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It can be easy to forget that there's a world outside the perfectly manicured magic of the Orlando area's many theme parks.
The hilly stretches along Interstate 4 have begun to attract luxury developers, who see potential in the natural beauty here, but the region encompassing Lake, Osceola, and Polk Counties is still marked by a lovable scruffiness — and the residents here wouldn't have it any other way. This part of Central Florida boasts over 1,000 freshwater lakes, making the map look more like Swiss cheese.
Spend a day fishing for the area's famous largemouth bass or exploring the waterways by airboat, kayak, or canoe. The quaint towns lining the lakes are each centered around a singular passion: seaplane mania in Tavares, antiquing in Mount Dora, aviation history in Lake Wales, and citrus in Haines City. We know you won't dare skip the thrills of a Disney World vacation, but reserve some extra time to explore the true Florida.
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Central Florida's Polk County boasts an astonishing 550 lakes, rivers, and reservoirs — prime real estate for the state's official freshwater fish, the largemouth black bass. So it's no wonder this region has been dubbed the "largemouth bass capital of the world." Anglers claim the best way to snag a trophy fish is to hit the waters during their spring spawning season (which peaks in March and April), when they head to shallower waters.
After opening its $8.4-million seaplane base and marina in 2011, it's pretty hard to argue with Tavares' nickname: America's Seaplane City. Hit the skies with Jones Brothers & Co. Air & Seaplane Adventures, which offers aerial tours of the surrounding lakes.
With 25 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails and 13 lakes, Lake Louisa State Park is the perfect outdoor escape for ushering in the cooler fall temperatures. Set along the wooded white-sand beaches of Lake Dixie, the park's homey new cabins are anything but rustic, with central air conditioning, propane fireplaces, and screened-in porches.
Think oranges are the only crop grown in Central Florida? Head to Showcase of Citrus, a 40-acre you-pick farm, for a first-hand lesson in fruits you may never have heard of, such as pomelo, honeybell tangelo, Persian lime, satsuma, and kumquat — many of which hit their seasonal peaks in the colder winter months. The owners encourage visitors to BYOB (that's "bring your own banjo") and hit the Pickin' Shack, an on-site bluegrass and classic rock stage.