Orlando: you may have pre-conceived ideas of what the Central Florida city entails. Fact: it isn’t all about theme parks and Mickey Mouse. On the contrary, it is a trendy urban location where great food, culture, and fun-under-the-sun collide. We recently had a chance to head down South with Visit Orlando, experiencing the best that the city has to offer. What we found out was that it boasts an energy that rivals many large Canadian and American cities, but without losing its Southern charm.
Where to stay
While in Winter Park, a stay at The Alfond Inn is a must. It is a new hotel, only a few months old, but it has already established itself as a mainstay in the town. It is owned by nearby Rollins College, built from a generous $12.5 million grant, and net operating income from the boutique hotel goes back to the school in the form of a scholarship fund for deserving students in need of financial aid.
If the hotel’s philanthropic side doesn’t convince you (it’s pretty hard to resist), the charming Spanish-style architecture, and beautiful cozy décor on the inside, sure will. With hints of peacock print carefully placed throughout, the 112-room hotel is elegant yet inviting, with unique art on display (borrowed from Rollins College) and all the amenities you require for your stay, including meeting rooms, a fitness room, and an outdoor pool.
As for your breakfast, lunch and dinner needs, the hotel’s Hamilton’s Kitchen is overseen by Chef Chris Windus, a proponent of farm-to-table dining. Fresh ingredients adorn the menu, and he offers a unique take on classic Southern cuisine, from oysters Rockefeller to shrimp and grits, the latter of which had an extra kick of smoked sausage and jalapeño cheddar grits.
Where to eat
If you’re looking to explore what other culinary delights can be offered in Winter Park, a stroll on Park Avenue offers an abundance of choices. If you’re craving seafood, the hip Blu on the Avenue uses fresh ingredients, and their mains are hard to resist, particularly the oyster po’boy with Creole remoulade.
The Wine Room on Park offers a unique concept on pre-dinner drinks: wines are made to sample via dispensing machines, activated with the use a debit-style card, refillable to your heart’s content. The ambiance is perfect to sit and enjoy a glass and a meal from their menu, or to simply enjoy some wine before walking over next door to…
Luma on Park! The upscale eatery is a favourite of Paul McCartney’s, but Executive Chef Brandon McGlamery ensures the menu appeals to former Beatles and non-Beatles alike. It’s a trendy spot that offers a wide menu using locally-sourced ingredients, and while the price may be on the steep side (but worth it for the quality of the food that’s on your plate), the $35 pre fixe menu is also an option.
Beyond Winter Park, we hit the Mills50 District for some pan-Asian tapas at Hawker’s Asian Street Fare. Trendy and casual, it is unlike any Asian food you’ve ever eaten. From classics like spring rolls and chicken-stuffed potstickers, to flavourful curries and stir-fries, the selection and quality is incomparable. The menu items that still leave our mouth watering at the mere thought are the roti flatbreads with a unique Malaysian curry sauce, and the ginger cheesecake, a sweet confection with just the right amount of added kick.
Afterwards, we drove on over to a nearby urban winery. A winery? In Florida? you may be wondering. This crossed our mind, too, but we were simply in awe of the concept behind Quantum Leap Winery. Firstly, no, the grapes are not grown in Orlando—the climate simply doesn’t allow for that. But with a business model centred around the environment and wanting to do away with the large carbon footprint of the wine industry, Quantum Leap does business with vineyards across the globe, including California and Italy, has the grape juice shipped to Florida, and the fermenting and bottling is done at the winery. It’s a great spot to sample wine on tap, either by hosting your own private event, or taking part in the various events taking place there.
Sometimes, a chain restaurant doesn’t exemplify fine dining, but Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila Bar is an exception to the rule. It’s a great place to get boozy with your friends and soak up the alcohol with delicious tacos, made using fresh ingredients. (The guacamole is even prepared tableside!) It has a fun and friendly ambiance, and if you happen to visit the location in Orlando’s Restaurant Row, its patio has a sublime lakeside view. And for dessert, go for the cheesecake flan; it was one that we were hesitant about, but it ended up being the big winner after a filling lunch.
