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 happy 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.
The Jac, as residents call her, opened in 1926 and never closed. It has provided hospitality to travelers ever since.
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 for about 75 student athletes.
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.
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 not luxurious. They will most appeal to two groups: Those who love old hotels and budget travelers. Our room had old plumbing fixtures not in perfect repair. There was a shower not a tub and walls thin enough we could hear a neighbor’s TV.
Rooms 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.
The dining room at the Jac is a popular budget choice, with an old-fashioned buffet. (The foods were a throw-back too — a salad bar with iceberg lettuce; fried chicken with excellent mashed potatoes and chicken gravy, a dessert bar with slices of classic pies.
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.
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.
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.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.