If I were to list only one hidden gem in the state of Florida, it would be, hands down, Bok Tower Gardens. When driving across the state of Florida on US Rt 60, it is doubtful you would ever suspect that a modern museum with a world famous bell tower surrounded by stellar gardens would be within minutes off the main road. I had driven by it countless times before finally making the decision to go explore this zenful attraction.
Bok Tower is located in the heart of Central Florida at historic Lake Wales and features beautiful gardens, a singing tower, a mansion, cafe, gift shop and even a plant shop. It is home to a modern and well designed museum currently celebrating its 85th anniversary. If you have not toured Bok, or if you are needing a refresher visit, April 25th would be a great time during their Concert Under the Stars event or get free admission on May 8th during National Public Gardens Day. The John Jorgenson Quintet will be performing gypsy-jazz sounds on the Great Lawn for the April concert.
The star of the show at Bok Tower is the 205 foot Singing Tower which houses the sixty bell carillon, which features daily concerts at 1 and 3pm. If you are unfamiliar with the term carillon, it is similar to an organ but the keys move bells in a tower. A gorgeous reflection pool lies in front of the Tower and the sparkling sunshine reflection is just mesmerizing. It is hard to not get a great photo with this kind of natural beauty. Outside of the tower is a concert viewing area to see the carillon players during the live performances. From there, people sit and listen to the carillons throughout the day. The 30 minute concerts are both live and prerecorded but Bok Tower is one of only a handful of carillon towers in the world that house a live performer.
Bok Tower Director Brian hosted a friend and I for a private tour of the landscaped gardens, which are bursting with color from seasonal flowers. A display at the gate shows and tells about what flowers are in bloom at this time of year. As we walked the property, Brian pointed out specific details and interesting things about the gardens. We arrived at the singing tower and he took a key out of his pocket to let us inside the locked gate and I was nearly jumping up and down from excitement! We crossed over the bridge and walked up to the stunning Great Brass Door. Brian gave us some history about the carillons and the building of the tower and we took a few moments to take some pictures. I was feeling proud being on the “inside” of the locked gates, strutting my stuff, but when he opened yet another locked door to go inside, I was utterly in shock.
As we stepped through the door adorned with 30 brass panels depicting the biblical theory of creation, we felt like royalty. The interior, or Founder’s Room, is fashioned from pink marble and has lovely decorations. We even got to tour the media and archives room which contains the most complete carillon library in the world.
In the “penthouse” of the tower lies the talent behind making those carillon bells sing. The director at Bok Tower is world famous carilloneur Geert D’Hollander, who studied at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp, though he was not in the tower when we visited. Geert has achieved countless awards often works with new carillon players and during our visit, none other than Joey Brink was onsite. Joey is not only an robotics engineer who graduated from Yale, but was the 1st North American to win first prize in the carillon competition in Mechelen, Belgium. He was kind and talented and played a brief “As Time Goes By” for us. Joey can also play music by current artists such as Lady Gaga, which sounds interesting on those enormous bells.
From the outside of the art-deco tower, you can make out the animal carvings, mosaics, and see intricate ironwork carved in the column. The views from the balcony’s are stunning, overlooking the entire Lake Wales area and many orange groves. The construction of the Bok Tower is condensed in a short film in the Visitor Center & Museum when you first arrive. I recommend seeing it and found the movie helpful to understand the intricacies of the site. The museum also houses top-notch displays and showcases historical items.
The 50 acres of Bok Tower Gardens is a maze of paths with beautiful groups of flowers and oak and palm trees designed by famous architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. There are specific areas laid out for endangered plants, live oaks, a nature trail, and Window By The Pond which is a small observatory for watching reptiles, birds, and butterflies. If you love flowers, look for the camellias, saucer magnolias, chinese rainbell, jasmine, and tropical giant sage. Those were my favorites. Or if you just prefer to sit and meditate, there are welcoming benches tucked away in many nooks throughout the gardens.
For an additional charge you may visit the Pinewood Estate & Gardens, a lovely 1930’s home that was purchased by Bok Tower in 1970. Pinewood is a reminder of one of the finest specimens of Mediterranean architecture in the south. As you are led through the estate houses by a guide, you will hear the history of Pinewood and learn some facts about the antiques, fancy tile work, custom carved wood doors, and the family who lived there. I enjoyed seeing the purple bathroom fixtures in Lucy’s bedroom, they were most interesting. As you can see from the pictures, the tiles were lovely.
Plan to eat your lunch onsite at Bok Tower at their Blue Palmetto Cafe. The cafe offers soups, sales, sandwiches and wraps as well as some delicious sweet tea. I chose the tropical salad which was loaded with turkey, apples, pecans, strawberries, mandarin oranges and gorgonzola cheese. Yum! Later you can browse for gifts, postcards, and souvenirs in the upscale Tower & Garden Gift Shop.
My friend Lynne and I both found Bok Tower to be a peaceful place with a welcoming feel. I plan to take my parents when they visit Florida as well as partake in some of their special events offered throughout the year. Once you have seen for yourself, you will understand why Bok Tower is often referred to as “America’s Taj Mahal”.
FLOWER AND TREE GALLERY
- Fact: Bok Tower never closes, they are open 365 days a year!
- Trivia: Edward Bok’s gravesite can be seen at the base of the Singing Tower in front of the Brass Door.
- Hint: If you are touring the gardens with children, see the Visitor Center for a discovery backpack which can be borrowed to explore the gardens from a kid’s point of interest.
- Bok Tower welcomes school field trips, weddings and receptions, group tours, and is always accepting volunteers.
- Trivia: Calvin Coolidge proclaimed Bok Tower Gardens a National Historic Landmark in 1929.