Destination: Bok Tower, Lake Wales

Like you, my wife and I have been craving fresh air and a day out of the house, which because of COVID feels more like a detention center than our abode. So we opened a Florida map to see where we could escape for the day and chose the Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, about a 70-mile jaunt from where we live in St. Petersburg.

Now, I’ve been visiting Bok Tower since the 1970s, and every time I set foot on this oasis in the middle of the state, my worries evaporate. The tranquility here is palpable, a slice of Eden, the soothing carillon bells -- played every 30 minutes -- sound like prayers of peace.

Armed with a picnic basket full of cheese, fruit, and wine, we drove the snaking road up Iron Mountain -- the highest point in peninsular Florida -- and found a secluded table under a cloak of grand oaks. Many others had the same idea, as a stream of visitors strolled up the paths to the gardens proper and the majestic 205-foot singing tower.

Apparently, the restrictions over the last year have fueled a desire for family day trips, and Bok Tower provides an out-of-the-way, un-touristy destination, says Erica Smith, the gardens’ director of public relations. The nonprofit organization is on track to reach or surpass its attendance goal of 222,000 people this year.

“The one positive that has happened from the pandemic is families appreciate the benefits of fresh air, exercise, sunshine,’’ she says. “We had the busiest March in over 30 years of operation. We attribute this to our ability to provide a sanctuary to connect with nature in a safe environment. … For the first time in decades, it’s paying off to be off the beaten path.’’

This is a much different place than when I first visited four decades ago. Then it had only a tiny visitors’ center and cramped room to watch a film loop on the tower and gardens history. Today’s enhancements include a museum, Blue Palmetto Café (you can order lunch to enjoy on the grounds), gift and plant shops, educational spaces, and the Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden, where kids play in a larger-than-life bird’s nest and fairy houses. 

The marble-and-coquina tower and surrounding 245-acre gardens are a gift to the American people by Dutch immigrant Edward W. Bok, who made his fortune in the publishing business. His motto was simple: “Make  the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it." 

President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the sanctuary in 1929, and the national historic landmark includes the neighboring Pinewood Estate, a Mediterranean revival mansion and museum. Bok isn’t far away; his grave lies directly in front of the tower’s ornate entrance and imposing golden door.

Inside, a small, antique elevator takes performers to their sacred spot on the top floor: a soundproof playing room containing the carillon keyboard, connected by wires to 60 tuned brass bells hanging overhead. The bells range in weight from 9 pounds to nearly 12 tons and don't move; wires trip clappers that generate a range of sounds spanning 4-1/2 octaves. The carillonneur sits at a keyboard, pressing wooden pedals with fists and feet. Counter springs and weights help the performer, but a 30-minute recital is considered a cardio workout.

The tower also includes a music library, studio, and sound system, which plays recorded music when the bells are silent. Every day, visitors can enjoy the resonance of this extraordinary instrument during morning, afternoon, and special candlelight recitals.

Standing at the end of a long reflecting pool surrounded by lush azaleas, camellias, and magnolias, I was, as I always am, in awe of the surroundings that underscore what Smith calls “the perfect place to recharge and renew.’’

If you go:
  • Where: 1151 Tower Blvd., Lake Wales
  • Admission: $15 for adults; $5 for children ages 5-12 (children under 5 are free); $5 for dogs
  • Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily (last car admitted at 5 p.m.)
  • For more information: visit the Bok Tower website or call (863) 676-1408

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Read more articles by Kurt Loft.

Kurt Loft is a St. Petersburg-based freelance writer with 40 years of experience covering the arts, science, food, and features as a journalist. He writes program notes and blogs for The Florida Orchestra and Bach Festival of Winter Park, stories for Creative Pinellas' online magazine, and science and health stories for Tampa General Hospital and the University of South Florida. After 27 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune, Loft worked for 12 years as a lead editor and senior writer at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Now retired, his hobbies include cooking, bicycling, World War II history, and managing a large classical record collection.