed mice and sideshows. Now you give us reason to make the trek for your melting pot of arts, history, fine cuisine and nightlife. Within the imaginary confines of sculpture gardens and open spaces, you even give us a little much-needed room to breathe.
To outsiders and newbies, Orlando’s origins aren’t widely known. The city dates back to 1856, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that Walt Disney World Resort put Orlando on the proverbial map as the quintessential vacation spot for families around the globe.
As the crow flies, Orlando is roughly 150 or so miles from the Golden Crescent via I-95 and I-4. Avoid potential traffic by taking an alternate route down U.S. 17 adjacent to Ocala National Forest through De Leon Springs and Sanford.
Beyond the rides and cartoon characters, here are a few places to unwind, stroll around, and discover everything you didn’t know about Orlando.
Orlando is divided up into so many micro-parks, lake areas and districts, just trying to navigate a visit can be a “Where in the world am I?” head-scratching endeavor. But the urban sprawl that has plagued Orlando’s reputation has also allowed for individuality of eclectic neighborhoods that might otherwise not have so much to offer.
There are dozens such charming neighborhoods scattered throughout the area brimming with cafes, art districts, beer gardens and boutiques underneath canopies of tree-lined streets. It’s possible to squeeze any one of these places into a half- or full-day jaunt, depending on how much you want to explore. All are within a short drive of downtown Orlando.
The northern part of the city is home to Winter Park, Audubon Park, Winter Garden, Ivanhoe Village, and the Mills 50 District, among several other neighborhood gems.
Park Avenue in Winter Park is a good place to begin a meander through 10 blocks of boutiques, restaurants and specialty stores. Art lovers flock to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art where a stunning collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany works reside. Audubon Park is Orlando’s answer to its own Garden District. It is well known as one of Orlando’s hipster haunts, so expect to discover vintage finds, gourmet bakeries and plenty of craft beer choices.
Winter Garden, not to be confused with the aforementioned Winter Park, is one of the last bastions of Old Florida. The former citrus town, on the National Register of Historic Places, is now ripe with theaters and galleries. While strolling through Winter Garden is just fine, the best way to enjoy it is by bicycle. You can rent one at Bikes & Blades Co. and pedal the West Orange Trail to Plant Street Market, home to dozens of locally sourced food vendors and natural products under one roof. The patio is pet friendly, also ideal for a pint or two from the adjoining Crooked Can Brewing Company.
Once known as Little Vietnam, Mills 50 is an ideal place to grab a bite in what has become a mecca for Vietnamese cuisine. Find an array of traditional pho at places like Pho 88 while restaurants such as Tako Cheena center around Asian fusion (think empanadas filled with traditional Asian ingredients).
The Ivanhoe Village lakefront district welcomes patrons to a quirky blend of watering holes and retail therapy. Take the Imperial Wine Bar & Beer Garden, for example. This neighborhood bar house is located inside a furniture store — just be sure to save time for gallery-hopping and antiquing.
In the more central area of the city closer to downtown, Thornton Park, the Milk District and Church Street offer historic finds, world-class dining and live entertainment.
The dichotomy of Thornton Park — in its mixture of Craftsman-style bungalows amidst a host of contemporary, urban dwellings — draws a diverse blend of people to this brick-lined community.
Named for its location near the T.G. Lee Dairy factory, the Milk District is both culinary and cultural with a progressive bent towards tacos and trends. In one of the city’s neighborhood redevelopment projects, the nearby Hourglass District is being reimagined with newly opened eateries and galleries and is where to grab a famed Foxtail Coffee cold brew.
Possibly one of the best-known downtown neighborhoods, the Church Street District is where visitors and residents can find most of Orlando’s fine dining, professional sports and entertainment. But it’s also home to some of the region’s most notable historic buildings in a variety of architectural styles.
On the southern end of Orlando, grab lunch at Boxi Park, a must for anyone following the shipping container craze. It features an outdoor food hall and entertainment venue constructed from repurposed shipping containers. Grab enough goodies for a picnic and cop a lakefront squat adjacent to Canvas Restaurant & Market.
Beneath Orlando’s frenzied go-go-go attractions, botanical gardens and aquatic activities offer a welcome respite. In addition to cultural pursuits and lakefront endeavors scattered throughout the city, Orlando is rooted in nature, thanks to a little help from world-class horticulturalists.
