Travel

This Dreamy Pink Tower Makes Beautiful Music in a Whimsical Florida Garden

Bells and blooms at Bok Tower Gardens.

Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens

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.

Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens
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 travellers 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.

Photo courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens
Photo courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens
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.

Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens
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 Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens
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.”

Photo courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens
Photo courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens
Photo courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens

Made of pink marble and grey 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
Bok Tower Gardens
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.

Photo courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens
Photo courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens
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 colourful 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.

Photo by Cheryl Rodewig
Photo by Cheryl Rodewig
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.

Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens
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.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Cheryl Rodewig is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.