Beyond The Theme Park
Many of us New Yorkers grew up believing that Florida begins at West Palm Beach and ends at Miami. And for a lot of us, Florida is like Brigadoon — a place that only exists during sporadic intervals, or more accurately, during the interval from Thanksgiving to Passover.
In this mindset, Orlando and its Central Florida environs serve only as a theme-park escape from cruddy weather. But there’s another Orlando that’s a grownup world away from cartoons, castles or celluloid.
It’s an Orlando of historic buildings on oak-canopied streets, trendy downtown bistros and museums set amid shimmering lakes. While retirees flock to the coasts, this tech-savvy city has steadily attracted young professionals with a cosmopolitan scene and year-round Jewish activity.
As Purim parties wind down at temples around town, locals are excited about the opening of a new kosher restaurant, Brown’s New York Deli in Maitland, by Brooklyn-born Jewish cooking maven Lauren Brown.
And before picking up those Passover brisket orders, many local Jews are heading east to Daytona Beach. That’s where the annual Jewish Heritage Festival takes place on March 18 — featuring nationally acclaimed klezmer performers, kosher food, Judaica from Israel, and exhibits that include a Jewish Hall of Fame.
Though the ocean is about an hour away, the Orlando area itself is long on water views. Lakes and canals lace the verdant region; many restaurants offer waterfront patio dining.
And you’ll never miss the Disney castles as you explore Orlando’s real-life mansions, gardens and museums — including a recently opened wing of the Morse Museum, built to show off the world’s finest collection of Tiffany glass.
For a home base, I like the genteel resort suburb of Winter Park, built in the late 19th-century for upscale vacationers. In a state with more than its share of plasticky strip malls, it’s lovely to relax amid the quiet brick lanes of Winter Park’s 1920s downtown. The feel is more Santa Barbara than Fort Lauderdale, with white Mission-style architecture and red tile roofs.
Nobody seems to be in a hurry along tree-lined Park Avenue. Beyond the boutiques, graceful arched porticoes lead into cool, shady passageways and Spanish courtyards.
A five-minute stroll leads you to a lakeside dock from which you can join a pontoon boat for Winter Park’s cherished tradition – gaping at the homes of the rich.
For $12, Scenic Boat Tours leaves every hour to cruise through inland Florida’s breathtaking network of lakes and canals, gliding by the lavish Italianate villas and columned Georgian estates of Florida’s wealthiest. It’s not all voyeurism, of course: there’s no better way to appreciate this landscape than from the water, surrounded by towering cypresses, orchids and the occasional alligator.
My family preference for a nice indoorsy museum to all those reptiles and UV rays brought us to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art — where a new 12,000-square-foot wing is dedicated to the legacy of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Tiffany, famous for the jewel-toned watery colors of his signature glass, was a major figure in the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement and one of America’s first design mavens. The Morse has long been a Tiffany mecca, home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of the artist’s stained-glass windows, lamps, and vases. But the new wing, which opened a year ago, allows visitors a more intimate Tiffany experience – that of the designer’s Long Island home, Laurelton Hall, whose essence has been reconstructed here.
The epitome of fin-de-siècle Gold Coast glamour, Laurelton Hall was endowed as a lasting shrine to Tiffany’s aesthetic vision. But the endowment went bankrupt, the house burned down — and it is among the palm trees of Florida, rather than the oaks of Oyster Bay, that the legacy lives on.
While Tiffany is the heart of the Morse, the rest of the collection — strong on American paintings and decorative objects — nicely puts the designer in context.
You can picture the bourgeois ladies of John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt hanging a Maxfield Parrish next to a Tiffany vase; contrast Tiffany’s windows with those of Frank Lloyd Wright; or contemplate a different vision of American life through the works of Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton.
Over in downtown Orlando, young local artists have a modern response to all this reverence for history: CityArts Factory. Conceived as a kind of anti-museum, it’s a collective of more than a dozen art galleries with works both local and international. After a swing through these lofts, head down Orange Avenue to the city’s most buzzed-about restaurants and wine bars.
Even indoorsy art types fall for the Harry P. Leu Gardens, a historic Orlando estate with a 50-acre public park. The Southern Revival House Museum and formal rose gardens landed the Leu on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is indeed a gem — Orlando’s antebellum answer to Miami’s Italian-Renaissance Vizcaya.
Those with a green thumb should check out the Gardens’ annual plant sale on March 17-18, when admission is free all weekend. Romantics go for the monthly “Date Night,” bringing a blanket, a bottle of rosé and a picnic to the lawn for al fresco movie projections at twilight. Any day of the week, you’ll find bamboo forests and tropical streams, orange groves and orchids, and acres to stroll under the shade of Spanish oaks.