If I have the choice between a same-everytime chain hotel and a historic hotel that may lack some comforts, the decisions is easy: Go for unique.
I rarely regret it.
Sure, I may get dinky bathrooms or faded curtains. But I always have an experience, and it will be one unique to that place.
That’s why I was thrilled to discover the Hotel Jacaranda in Avon Park. Planning a trip to that area, I asked a resident where she takes visitors. Her answer: the Sunday buffet at the Hotel Jacaranda.
It has seen Babe Ruth and Clark Gable as guests, housed hundreds of military pilots during World War II and was home base to dozens of St. Louis Cardinals during spring training.
Today you’re likely to find Red Hatters meeting for lunch and visitors lining up for the Sunday Grand Buffet.
“People meet here because it’s the center of the state,” said front desk manager Elaine Simmons. “One person will come from the east coast and one from west coast and they’ll have lunch here.”
Travelers driving down U.S. 27 (a slower but more interesting route than the turnpike) stop here overnight.
One reason the Hotel Jacaranda is going strong is that in 1988, it was purchased by South Florida State College, which operates it and uses one wing as a dorm.
The expansive lobby is a step back in time, with paintings by the Florida Highwaymen on one wall, an old piano that is played daily during winter season and a library equipped with an antique writing desk.
In December, people come to the elaborately decorated lobby to take their family Christmas photos, front desk manager Simmons said.
The rooms, whose rates start at $70 a night in season, are reached by an old-fashioned elevator operated by an attendant. They are decorated with quilts and feature picturesque old-time plumbing fixtures.
The rooms are clean and comfortable rather than luxurious and they come in a variety of configurations. (There are suites with two bedrooms and a living room for $140. The Big Grande Suite has three bedrooms, two baths and a living room for $205.) All rooms have private bath with tub or shower and there is wifi, a pool and a hot tub.
But, for many, the Jac is all about the dining room.
We stopped for lunch, a bargain with a dozen choices at $6.29. (We especially recommend the reuben sandwich with homemade potato chips as a side.) Lunch is served 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day but Saturday and there is a soup and salad bar also available for $6.29.
In summer, the Sunday buffet is served 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and costs $10.99.
In the winter, the dining room serves dinner from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. weekdays and offers guests a continental breakfast.
Downtown Avon Park is not full of activity, but it is full of potential. There are a few antique stores and at its eastern end there’s Donaldson park, with picnic tables and a sandy beach facing a round little Lake Verona. (It’s one of the dozens of lakes large and small that dot the landscape.)
A few blocks away is Maxwell’s Grove, a family-owned citrus-fruit packing company that serves soft-serve orange ice cream in season, best enjoyed on its orange rocking chairs on the porch.
Also right off Main Street is the Avon Park Depot Museum, with a restored 1948 railroad dining car.
Ginger Corliss, a consultant and president of HHH Design in Orlando, is helping Avon Park make the most of its assets, including a future walking tour of historic structures, which includes seven buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
“This is not Anywhere, USA,” she said. “It’s a wonderful hidden treasure.”
Great things to do in the central highlands area:
- A terrific river for kayakers is 20 minutes outside town: Arbuckle Creek
- The Lake Wales Ridge area is hiker heaven. Nearby, there are 10 miles of good trails at the Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve.
- More good hiking is nearby at Lake Wales Ridge State Forest.
- Highland Hammocks State Park, with great hiking, camping, bicycling and a museum about the Civilian Conservation Corps.
- The Cracker Trail, a scenic drive through cattle country across the center of the state.
- Henscratch Farms and Winery, a funky country winery with free range chickens.
- Another affordable nearby historic hotel, the Kenilworth Lodge in Sebring.
Bicycling on the nearby country roads is popular and hundreds come to the Labor Day Tour of Sebring and the December Sebring Bicycle Festival.
19 E. Main St.