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Orlando’s best-kept secrets
  • Take a different view of Orlando on a walking tour. Beyond the modern skyscrapers, the Downtown Historic District is a veritable open-air architectural museum, revealing the changing fortunes and tastes of the city from the 1880s to the 1940s through the designs of buildings erected during that period. Around 60 structures of note reveal the influence of styles including Queen Anne, the Beaux-Arts and Art Deco. Follow the self-guided walk plotted on The Downtown Orlando Historic District Walking Tour Map (cityoforlando.net) to discover some real gems and find out about their history, too. See the Victorian House & Cottage at 541 West South Street - among the city’s only remaining Folk Victorian Structures, with original turned columns, railings and carved fretwork. And appreciate the work of Englishman Gordon Rogers on the Queen Anne-style Rogers Building (pictured) at 37 Magnolia Avenue, where the English Club ran dances, theatre and other events to keep the city’s large British community entertained. The Kress Building, at 15 West Church Street, was one of the structures that looked to the future for design inspiration in the city’s Thirties heyday, with the storefront embellished with decorative terracotta and Art Deco styling.  

  • Nature envelops this city. Take a walk beneath the shade of the giant cypress trees in Kraft Azalea Gardens (cityofwinterpark.org), on Lake Maitland in Winter Park. There’s a rookery here dedicated to one of Florida’s natural stars, the Great Egret, offering a closer look at this second largest of the wading birds.

    Gather a picnic from the delicious home-grown produce and baked goods on sale at the Sunday morning farmer’s market at Lake Eola Park (pictured) in the heart of Downtown. Then find yourself a spot on the lake’s shore and enjoy your snacks while taking in the surroundings - look out for the resident flock of swans.

    Go geocaching - a treasure hunt for the digital age - at the Arboretum at the Orlando campus of the University of Central Florida (arboretum.ucf.edu). The 82-acre grounds blossom with more than 600 species of plant and seven native plant communities typical of Central Florida’s diverse natural ecosystem. Enter the coordinates of the geocache in your GPS and follow the trail to call by the various habitats, which include an ephemeral pond, an oak hammock and a sand scrub.

  • Who knew Orlando was the place to find out about the art of brewing organic beer? Yet Orlando Brewing (orlandobrewing.com), on Atlanta Avenue, claims to be the only USDA-certified organic brewery south of Vermont and east of Colorado. Here in the city’s home of organic beer-making they adhere to the 16th-century German Purity Law, meaning the beers are made simply from water, hops, yeast and malted barley, untainted by pesticides and other artificial ingredients. Drop in for a free tour and try one of the ales, pilsners, porters and stouts in the Taproom.

    If wine is your tipple, head west of the city to the Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards (lakeridgewinery.com) (pictured), near Clermont. Here, they make table and sparkling wines - known as Lakeridge and Lakeridge Reserve - from hybrid varietals including Stover and Blanc Du Bois as well as the native Muscadine grape. Free wine tours are offered daily, which take visitors through the process of winemaking, from vine to bottle. You’ll also be rewarded with lovely views of the estate’s vineyards, and a chance to sample and buy the wines. 

  • You don’t have to take a white-knuckle ride for a taste of excitement in this city. Get in the cockpit of a vintage biplane at Fantasy of Flight (fantasyofflight.com) (pictured) in nearby Polk County. There are more than 100 rare aircraft on show at this airstrip with its cute Art Deco terminal. And they’re ready for take-off. Don a helmet, goggles and white flying scarf for the full effect and take to the skies in the open cockpit of a New Standard (there’s room for two passengers) for a 15-minute flight over the orange groves and lakes of Central Florida. If you’re filled with bravado, you can take to the controls on a 30-minute flight in a Second World War Boeing Stearman PT-17 (don’t worry, the pilot will be in the seat right behind you operating dual controls). More vintage aircraft rides can be enjoyed at Warbird Adventures (warbirdadventures.com) at Kissimmee, where you can fly like an ace in a T-6 Texan fighter plane dating from the Second World War. Choose an aerobatic adventure or a smooth straight-and-level flight, as you dare. 

  • Orlando has a rich heritage and sophisticated arts scene for visitors to enjoy. Explore 12,000 years of history in this part of Florida at the Orange County Regional History Center (thehistorycenter.org) (pictured), on East Central Boulevard, a dynamic exhibition space affiliated to the Smithsonian Institution. Three floors of artefacts, archives, and interactive exhibits, permanent and temporary shows, add intriguing and comprehensive detail to the timeline. The natural environment, Native American life, the arrival of the Spanish, the days of the pioneers and settlers, African American heritage, tourism before Disney, aviation and space travel are all investigated here. Upcoming exhibitions for 2014 include The Art of Warner Bros Cartoons, 25 January to 23 March.