A 50-acre botanical sanctuary, Harry P. Leu Gardens and the historical home were gifts to the City of Orlando in 1961 from Mr. Harry P. Leu and his wife, Mary Jane. In donating them, the Leu family created a haven for temperate and tropical plants including palms, cycads, azaleas, vines, bromeliads, philodendrons, roses and one of the largest camellia collections in the United States. Under the umbrella of camphor trees, elms and oaks, the Leu Gardens is the polar opposite of theme park frenzy and noise. The property includes a variety of named gardens (the Rose Garden and Butterfly Garden, for example), all of which provide ample places to reflect within a two-hour or so visit.
To walk through Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens is to indulge in the artistry of a living museum that dates back to 1949. The historic gardens, home and studio reflect a great man who created many of these works of art after surviving a debilitating stroke which left him partially paralyzed. Polasek’s genius gently shines through in his historical, religious and mythological sculptures.
With no shortage of bodies of water, Orlando boasts the Winter Park Chain of Lakes — Lake Nina, Lake Maitland, Lake Mizell, Lake Osceola, Lake Minnehaha and Lake Virginia. This makes Orlando prime real estate for viewing wading bird population and migratory avian species.
Perhaps the most outstanding opportunity to view such waterfowl is in a place that combines both botanicals and aquatic life: Mead Botanical Garden. Located along stretches of Howell Creek, this lush Winter Park gem was made for bird lovers, complete with its own birding guide assembled by the Orange Audubon Society. Do not forget the binoculars, especially since you’re likely to catch a glimpse of the wise barred owl, the stone-cold killer Cooper’s hawk, or even the extraordinary red-headed woodpecker. Mead Botanical Garden is also where to look for the great blue heron, great egret, white ibis, anhinga and illusive green heron. Woodpeckers agree this is the place to be, so much so that nearly all of Florida’s eight resident and migratory woodpecker species have made pitstops in Mead Garden.
As for Orlando’s arts scene, rest assured that it is thriving — and not just on the walls of museums. It’s a misconception that theatergoers must travel to New York or Los Angeles for the best shows and concerts. The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is one of Orlando’s newest venues for Broadway productions, live music, comedy acts and touring performances. Orlando’s answer to Lincoln Center, it has been named among several of the best performing arts attractions by travelers worldwide. The fascinating backstory of this theatrical hub and its architecture is worth the behind-the-scenes tours offered by its staff.
Take Steinmetz Hall, for example. It is among the last frontiers of acoustically perfect halls and at a whopping 700,000 square feet, was designed to achieve an N1 sound rating, otherwise known as the lowest level at which humans can detect sound. The venue is encased in an exterior concrete frame with nearly 500 18-inch steel and rubber isolation pads between the frame and theater to absorb shock and keep out excess ambient noise. It also transforms in shape, seating and acoustics to mold to varying performances, thanks to a movable 210-ton shell from front to back along steel train tracks. Needless to say, if you can catch only one performance while in Orlando, make it at Steinmetz Hall.
Opposite of the ultra-modern Steinmetz Hall experience, the Bob Carr Theater opened in 1927 as the Orlando Municipal Auditorium, hosting the likes of Elvis Presley and Andy Griffith — the venue was later renamed in honor of Bob Carr (mayor of Orlando from 1956 to 1967). The intimate Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater features a ceiling of 32 vibrant abstract pieces by artist Tom McGrath, all set against the backdrop of an aluminum balcony to reflect hundreds of miniature white lights, making it an ideal place to hear live jazz and Americana.
In artful Orlando, museums also take center stage. In some cases, visual art landmarks are located within a short walk of performing arts venues, such as in the case of Loch Haven Park, home of the Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando Science Center, Orlando Repertory Theatre and Orlando Shakespeare Theater.
Since its inception in 1924, the Orlando Museum of Art has averaged more than a dozen annual exhibitions. In a favorite collection, the Art of the Ancient Americas showcases work from nearly 40 cultures — from the American Southwest to the Southern Andes Mountains in Peru. There are more than 900 pieces of art in this assemblage including beautiful pottery, carved jade and stone, intricately worked gold and silver, and woven textiles. Other museum compilations include the stunning American Art Collection from the Colonial period to the 1960s and the Contemporary Art Collection from post-World War II to present day.
