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Orlando Off the Beaten Path: The Serenity of the Historic Bok Sanctuary and Pinewood Estate

By Susanne Pacher

The Historic Bok Sanctuary is located about an hour southwest of Orlando near Lake Wales, also home to the Florida's Natural Visitor Center that I visited earlier in the day. The Sanctuary was founded by Edward W. Bok, who immigrated to America in 1869 from the Netherlands when he was 6 years old. Through determination and hard work, he became a highly successful publisher and editor of Ladies' Home Journal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, respected humanitarian and an advocate of world peace and the environment.

I am always fascinated by stories of industry magnates and successful entrepreneurs who became philanthropists and donated their estates to the public. Edward W. Bok is definitely one of those fascinating individuals.

As a successful publisher, Edward Bok, a Pennsylvania resident, used to retreat to Florida in the winters and became enchanted with the beauty and vistas from Iron Mountain, which, at 298 feet above sea level, is the highest point in peninsular Florida. Awed by the tranquility of the area, he wanted to create a place that would "touch the soul with its beauty and quiet", and he purchased land which he transformed into a sweeping landscape of lush gardens, designed by the famed landscape architect, Federick Law Olmstead Jr. The bird sanctuary houses 126 different species of birds as well as a variety of endangered plants and animal species.

The crowning jewel of the Historic Bok Estate is the Carillon and Belltower, a National Historic Landmark, built by the best craftsmen of the day. The splendid neo-gothic and Art Deco tower was built using a combination of coquina rock from St. Augustine, Florida, and pink and gray marble from Tate, Georgia. New York sculptor Lee Lawrie's carvings adorn the tower and represent images of Florida's native flora and faun as well as images from Greek myhthology and the Bible.

Edward Bok remembered the music of carillons from his childhood in Holland, and he commissioned the famous John Taylor Bellfoundry company of England to produce a world-class carillon for his "Singing Tower" as the focal point of the garden. This carillon is one of only 4 in Florida and its 60 bells weigh from 16 pounds to nearly 12 tons. Brief recorded carillon music is played every 30 minutes, and recitals are featured daily at 1 and 3 pm. During my visit I was able to catch the 1 pm performance, and just outside the Carillon Tower is a television screen that features a live broadcast of the carillonneur performance.

Another National Historic Landmark, Pinewood Estate, has been part of the Historic Bok Sanctuary since 1970. It represents one of the finest examples of Mediterranean Revival architecture in the state of Florida. The grounds surrounding it were also designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr.

Originally named "El Retiro", meaning "retreat" in Spanish, the estate was built in the early 1930s for Charles Austin Buck, a Bethlehem Steel vice president. He had made a fortune in the steel industry and wanted to build a winter estate where he could be surrounded by his 9 children and 18 grandchildren during the holidays.

The Mediterranean-style garden features a Spanish frog fountain that leads guests into an enchanting stone grotto at the front of the house. An Oriental moon gate fountain is located off the dining room porch and an English-style country garden with a rolling lawn and pond reflects the afternoon sunsets.

Charles Austin Buck was a great admirer of the Latin lifestyle and architecture, his "El Retiro" Mediterranean revival home has many characteristics of an antique Spanish villa, including a barrel-tile roof, thick walls, substantial carved doors and woodwork, and intricately detailed wrought iron. The entrance hall's dramatic staircase features a different tile pattern on each riser. Colourful Spanish-style tiles were handmade in Tunisia and much of the original furniture was handcrafted in Cuba.

From November 25 to January 1, 2006, the Christmas at Pinewood home tour is available to visitors as a favourite holiday tradition. During my visit I had the pleasure of touring the villa as every room was superbly decorated by a variety of locally sponsored designers. Every room featured a docent that was able to provide insight into the unique history, features and furniture of each room. Amazingly much of the furnishings and artwork are original to the estate.

After visiting Pinewood Estate and the historic Carillon Tower I had a chance to explore the grounds of this amazing sanctuary, and its beautifully designed gardens indeed offer a wonderful retreat to nature.

The Pine Ridge Trail offers a unique nature experience, providing a glimpse into the native flora and delicate ecosystem of Florida's Lake Wales Ridge. In ancient times, when ocean levels were higher, the Lake Wales Ridge was above water and formed a chain of islands. As a result, many plants and animals are unique to the Ridge which features rare plant species found nowhere else in the world. Thirteen of the species located here are on the federal endangered list. Many of these plants are grown in the Sanctuary's Endangerd Plant Garden.

Being the nature lover that I am, I was enchanted by the beauty of the gardens and a variety of plants and blossoms captured my attention:For me the Historic Bok Sanctuary was a real feast for the senses, and it will delight architecure and music lovers, history buffs and naturalists alike.

Historic Bok Sanctuary, located about 55 miles southwest of Orlando and 60 miles east of Tampa, near Lake Wales, Florida, is open every day from 8 am to 6 pm. The award-winning Education and Visitor Center is open 9 am to 5 pm. Admission is $8 for adults and $3 for ages 5 to 12. Members and children under 5 are admitted free.

About The Author
Susanne Pacher is the publisher of a website called Travel and Transitions ( Travel and Transitions deals with unconventional travel and is chock full of advice, tips, real life travel experiences, interviews with travellers and travel experts, insights and reflections, cross-cultural issues, contests and many other features. You will also find stories about life and the transitions that we face as we go through our own personal life-long journeys.

Submit your own travel stories in our first travel story contest ( and have a chance to win an amazing adventure cruise on the Amazon River.

"Life is a Journey Explore New Horizons".

The story with photos is published at Stories and Photos (

Susanne Pacher

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