Beauty Reborn 

The town of Winter Garden, Florida, is a historic jewel set on the southern edge of Lake Apopka, whose beauty is in the process of being reclaimed. Only 15 miles west of Orlando, the preserve is a world away from the hustle and bustle you'd expect to find in this part of the state. 

By Jim Hackler 

Standing in a wooden pavilion at the end of a 3,000-foot boardwalk that zigzags through the Oakland Nature Preserve on Lake Apopka’s south shore, I see a great blue heron, snowy egrets and four baby alligators. Established less than a decade ago, the 128-acre preserve is a prime spot to witness the rebirth of Florida’s fourth-largest lake as an important wildlife habitat. Weekend “nature creeps” offer an up-close look at the re-establishment of native plants that are bringing back both butterflies and bobcats.

I strap on my helmet and hop back on the West Orange Trail to bicycle a few miles back to Winter Garden and my home base for the weekend, The Edgewater Hotel. The 22-mile “rails-to-trails” project runs from Oakland to the city of Apopka, with a series of rest stations and outposts that draw more than 40,000 people a month. The most striking section runs through the median of Plant Street in downtown Winter Garden, where it loops around sculptural fountains and under the Centennial Clock Tower. 

Downtown Winter Garden is home to three museums, each with its cache of old photographs and other mementos. My favorite is the Heritage in the old train station, with its collection of antique citrus labels from West Orange County. But right now I’m ravenous, so I stop in at the Flavours of Europe delicatessen for a sandwich. 

The deli shares the ground floor of The Edgewater Hotel with the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation, which stages free art exhibits in the hotel lobby. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this classic Florida resort hotel opened in the 1920s and was saved from the wrecking ball in 1995. Owner Mike Lanza and his business partner Max Blanchard have faithfully restored the hotel to look as it did when anglers came from all over hoping to land record-breaking largemouth bass in nearby Lake Apopka. 

Everything is within walking or biking distance of The Edgewater, including the preserve, so park your car and work up an appetite. A hike or a bike ride is a quieter way to absorb Winter Park’s authenticity - as well as its herons, history and hoagies. 


The Edgewater Hotel, Winter Garden, Florida

Location Twenty-five miles east of Orlando’s international airport in the heart of downtown Winter Garden (99 West Plant Street, 407-654-6921, 

Money Rates start at $72 for a single room and run up to $130 for a two-room suite. This includes wireless Internet and a full breakfast made to order by the innkeeper. 

Local Knowledge The museums in Winter Garden ( are all free, as is the Oakland Nature Preserve (, open from 8 a.m. until dusk. And that’s not the only attraction that’s preserving the past; the $3 million restoration of the 299-seat Garden Theatre has resulted in a successful range of theater, movies and educational series - the first in 40 years. 

Photo by Kevin Schafer/Alamy

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