    Take a stroll around the private art collection of hotelier Richard C Kessler at the gallery at The Grand Bohemian Hotel (grandbohemiangallery.com), on South Orange Avenue. This extraordinary showcase features original paintings, sculptures, photography and jewellery, created from oils and watercolours, glass, wood and bronze. Works by international and local artists include exclusive pieces for the collection by the wildlife painter Stefano Cecchini and French Expressionist Jean Claude Roy. And the exhibition is kept fresh by rotating works from other galleries in The Kessler Collection of hotels.

  • Try Orlando’s spas for some more unusual ways to relax. It’s all about your tootsies at The Barefoot Spa (thebarefootspa.com/), at Ivanhoe Village. This boutique wellness centre offers a full menu of indulgences for the feet. All treatments begin with a soothing soak, wiggling your toes in a warm bath of aromatic oils and locally sourced herbs, fragrant potions that are concocted from a mix of ingredients chosen by you. Then select your level of treatment from “The Basics”, which include massages of the feet and lower legs of 30 to 60 minutes in length, or you can opt for “The Fancier Stuff” or “Even Fancier Stuff” to add in exfoliation, mud masks and shea butter massage.

    Bathe in mud harvested in the nearby Everglades at The Spa at Rosen Shingle Creek (spaatshinglecreek.com) (pictured), on Universal Boulevard. The Everglades Scrub & Body Wrap Mud harnesses the power of the local environment, infusing the mineral-rich mud with local citrus fruits, including grapefruit and lime, to which jasmine and lemongrass are also added. This invigorating skin cleanse is just the start because it’s followed by some serious moisturising of the skin using a body butter that contains more citrus fruits - essences of orange, tangerine and mandarin. 

  • Not every swimming pool in Orlando resounds to the squeals of children, there are some calm and cool places to recline poolside, too. Rent a cabana for the day at Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate (omnihotels.com) (pictured). The hotel’s chic outdoor formal swimming pool has eight of the cute little huts for guests to “own” for the day. Lounge on the chaise longues in one of the luxurious robes supplied and wait to be served with fresh fruit smoothies or choose drinks from your dedicated mini-bar. The cabanas have wi-fi access and TVs - or you could just stretch out with a good book in between dips in the heated waters.

    If you fancy scaling the heights to take a swim, try the rooftop pool at Doubletree by Hilton Orlando Downtown (doubletree3.hilton.com), which overlooks Lake Ivanhoe. Put in a few lengths then relax in the hot tub and take in the stunning views over the city’s skyline from the sundeck. More stylish rooftop bathing is also available at the Grand Bohemian Hotel (grandbohemianhotel.com), also featuring rooftop views across Downtown.

  • Uncover some unique flavours on Orlando’s dining scene. You’ll need to book ahead to get a seat at The Table (thetableorlando.com), at Via Dellagio Way. Diners here come not just to taste the exquisite New American Cuisine, created from local seasonable produce by chefs Tyler and Loren Brassil and their talented staff, but for the experience, too. The evening begins with drinks and canapés at the bar, followed by a five-course dinner with paired wines. But the key to this experience is that there are limited seats available around just one table to evoke the atmosphere of a dinner party. This unusual dining experience is served up only on Friday and Saturday nights, beginning at 7pm.

    There are plenty of stools to pull up at Lee & Rick’s Oyster Bar (leeandricksoysterbar.com), in Winter Garden. When this place opened in 1950 there were just nine stools on which to perch and enjoy oysters freshly dredged from local waters. Now they’ve made room for many more at the eaterie’s 80-foot-long counter, where you can watch the team shuck oysters by hand, as well as create dishes from a wide variety of fresh seafood, including crab, shrimp and crabs. For a true flavour of Florida, order a Crawfish Basket - Cajun-spiced crawfish served with corn - followed by a slice of Key Lime Pie. 

  • The days of the Speakeasy are all the rage in Orlando. At The Pharmacy (thepharmacyorlando.com), on Via Dellagio Way, they brew “pharmaceuticals from the finest ingredients to provide you with an antidote from all your troubles”. Among the 18 cocktails mixed at the bistro’s zinc bar is Fizz, a carbonated citrus pick-me-up. Of course, medicine shouldn’t be taken on an empty stomach, so a chef is also on hand, ready to supply complementary remedies from sustainable and organic foods.

    A former cobbler’s shop is the setting for Hanson’s Shoe Repair (hansonsshoerepair.com) (pictured), on East Pine Street, where the former function of this space is evoked by the antique shoes and portraits from the turn of the 20th century that decorate the walls. To get in, you’ll need to call up for the secret entry code. The atmosphere is chilled, but take to the rooftop and you may find live music or a burlesque performance underway.

    Steampunk style is the order of the day at The Courtesy (thecourtesybar.com), on North Orange Avenue. Here they serve exotic cocktails such as The Hemlock (Rittenhouse rye, Zucca Bauchant liqueur, lemon bitters, lemon peel), as well as craft beers and wines, even absinthe, amid the Victoriana.