Undiscovered: Weekends in North Orlando
Rounded out by active sports complexes and a fair share of golf courses, Lake Mary is also the place athletes like sports analyst Lee Corso and even former “Bachelor” Jesse Palmer call home. The quaint area is part of the trendy Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford metropolis, but it is also beaming with small town charm amidst events like WineArt Wednesdays and relaxing beaches that have led Family Circle and CNN’s Money magazine to call it one of the best places to live in America. So pack your sunglasses and come see it all.
One way Orlando North Seminole County remains competitive is with its unparalleled athletic facilities open seven days a week. The crown jewel is the brand-new Seminole County Sports Complex opening this year. A sprawling 102 acres holds 15 high-quality, illuminated fields that will play host to baseball, softball, football, soccer and lacrosse events for all ages. Additional amenities include batting cages and bleachers, a central pavilion hub, children’s playground, and picnic and food truck areas to refuel throughout the day. Soldier’s Creek Park in Longwood will also be updating its grounds with a $6 million investment in lights, bullpens and batting cages to encourage day and night games.
Two other nearby options include the five field Seminole County Softball Complex recognized by the United States Specialty Sports Association and the Amateur Softball Association for its specialty turf, shaded bleachers and three-story operations center as well as the popular Seminole Youth Soccer Complex where children can learn to bend it like Beckham through guided instruction. If tennis is your game, you’ll fall in “love” with Altamonte Spring’s Sanlando Park that has hosted NCAA Men’s and Women’s Division II Championships on its 25 hard courts, including one with a foolproof automated tennis ball machine. Though, tennis is not the only sport holding court here; there are also opportunities for racquetball, basketball, beach volleyball and wallyball to appeal to every sports fan.
Central Florida has gone green with the expansive number of golf courses and putting ranges that appeal to both novices and pros like Mike Bender, one of Golf Digest’s top five teachers who operates the Mike Bender Golf Academy in Lake Mary. Here you can enroll in half-day (or up to three-day) programs with customized instruction on putting, swinging, trouble shots, even fitness analysis to bring your game up to par. The Academy is conveniently located on the grounds of the Magnolia Plantation Golf Club where wide-open fairways and challenging ravines are also frequented by native wildlife; the nature-filled setting is quite popular at sunset for its breathtaking views.
Another prominent name is behind the course at the private Alaqua Country Club in Longwood: legendary golfer Gary Player designed it when it opened in 1988. However, in the last few years, it’s been enhanced with a $1.2 million facelift providing 55-foot elevated tees that regular Jim Thorpe credits to his appearances on the Senior Tour. The nearby Legacy Golf Club at Alaqua Lakes offers two other diverse settings—the waterway Garl Course and the dense forest of the Fazio Course—as well as junior leagues. The refined main dining room in the accompanying Heathrow Country Club is a perfect spot for lunch or dinner with a view after an active day. The semi-private Timacuan Golf & Country Club in Lake Mary also recently reopened its redesigned 7,000-yard course and Mini-Verde putting greens that are regarded as some of the best in the Orlando area. Special membership pricing, including use of an extensive clubhouse, is a real hole-in-one.
Some of the best family memories happen during vacations, especially when you arrange memorable adventures like hand-feeding giraffes or nearly touching the clouds in the aerial adventure course at the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford. If you want to frolic with manatees and gators instead book a date with Adventures in Florida. The kayaking enthusiasts offer a wide range of excursions from wildlife treks to full moon and bioluminescence night time paddles along the Blackwater Creek and river ways in the Little-Big Econ State Forest. With so much surrounding water in Central Florida, you can also enjoy unique experiences like going back in time with a lunch or dinner cruise on the lively Barbara-Lee Sternwheel as it traverses the St. Johns River to a soundtrack of live zydeco. Relaxing cool springs await at the Wekiwa Springs State Park in Apopka where you can also snorkel and rent canoes and kayaks, or make a weekend of it with private campgrounds. Just make sure to pack the Wondermade Marshmallows you can make in creative workshops at the Orlando café—they make for great s’mores.
If “road” trips are more your family’s style rent a bike and trek through the 14-mile Seminole Wekiva Trail along the old Orange Belt Railway or reserve a 15-passenger Limo Cycle, a “team-building tour bus” that revs up solely through your pedal power. Tours are available in Sanford or Port Canaveral. Just make sure to reserve Thursday nights for the Alive After 5 monthly street party when local restaurants, art galleries, gift shops, antique stores and nightlife mingle in downtown Sanford.
You’ll need to get creative with packing your luggage so you can save space for some of the specialty items you’ll find in Lake Mary. At charitable boutique Walk on Water you can purchase jewelry, clothing and accessories while giving back to the community. The store is located in the latest shopping/entertainment mecca Colonial Town Park where Am Star Cinema and restaurants such as Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and Japanese staple Amura provide the perfect recipe for dinner and a movie. Seminole Town Center in Sanford also offers retailers Dillards and Dick’s Sporting Goods alongside new tenant Jay Street Video Games while Alamonte Mall in Alamonte Springs has Apple and Michael Kors and a dessert depot called Cup of Cake, perfect for a post-shopping snack. The nearby Cranes Roost is another 45-acre European-style plaza with further dining and shopping options as well as stunning fountain shows and an outdoor amphitheater.
If you’d rather shop local, wake up early on a Saturday morning and head to the Lake Mary Farmer’s Market where you browse goods like small plants, honey and homemade pet treats from area vendors and artisans. While you won’t beat the fresh produce found here, meat eaters will want to head to Shula’s 347 Grill inside the Westin Lake Mary, named after NFL Hall of Fame coach Don Shula. A 16 oz. aged Cowboy Steak with a side of blue cheese chips will do the trick, but save room for the key lime pie. For more European fare, Hollerbach’s in Sanford provides a true German experience with old-world specialties like cured sausages, drafts served in tall glass boots and live polka (if you have a party of six or more make your reservation early). Terramia rounds out the week with a big Italian Sunday dinner featuring trattoria specialties like paninis and brick oven pizza and tiramisu that no one will be able to refuse.
Of course, what would a trip be to Florida without visiting the white sand beaches you can really dig your feet into. The iconic Daytona Beach, often referred to as the Original American Beach, is only 40 miles outside of Lake Mary. Twenty three miles of shoreline provide guests with free, 24/7 access for anyone who wants to take morning swims or night time strolls (you can even drive on the hard-packed sand). A boardwalk is filled with rides, arcades and food vendors. The area is also famously home to NASCAR and races at the Daytona International Speedway as well as the LPGA. As well, more than 50 art and music festivals in the Daytona Beach Bandshell are scheduled throughout the year so check the events calendar before you head out.
If you are looking to catch some waves, plan a day trip to New Smyrna Beach, located 35 miles from Lake Mary and called one of the best surf towns by Travel + Leisure and National Geographic magazines. You can also plan other water activities including fishing, sailing, scuba diving, motor-boating and kitesurfing. A thriving arts community and food truck haven make it even more than just a beach town.