Cool and cultured
The theme-park capital has another side
FOODIE FRENZY For the longest time, Orlando was known for little more than its theme parks. But this central Florida city has come a long way and now you’ll find funky bars, awesome food and tons of culture, all of which is a long way from the likes of Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter. Downtown Orlando is home to several cutting-edge restaurants, such as SoCo Thornton Park, which serves southern cuisine with an Asian flair. The menu includes chicken with lobster dumplings, edamame and soy butter as well as a sensational salad with pork cheeks. In the hip and happening Milk District, Market on South serves vegan and vegetarian cuisine, such as a delicious Carolina-style pulled “meat” sandwich made with jackfruit and a kale caesar salad with blackened corn, pickled watermelon and other goodies. You’ll also find great food in the East End Market, a collection of small shops and restaurants that includes a smoothie bar, a super-trendy coffee shop called Lineage and honey made from palmetto palms. The Church Street District is a pedestrian-friendly area just west of downtown, with great bars and restaurants, including The Rusty Spoon. More: visitorlando.com; socothorntonpark.com; marketonsouth.com; eastendmkt.com.
SHOPS IN STYLE J Just north of downtown is Ivanhoe Row, where i independent boutiques have more the stylish feel of Melbourne, Victoria, than nearby Melbourne, Florida. Look for whitewashed brick buildings with green awnings and cool courtyards with banana trees and brilliant pink bougainvillea. Jarboe sells women’s apparel and sleek metallic bracelets, while Backhaus is a German bakery and deli with bierwurst, strudel and chocolate cakes. There’s also a great wine shop with drops from across the globe, including Australia. In the nearby town of Winter Park there are wide pavements and a pedestrian-friendly environment with men’s and women’s fine clothing as well as the odd chain store such as Pottery Barn.
CULTURE VULTURES The new Dr Phillips Centre for the Performing A Arts is a gleaming building in the heart of downtown, with an interior that feels vaguely like a Frank Gehry design and a colourful patio out front. Expect top acts such as Josh Groban, Tony Bennett and Steve Martin. In Winter Park, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art has what’s said to be the most comprehensive collection of Tiffany glass on the planet, including a gorgeous chapel and sumptuous necklaces. One shop owner tells me she’s amazed at the culture on offer in Orlando. “I came from Washington D.C. and practically grew up in the Smithsonian Institution,” she says. “I thought culture and Florida were an oxymoron but the Morse Museum is lovely.” More: drphillipscenter.org; morsemuseum.org.
W WATER WONDERLAND Even a lot of Florida regulars I’ve talked with over the years are surprised to know that Winter Park has a series of canals you can tour on a pontoon boat. The waterways are mostly narrow affairs that link various small lakes. You’ll pass beautiful, southern-style homes with oak trees dripping with Spanish moss and groomed gardens, and hear fun stories about local celebrities. More: scenicboattours.com.
DELIGHTFUL DIVERSITY In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orl leans in 2005, many members of its Vietnamese community moved to Orlando and opened markets and restaurants. Enjoy a booming Asiatown-Vietnamese shopping area in the Mills 50 district where the specialties include live snails, croaker fish and row upon row of noodles, brilliant red peppers and more. Savour cheap and cheerful meals at local restaurants, including spicy soups and curries. Mamak is a dressier spot that bills itself as a centre for Asian street food. Nearby, pause for coffee or tea at Dandelion Communitea located in an old home, complete with a rickety piano; it’s also vegan friendly, so be prepared for coconut milk. More: mamakasianorlando.com; dandelioncommunitea.com.
DOWNTOWN NATURE Lake Eola is a lovely spot in the shadow of Orland do’s growing high-rises. You’ll find a casual restaurant that feels like a beach bistro near the northwest corner, along with an operator who rents electric swan boats. A short walk takes you to playgrounds for kids and wide-open fields for tossing a frisbee or kicking a football.
HERE’S CHEERS The Courtesy Bar on North Orange Avenue features dark wood and hanging light bulbs, along with huge rows of drawers behind the bar, which has been repurposed from an old apothecary. The emphasis here is on craft bourbon and gin and house-made bitters and tinctures. The new kid in the area is Herman’s Loan Office, where decor is considerably brighter in tone (think white walls and a small fireplace) but the scene is just as buzzy. Answer a few questions about the kind of drink you like, then let the mixologists whip up something special for $US12 ($16), about half what you might pay in, say, Manhattan. More: thecourtesybar.com; hermansloanoffice.com.
SUNNY SPOTS Try one of the Disney pools or the Wet ’n Wild water park or, to wriggle your toes in the sand of a real beach, you’re only an hour or so away from the ocean. The area from Daytona down to Cocoa Beach bills itself as “Orlando’s Beach”. The Daytona Beach Pier has fun spots to eat and south of Daytona you’ll find a lovely lighthouse and old “fishing camp” at Ponce Inlet. There are goofy signs around the old camp, one of which reads, “This tree was pissed on by Ernest Hemmingway (sic) in 1956.” More: wetnwildorlando.com/index.php; ponceinlet.org. The Aloft Orlando Downtown is a hip and playful Starwood Hotels property with colourful art, a pool table in the lobby and funky furnishings. There’s also a small pool and a nice bar serving spicy margaritas. Or The Alfond Inn (pictured) is a beautiful boutique property in Winter Park, featuring elegant gardens, good food and lots of stimulating local art on the walls, as well as a rooftop pool. Famous guests? Sir Paul McCartney has been known to stay here. More: aloftorlandodowntown.com; thealfondinn.com.
Jim Byers was a guest of Visit Orlando.
Lake Eola, downtown Orlando, top; coffee at trendy Lineage, in the East End Market, above centre; the Dr Phillips Centre for the Performing Arts, above right; Daytona Beach, above; alligators can be spotted on a Boggy Creek airboat ride, below