Of special significance, the Maitland Art Center is both a historic landmark studio and home to works of art by founder André Smith who lived from 1880 to 1959. His collection includes hundreds of drawings, prints and paintings, plus sculptures and materials that give visitors a glimpse into his life. Literary minds are drawn here to view the original book collection that also belonged to Smith, who acquired what would become a treasured gathering of many rare titles. An intoxicating blend of emotion and “Mayan Revival” architecture, Smith’s former research studio is encased in concrete sculptures, many of which were designed and hand-carved by him. Save time while there to walk through the Telephone Museum to see a unique collection that belonged to the Galloway family, including a working switching station, PBX boards and telephones.
At Winter Park’s Mynt, Indian food takes center stage in dishes like fresh parsley salad with bulgar cracked wheat and mint dressing, authentic samosa chaat (“chaat” is an Indian term for “snacks”) and savory tandoori dishes. Order the vindaloo and Old Delhi-style butter chicken to share but save room for an order of biryani masala with imported saffron and some naan bread for dipping.
The Ravenous Pig, also in Winter Park, is part of the family of restaurants owned by chefs James and Julie Petrakis. It’s an ideal place for a party of multiple diners with picnic plans or a fast-casual meal — an order of ham and biscuits travels well, while the hearty pork porterhouse is a serious deal.
Downtown near most of the major landmarks, diners find French-inspired flavors in DoveCote. Don’t miss sharing an order of bread service with black olive butter and roasted garlic to start, along with beef ribeye tartare and roasted bone marrow with onion jam. On DoveCote’s oyster bar menu, try the charred octopus with jalapeno, pickled fennel, avocado, potato and lime.
Walt Disney World’s Disney Springs is also brimming with must-try eateries, including Wine Bar George where the main attraction is George himself. One of the brightest minds in wine anywhere, this enterprising sommelier opened shop in Orlando. Here, he passionately showcases his favorite vintages and the foods that pair perfectly with them, like housemade meatballs with triple-cheese polenta and Ibérico pork pluma with Yukon potatoes confit.
To dine at any of Masaharu Morimoto’s restaurants is bliss. At the upscale Morimoto Asia restaurant, also located in Disney Springs, diners go berserk for his Peking duck. This carved, house-roasted whole duck serves two and arrives at the table with steamed flour pancakes, apricot sweet chili, hoisin miso and rice. Dim sum, crispy noodles and sashimi balance out a massive menu from the master.
Two more Disney Springs finds — the Spanish Jaleo by José Andrés and Homecomin’ Southern eatery by Art Smith — could not serve more different menus but are equally worthy of every calorie. At Jaleo, dishes like Don Bocarte Spanish anchovies with pan de cristal and head-on garlic shrimp make diners swoon. A section of the menu is devoted entirely to quesos, but these are no ordinary cheese dips — think Manchego cheese paired with moscatel compressed apples or cow’s milk cheese with pimentón paired with almonds and bitter orange jam. At Homecomin’, the fried chicken is all the rage along with a hearty swig of moonshine cocktail on the back porch and their iconic Jasper Board (an assortment of smoked fish dip, pimento cheese, smoked sausage, shaved country ham and candied pecans).
Most importantly, rest up in between excursions. Lake Buena Vista Resort Village & Spa is just plain fun. Case in point? The pirate-themed plunge pool, complete with pirate ship. Unpretentious (read: family friendly, but fun for grownups, too), clean and convenient, the hotel features condo-style suites, well suited for groups or families and friends. The resort stays busy due to its close proximity to theme parks, including Walt Disney World, SeaWorld and Universal Orlando. Each suite can sleep up to 10 people and includes a fully equipped kitchen and sleeper sofa.
As artful pursuits go, guests are hard-pressed to beat the collection at the Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando. This landmark luxury hotel houses 150 rare works of art. Diners have no problem waiting for a table at award-winning restaurant The Boheme, as they can peruse the museum and gallery at their leisure within the hotel proper.
The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes beckons spa goers. There’s plenty of room to relax when the spa is a sprawling 40,000 square feet and offers 40 treatment rooms, its own cafe and a salon. The private, adults-only pool is also a draw, especially for vacationers on the hunt for romance or visitors needing a break from a kid-centric trip to Orlando.
No matter what brings you to this famed tourist attraction in central Florida, be it the museums or Mickey Mouse, be sure to take a step off the beaten path and explore a little.