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Palette of many pleasures

By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / October 30, 2011

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WINTER PARK, Fla. - Sitting at the bar at the Ravenous Pig, a gastro-pub that’s packed at lunchtime on a weekday, I’m not sure what to order. Shrimp and grits? Smoked pork on garlic baguette? I ask the fellow next to me what’s good and he rattles off almost the entire menu.

I’ve come to Winter Park, part of the greater Orlando area, to check out the newly-opened wing of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art that is said to house the most comprehensive collection of work by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the world. My lunch stop confirms the buzz about this town: It’s rich with culture and fine cuisine.

“There’s lots of cultural stuff to do here,’’ says Garret Hutchens, my new acquaintance and barmate, who grew up here. “You just have to know it’s there.’’

Winter Park may be geographically close to Disney World, but in terms of style and substance they are poles apart. Founded by wealthy Northern industrialists as a winter getaway, Winter Park retains its late-19th-century charm, sprawling in languid splendor between a cluster of lakes and a large park in the central square. When people sigh about “old Florida,’’ this is what they mean.

It’s a short drive from the Ravenous Pig to the historic center of town where brick-paved streets wind past turn-of-the-last century homes beneath canopies of live oaks festooned with Spanish moss.

After observing all this stately splendor, I’m nonetheless unprepared for the breadth of the decorative arts, paintings, furniture, and graphics in the galleries at the Morse Museum. And it seems I’m not the only one impressed by the collection. I’ve never seen museumgoers as engaged as they are here. They’re reading the pamphlets in each room, scrutinizing every object, and discussing what they see. Perhaps it’s because they identify with imagery - ferns, peacocks, flamingos, daffodils, beautiful young women, biblical stories, lilies, and dragonflies - encountered in everyday life.

“Have you seen the chapel? It’s unbelievable that they could salvage so much when the house burned down,’’ says Skip Neely of Champaign, Ill.

The house Neely referred to is Laurelton Hall, Tiffany’s mansion on Long Island Sound that was destroyed by fire in 1957. Museum founders Jeannette and Hugh McKean rescued much of the surviving works, piling them in a truck and hauling them to Florida, where they have been painstakingly restored. The museum’s new 12,000-square-foot wing re-creates the experience of entering Tiffany’s celebrated home, showcasing surviving components of the dining room, living room, reception hall, and the Daffodil Terrace with its eight 11-foot-high marble columns topped with glass daffodil bouquets.

In the Tiffany Chapel, a Byzantine-inspired spectacle designed for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, I’m awed by the sheer unexpected bravura of its arches, mosaic columns, and the 10-by-8-foot electrified chandelier in the shape of a cross.

Equally interesting are galleries featuring objects Tiffany collected from the American Arts and Crafts movement, as well as paintings by such early-20th-century masters as John Singer Sargent, Martin Johnson Heade, Maxfield Parrish, Arthur B. Davies, and Thomas Hart Benton.

After chatting with the more than friendly visitors and staff, I learn Winter Park is home to many well-respected arts institutions.

Anchoring the southern end of downtown, the campus at Rollins College is where I find the Cornell Fine Arts Museum. Known for its American landscapes and portraits, Bloomsbury collection, and old masters’ Renaissance work, the Cornell also hosts traveling exhibitions of contemporary art, with shows changing three times a year.

“We try to keep it interesting, lively, and thought-provoking,’’ says Sandy Todd, executive assistant to the museum director.

Along the shores of nearby Lake Osceola, the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens contains more than 200 of this artist’s sculptures, paintings, and drawings displayed in his former residence, gardens, and a small chapel.

“It’s a simple home. He had simple roots,’’ says Debbie Komanski, executive director.

Born in Moravia, now the Czech Republic, Polasek (1879-1965) immigrated to the United States, became a citizen, and headed the Department of Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago for 30 years. Best known for monumental commissions in this country and Europe, Polasek retired to Winter Park in 1950 and built his home and studio on this 3-acre property.

“He remained a vibrant man and artist up to his death at age 87,’’ says Komanski. “This house reflects the body of work from his lifetime.’’

Winter Park’s rich African-American heritage is celebrated at the Hannibal Square Heritage Center by a permanent exhibition that pairs oral histories of residents with over 100 framed photographs. Taken as a whole, they present a moving representation of the area’s free black families from 1900 to the present.

