(UPDATED ON March 1, 2021) Bok Tower Gardens is one of Florida’s lesser-known gems. It is located off US Rt 60, about halfway across the state in Central Florida’s historic Lake Wales. If you didn’t know it was there, it is doubtful you would ever suspect that a modern museum with a world-famous bell tower surrounded by stunning gardens would be minutes from the main road. Better late than never. Here is my review of zenful Bok Tower in Lake Wales, Central, FL.
Bok Tower Gardens is a well-designed museum for Edward W. Bok, a very successful publisher, humanitarian, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. He contracted famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. to change the sandy property into “a spot of beauty second to none in the country.” And that he did.
The gardens feature beautiful flowers and trees, a singing tower, an estate, a café, and an upscale gift shop. US President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed Bok Tower Gardens a National Historic Landmark in 1929. If you have not toured Bok Tower Gardens or need a refresher visit, the Concert Under the Stars event would be a great time to visit or the Friday before Mother’s Day, when National Public Gardens Day allows free admission.
The Star of the Gardens
The star at Bok Tower Gardens is the 205-foot Singing Tower that houses the 60-bell carillon. Daily bell concerts at are 1 and 3 o’clock. 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 Singing Tower. It affords excellent photo-ops.
Outside of the Singing Tower is a concert viewing area so you can watch the live carillon performances. Concerts last 30 minutes and are both live and prerecorded. Bok Tower is one of only a handful of carillon towers in the world that houses a live performer.
My Private Tour
Brian, the Director of Bok Tower at the time of my visit, hosted a friend and I on a private tour of the perfectly manicured property. One of the first things I quickly learned is that a cart near the entrance will display flowers currently in bloom at Bok Tower. That will help you identify the plants, or you can use the camera feature on your Smartphone to identify the name of the plant in the picture you have taken.
As we walked the lush property, Brian pointed out specific details and fun facts about Bok Tower Gardens. We arrived at the Singing Tower and he took a key out of his pocket to let us in the locked gate. I was nearly jumping up and down with excitement. I hadn’t planned to get this kind of access.
We crossed a picturesque bridge and walked to the Great Brass Door. Brian shared history of the carillons and the tower building as we snapped pictures. Inside that gate, we stepped through the door adorned with 30 brass panels depicting the biblical theory of creation, and I felt like royalty.
Inside the Singing Tower
The interior (Founder’s Room) of Bok Tower is fashioned from pink marble. It is lovely. We toured the media and archives room, which contains the most extensive 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 the world-famous carillonneur Geert D’Hollander, who studied at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp. 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 a robotics engineer who graduated from Yale but was the first North American to win first prize in the carillon competition in Mechelen, Belgium. Joey was kind and talented. He played a brief “As Time Goes By” for us. Joey can also play music by current artists such as Lady Gaga, which sounds cool on those enormous bells.
An Intricately Designed Tower and Gardens
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 balconies are stunning, overlooking the entire Lake Wales area and many orange groves.
Stories about the construction of the Bok Tower Gardens are 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. Bok Tower’s museum also houses top-notch displays and showcases historical items.
The 50-acres of Bok Tower Gardens is a maze of paths with beautiful flowers and oak and palm trees. It was designed by famous architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. There are specific areas at Bok Tower laid out for endangered plants, live oaks, and a nature trail. The Window By The Pond is a small observatory for watching reptiles, birds, and butterflies.
If you love flowers, look for the camellias, saucer magnolias, jasmine, and giant tropical sage, my favorites. Welcoming benches are tucked away in many nooks throughout the gardens for meditating or just admiring the scenery.
Tour a Mediterranean Home Option
For an additional fee, you may visit Pinewood Estate & Gardens, a lovely 1930’s Central Florida home that Bok Tower purchased in 1970. Pinewood Estate is a reminder of one of the most beautiful specimens of Mediterranean architecture in the South.
A guide leads the tour of the house, narrating its history and pointing out interesting facts about the antiques, ornate tiles, and custom carved wooden doors. I enjoyed seeing the purple bathroom fixtures in Lucy’s bedroom; they reminded me of my grandmother’s house.
The Pinewood Estate takes on a new look during the holiday season. I met some friends there to see it all dressed up in its Christmas decorations and flowers. I highly recommend coming to visit during both times of the year.
Plan to eat your lunch onsite at Bok Tower at their Blue Palmetto Café. The cafe serves soups, salads, sandwiches, and wraps, as well as delicious sweet tea. I chose the Tropical Salad, piled high with turkey, apple wedges, pecans, strawberries, Mandarin orange segments, and gorgonzola cheese. Yum! Blue Palmetto also serves beer and wine.
Later you can browse for gifts, postcards, plants, and books in the upscale Shop at Bok.
A Peaceful Way to Spend the Day
I found Bok Tower to be a peaceful place with a welcoming feel and would like to visit during one of their special events. Bok Tower welcomes school field trips, weddings and receptions, group tours and is always accepting volunteers.
If you are touring Bok Tower Gardens with children, see the Visitor Center for a discovery backpack, which helps you explore the gardens from a kid’s perspective. Great news, Bok Tower Gardens is open 365 days a year!
Once you have seen for yourself, you will understand why Bok Tower Gardens is often referred to as “America’s Taj Mahal.”
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