Florida Byways

Five driving routes showcase the Sunshine State's scenic beauty and little-known treasures.

April 07, 2002|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

Florida is made for driving.

Its highways are good, the terrain is mostly flat and the state offers a range of scenery: Plains of sawgrass, endless waves of sugar cane, moss-laden forests of oaks and pines, lazy rivers and canoeing creeks, island-hopping roadways, pristine lakefronts, palm-shaded ocean beaches and even -- would you believe it? -- hills.

Granted, Florida's hills are mere bumps compared with most other places in the United States. But still, as the one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind, even the most modest hill lords it over the rest of the landscape in this pancake-flat state.

Florida's highways can introduce you to places like these, and springtime is a great time to embark on a driving exploration of the state.

Inside, you'll find five suggested routes; they don't cover the entire state, but they do explore byways with interesting scenery or stops, and small towns rich in the kind of charm long gone from most large cities. Big cities are excluded -- driving is no fun in any metropolis and, besides, urban visits are another matter altogether.

One caution: In today's Florida, no route is perfect. Wherever you go, you will encounter strip malls, urban blight and other defacements of the landscape. These may be a common if unfortunate complement of modern life, but these tours concentrate on a Florida we are less familiar with: the open road.

Miami to Lake Wales

Probably no other route takes you through so many different Floridas on a single highway. From Miami, Route 27 passes through the Everglades grasslands, then cuts a swath through the sugar-cane fields south of Lake Okeechobee. After circling westward around the lake, the road rises slowly up the spine of Florida, the central highlands. The change in elevation is almost imperceptible until suddenly you are flanked by orange groves on both sides of the highway and Lake Placid's 202-foot-high Citrus Tower comes into view.

Florida's highlands, 100 to 350 feet above sea level, are among the prettiest parts of the state. The undulating land is overlaid with citrus groves and spotted with lakes and towns that haven't changed much over the years.

Named after the resort town of the same name in upstate New York, Lake Placid doubles its population in winter, when snowbirds come to roost in homes and condos nestled around its lakes. As the caladium capital of the world, the town is also surrounded by vast fields of the colorful, big-leafed plants. In August and September, the maturing plants turn hundreds of acres into blankets of pink and green and white.

But Lake Placid has another sight that lures visitors year-round: outdoor murals. Painted on the sides of almost three dozen buildings, these well-executed murals draw hundreds of visitors. A favorite of mine is the 175-foot-wide Cracker Trail Cattle Drive, painted on the side of a Winn Dixie grocery. Step close to it and you may hear cows mooing and the sound of a thunderstorm.

Only 14 miles north of Lake Placid, Route 27 comes upon Sebring, whose name has become synonymous with automobile racing. The city's 12 Hours of Sebring race marked its 50th anniversary last month, but its famous racecourse is used throughout the year. Visitors can tour the course or even drive on it if they take a class from one of the two auto-racing schools based there.

Besides auto racing, Sebring has another claim to fame: It's the site of Florida's first state park, Highlands Hammock. This 8,140-acre preserve offers a fascinating look at primeval Florida -- forests of sable palms, and trails that pass through groves of sour oranges, massive oaks and serene ponds amid soaring cypresses.

As you move further north on Route 27, sometimes called the Orange Trail, more citrus groves come into view, and here and there you may come upon roadside stands selling fresh grapefruit, oranges or tangerines at bargain prices.

Lake Wales, at the end of this drive, stands atop the crest of the highlands. Iron Mountain, at 298 feet above sea level, was for years regarded as the highest point in Florida. (It was later determined that a slightly higher bump in the landscape near the Alabama line actually deserved that title.)

Iron Mountain, however, still draws tourists because it is home to one of Florida's most beautiful structures. The Bok Tower, made of pink and gray stone, rises 205 feet in the midst of a lovely garden, its slender form mirrored in a stone-lined reflecting pool. The tower houses a massive carillon with 57 bells. Another attraction is Spook Hill, an incline where an optical illusion is said to make your car appear to roll uphill. Well, maybe.

Clermont to Leesburg

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