A second-floor gallery features changing exhibitions that explore black heritage, culture, and Southern folklore through paintings, photographs, mixed media, and community-created art installations.

Winter Park is more than just a center for the arts. In the historic downtown, Park Avenue is a lively mix of boutique shops, sidewalk cafes, and restaurants that draws college students, residents, and sophisticated visitors.

“It’s not odd at all to see a member of the Orlando Magic, or a movie star walk past,’’ says Philip Deaver, a writer and professor of English at Rollins College.

As expected, I find a wealth of dining choices along the strip, including Thai, Italian, French bistro, American steakhouse, a wine bar with artisan cheeses, and casual spots for sandwiches, pastries, smoothies, and chocolates. What surprises me is to dine at a Turkish restaurant that rivals what I’ve tasted in Istanbul.

Deaver directs me to a local spot where the locals go to mingle, drink, and catch the latest indie flick. Technically located in Maitland, bordering Winter Park, the Enzian is a movie theater like no other. Have a cocktail or draft beer at the outdoor Eden Bar, a tiki-like watering hole, and then proceed into the lounge-like theater, where several levels of bistro tables and swivel chairs offer optimal comfort. There’s popcorn, for sure, but you can also order sandwiches, pizza, burgers, salads, and even locally sourced pork tacos.

For nature lovers, the most popular tour in town (other than a walking tour - stop by the Chamber of Commerce Welcome Center for a map) is the aptly titled Scenic Boat Tour. In operation since 1938, the hourlong pontoon tours cruise through Winter Park’s lakes and canals, offering a unique view of the area’s historic estates, museums, and Rollins College.

On my trip, the chatty Captain Tim cheerfully describes the passing scene, pointing out ferns, philodendron, bamboo, sleeping hibiscus, blue plumbago, cypress trees, palm trees, blooming jasmine, azalea, rubber plants, and a 200-year-old live oak. We spot blue heron nests in trees, osprey, and, most curiously, in the middle of the lake, a flock of cormorants sitting in a tree that has been decorated with giant Christmas ornaments. (A yearly event by an unknown prankster, according to Tim.) There’s a small beach, and though no one is there as we glide past, it’s nice to know it’s there for sunning and swimming.

The small-town charms and low-key vibe of Winter Park may not be for everyone. For something different, I hear there’s a theme park over in Orlando that’s enjoyed by millions. I must confess I haven’t been there . . . yet.

Necee Regis can be contacted at neceeregis@gmail.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
Park Plaza
307 South Park Ave.
800-228-7220, 407-647-1072
www.parkplazahotel.com
Vintage boutique hotel in the heart of historic district. Rooms from $150.
Where to eat
The Ravenous Pig
1234 North Orange Ave.
407-628-2333
www.theravenouspig.com
Innovative pub fare from award-winning chefs, $13-$28.
Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine
108 South Park Ave.
407-644-8609
www.bosphorousrestaurant.com
Authentic Turkish cuisine on stylish Park Avenue, $18-$26.
Croissant Gourmet
120 East Morse Blvd.
407-622-7753
www.croissantgourmet.com
French pastries, bread, and sandwiches. Great breakfast spot, $5-$10.
What to do
Morse Museum of American Art
445 North Park Ave.
407-645-5311
www.morsemuseum.org
Adults $5, seniors $4, students (with ID) $1, under 12 free.
Cornell Fine Arts Museum
1000 Holt Ave.
407-646-2526
www.rollins.edu/cfam
Adults $5, students with ID free.
Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens
633 Osceola Ave.
407-647-6294
www.polasek.org
Adults $5, seniors $4, students $3, under 12 free. Docent-led tours of historic home and chapel is included with paid admission.
Hannibal Square Heritage Center
642 West New England Ave.
407-539-2680
www.hannibalsquareheritage center.org
Free.
Scenic Boat Tours
312 East Morse Blvd.
407-644-4056
www.scenicboattours.com
Adults $12, children ages 2-11 $6, under 2 free. Cash or check only. Daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m. except Christmas.
Enzian Theater and Eden Bar
1300 South Orlando Ave.
Maitland
407-629-0054
www.enzian.org/
Indie single-screen cinema cafe with alfresco dining and bar.
Films $10, dining $7.50-$15.
Park Avenue
Historic Downtown Winter Park
407-644-8281
www.parkave-winterpark.com
Shopping, galleries, restaurants, walking tours.