The heart of Florida's citrus country seems an unlikely place to take in a sweeping vista, but that's precisely what we found one windy day at Historic Bok Sanctuary. Far from the state's iconic beaches and crowded theme parks, the Singing Tower of Bok Sanctuary sits on a massive knoll above town like a Gothic lighthouse amid a rolling sea of orange groves.
The road to the park winds through citrus groves where a sign marks the "Great Florida Birding Trail," a network of more than 450 roadway sections renowned for exceptional bird-watching. Rust-hued dirt along the road hints at the inspiration of this particular hill's name, Iron Mountain.
Arriving in mid afternoon, we were pleased to find few visitors at the park with us. A staff member at the front gate informed us that the park was operating with extended hours to accommodate a moonlight concert later that evening. Within the manicured gardens, we found beds of native bushes and exotic trees, such as the South American tipu tree. Signs along the ground labeled blossoming groundcovers and shrubs, such as camellia lutchuensis, with its delicate white flowers. Around a corner, a brown rabbit stopped to grant us a photo opportunity as it grazed on uniformly tipped grass.
A breeze rattled the treetops, and I suddenly felt a sense of privilege to be among such beauty. At several points along the trail the trees parted to frame a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside rolling away below us. We sat for several minutes, savoring the irony. One thing Florida isn't famous for its dramatic topography.
Rising to an altitude of nearly 300 feet above sea level, the hill on which Bok Sanctuary sits is part of the Lake Wales Ridge, a geographic feature stretching approximately 150 miles from north to south along Florida's interior peninsula. The ridge is essentially a giant sand dune, deposited by sea and wind more than a million years ago, when the sea levels were much higher and most of Florida was underwater.
At that time, according to one theory, the ridge formed a chain of islands on which certain plant and animals species thrived for thousands of years, cut off from the rest of the world. This isolation resulted in the development of a unique ecosystem, which is now home to several endemic species of animals and plants. Dr. Paul Fellers, a Florida resident and naturalist who leads frequent eco-friendly expeditions to sites across Florida is, like me, taken by the sanctuary, which he called "just spectacular."
Fellers points out that bird-watchers who visit the area should be alert for sightings of the Florida scrub jay, a bird found only among the sandy knolls of Central Florida. Herpetologists and lizard-loving visitors may spot the Florida sand skink, a nearly legless lizard, which slithers just underground, leaving S-shaped marks in the sand. Both species are listed as threatened.
The area's unique vegetation includes the Florida ziziphus, a small, fruit-bearing shrub known to grow in fewer than 10 sites along the ridge.
Continuing along the trail, the ground began to level out, as the park's crown jewel came into view. A sign in the visitor's center refers to it as "America's Taj Mahal." The Singing Tower greets visitors with a breathtaking double image, provided by a reflection pool that sits strategically at its base.
Commissioned in the late 1920s by the Dutch-born writer and publisher Edward Bok, the 200-foot-tall Gothic marble tower houses a 60-bell carillon, which rings on the half-hour. As we stood admiring the tower's many marble carvings and ornate tile work, a carillonneur (a musician who plays the bells of a carillon) hurried across the moat bridge, entering through the impressive brass door. Preparations for that evening's concert were under way.
As twilight came, the wind grew stronger. Torches burned along the garden's paths, and the tower was illuminated from inside, lending a medieval mood. The first drops from an approaching thunderstorm announced that we would be missing the concert after all. We began our drive home in the rain, resolved to hear the bells of Bok Tower sing another day.
Aaron M. Coder is a freelance writer based in Largo.