For a dose of culture, be sure to hit up the Morse Museum of American Art, which houses an extensive and impressive collection of Tiffany lamps, jewellery, glass, and more. One of the many highlights include the breathtaking chapel interior Louis Comfort Tiffany created for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, as well as art and other objects from Tiffany’s Long Island home.We’re all about the paddleboard trend, and a few minutes away from the Alfond Inn lies Dinky Dock beach, where Paddleboard Orlando took our group on a tour of Winter Park’s lakes. Through tree-lined canals, it was a scenic and quiet experience; it was enough to sometimes sit down on your board and simply gaze at your surroundings. After an hour-long tour, your arms will be a bit sore, but it may become one of your favourite memories from your stay in Orlando.In the historic Church Street District, the past and the present meet, creating an entertainment and fine dining mecca that can truly cap off a fun day in the city. There are a myriad of food options on Church St., and we started off with drinks at Kres Chophouse, where we sipped on a few-too-many cocktails and enjoyed Mediterranean-inspired starters, such as the tender lamb ribs and flavourful fried calamari. We followed up with dinner at Ceviche, an ambiance-rich yet casual tapas bar, with a wide variety of choices. A pitcher or two of sangria is a must, as are their fresh ceviches, but it is their patatas bravas—crisp potatoes drenched in a spicy, cheesy aioli—that will especially leave you with fond memories. And for the grand finale, a stop at the rooftop One80 Grey Goose Lounge is a must for a few late-night drinks and a gorgeous view of the Orlando skyline.As mentioned above, Orlando is definitely a food lover’s paradise, with the farm-to-table movement in full effect. One location that truly exemplifies this is the recently-opened East End Market, located in Audubon Park. With a slew of merchants that sell local ingredients as well as décor pieces and furniture, it’s a perfect stop to look around, shop some edible souvenirs, and even sit down for a bite and mingle.Whether you’re a space nut or not, a visit to the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex should come standard with any visit to Florida. Among the newest exhibits, the retired Space Shuttle Atlantis now calls the Kennedy Space Centre home after 26 years and 33 missions. It’s now housed in a new $100-million exhibit, starting with a breathtaking reveal, and then allowing visitors to get close-up to the shuttle as they learn about the spacecraft and the history of the shuttle program.
(From –l to –r: Zooming through the Everglades with Boggy Creek Airboats; Asian street food done right at Hawkers Asian Street Fare; a night of food and fun in the Church Street District; and getting up close and personal with the Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Centre.)
Winter Park is a great location for an afternoon stroll and to take in some shopping. From old-timey candy stores and ice cream shops, to clothing stores and a walk-in salon for a last-minute manicure, staying in close proximity to the Alfond Inn still allows for you to get your spending fix on.Other alternatives beyond the Winter Park area include The Mall at Millenia, a gorgeous upscale shopping centre that boasts over 100 retailers and restaurants, as well as the Premium Outlets for those more mindful of their budgets and are specifically on the hunt for a good deal.
A dose of adventure
Just in case you thought Orlando was simply about food and shopping, you’ll think otherwise with stops at iFly Orlando and the Richard Petty Driving Experience. The former allows you to experience sky diving (without the whole jumping out of an airplane part) thanks to a wind tunnel that simulates the experience, with all the adrenaline and minus the fear. As for the latter, speeding around the course three times on a ride-along takes just a few minutes, but it’s a thrilling time, and you certainly feel safe as you ride alongside a professional instructor. While you may have reservations in the beginning about strapping in, once it’s done, you’ll be itching to hop back in again!
And what’s a trip to Florida without an airboat ride? Cruise through the Everglades with Boggy Creek Airboat Rides, on the lookout for gators and other species, such as cranes and other birds. Take a scenic ride during the day, and even night tours are available. And if you didn’t get enough of a gator fix during your ride, the company will share a bit afterwards about its conservation fund to save and protect gators, and you can get the opportunity to meet and hold a young gator. A truly thrilling experience that brought our visit to Orlando to a close.