February 5, 2023

A Disney-perfect pink tower carved with flowers and birds stands amidst lush Florida greenery. The scene is reflected in a lily pond at the base of the tower, where koi flit beneath the surface. While you won’t find a princess at the top of the structure, voice lifted in song, the tower has something arguably more magical: 60 harmonious bells. And it’s surrounded by a 250-acre wonderland with such fanciful sights as a fairy village, grotto, and secret garden.

Sound like your cup of whimsy? If so, you’ll need to overshoot Disney World by about an hour as you head south to Lake Wales and its legendary Bok Tower Gardens.

The tower’s lush setting adds to its appeal. | Bok Tower Gardens

One of Florida’s earliest tourist attractions, Bok Tower opened in 1929. This marked the end of a decade that saw a massive land boom in the state, as waves of travelers rolled in with their new automobiles, seeking sunshine and pleasure. The 205-foot Singing Tower was an instant hit, immortalized on everything from cereal boxes to playing cards, some of which you can still see today in the attraction’s exhibit hall.

The tower’s lush setting added to its appeal. Its gardens were designed by celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., known for design projects like Biltmore and the Jefferson Memorial (sometimes working alongside his famous father). The tower’s prime location atop Iron Mountain offered sweeping views over citrus groves and a nearby nature preserve.

Olmsted garden in peak bloom
Its gardens were designed by celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. | Photo courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens

But unlike other roadside attractions of the era—a spring with mermaids, an island with monkeys, and the alleged Fountain of Youth, to name a few—Bok Tower wasn’t intended to be commercial. Edward Bok, who’d immigrated from the Netherlands and done rather well for himself in the States, created it as a gift—“a place of quiet and repose for the electronically-driven people of America,” he’d called it with uncanny foresight for the 1920s. As such, both tower and gardens had a higher purpose than mere money.

Garden in front of Bok Tower
The gardens are colorful year-round. | Bok Tower Gardens

“Both were erected and laid out solely and singly to express the gospel of beauty: to open our eyes and awaken our senses to the beautiful,” Bok explained in a letter to President Calvin Coolidge. “What more can the heart ask for than is here? Beauty, beauty, beauty—everywhere and on all sides.”

That purpose seems pretty evident even if you’re not digging through Bok’s archival letters. An arch above a flower-filled courtyard at the entrance proclaims his mantra, “Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” The tower—ringed by a moat and rising above the trees—looks every bit the storybook structure, the surrounding gardens dotted by showy pink and yellow blooms.

Bok Tower windows
The tower blends art deco and neo-Gothic styles, with tile mosaics in the windows instead of stained glass. | Bok Tower Gardens

In most cases, a bell tower is just a bell tower. Bok Tower houses carillon bells, a type of bells played via keys by a carillonneur—and according to Geert D’hollander, the garden’s full-time carillonneur, it’s particularly special. D’hollander would certainly know; he estimates he’s played more than two thirds of the 600 or so carillons in the world.

“After I graduated from the Royal Carillon School at 17, my father asked if I wanted to see the most beautiful carillon in the world,” D’hollander recalls. “And he flew me from Brussels, Belgium, to Bok Tower. I’ve never seen a more beautiful tower than this one.”

Bok Tower door
A luminous brass door at the tower’s base depicts the creation of Eden. | Photo courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens

Made of pink marble and gray coquina, the tower blends Art Deco and neo-Gothic styles. It features herons at the top instead of gargoyles, tile mosaics in the windows instead of stained glass, and is sculpted all over with wildlife—swans, seahorses, foxes, flamingos, you name it. At the base, a luminous brass door depicts the creation of Eden. But the tower is more than just a pretty face. Size matters when it comes to carillons—and Bok Tower has some of the biggest bells around, heavier than Florida’s three other carillons combined.

Bok Tower Gardens carillon bells
Bok Tower’s bells are enormous, with the heaviest bell weighing 12 tons. | Bok Tower Gardens

“The heaviest bell is 12 tons, and it produces a very rich, warm sound. That’s what you want,” D’hollander says. “This carillon is comparable to an orchestra. You can play Bach, Mozart, Lady Gaga, and everything in between.”

And he sure does. Daily concerts gleefully cross genres, swapping between classical, jazz, folk, and the Beatles. The lawn behind the tower has primo seating—benches, if you’re into that sort of thing, or a patch of grass under a Southern oakso you can daydream as you gaze at the clouds while listening to the melodious hum of the bells.

Hammock Hollow caves at Bok Tower Gardens
Don’t skip the mini limestone caves at Hammock Hollow. | Photo courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens

As for the gardens, well, they’re at their most spectacular in spring when thousands of azaleas and camellias bloom, but they’re colorful year-round thanks to winter temps that seldom dip below 50. And they’re as fanciful as you please. Care to sit in a giant bird’s nest, write poetry with stones, or dance in a fairy ring of palm trees? Each corner has something you’d be sad to overlook.

For example, you might be tempted to skip Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden if you’re this side of 12, but then you’d miss out on its fairy trail, music tree, cypress boardwalk, and mini limestone caves. On the western edge of the gardens, discover El Retiro, a 1930s Mediterranean-style mansion. You can tour its interior, but the lavish grounds steal the show. Look for the frog fountain at the entrance and a moon gate said to guard against evil spirits.

Look for El Retiro’s frog fountain. | Photo by Cheryl Rodewig

Further afield, Window by the Pond (which is exactly what it sounds like) is often deserted, save for the birds. Bok Tower doubles as a bird sanctuary, home to more than 100 species. There’s also an Endangered Plant Garden, Wild Garden, Pollinator Garden, Edible Garden, and a 1.5-mile trail through a longleaf pine forest, providing varied landscapes for visitors to explore.

painted bunting at Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower doubles as a bird sanctuary. | Bok Tower Gardens

Bok Tower Gardens may not actually be enchanted, but it can be hard to remember that during your visit to this whimsical place. One can hardly be blamed for expecting its woodland creatures (mainly gopher tortoises and squirrels) to talk, and admittedly the songbirds should have plenty to say. But that sunlight glittering through the trees? Well, it’s the next best thing to pixie dust.

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Cheryl Rodewig is a contributor for Thrillist.