“Pause friend let beauty refresh the spirit” are the words inscribed on a columned semicircle seating area at Kraft Azalea Park, just north of downtown Orlando.
You can’t see the words while kayaking on the park’s Lake Maitland, but the message rings true while enjoying the peace and quiet that comes with a morning on the water.
Winter Park, a city near Orlando known for its green spaces, has a chain of six lakes connected by narrow, man-made canals. A traveler could easily drive through the city and miss them, so in one sense, these gems are hiding in plain sight.
Recently, I set out with Peace of Mind Kayak Tours to explore all of that hidden beauty — both man-made and natural — on the Winter Park Chain of Lakes.
I met co-owner and guide Joe Koerner at Dinky Dock Park, where we launched our single kayaks into the refreshing waters of Lake Virginia for a two-hour paddle. As we floated down quiet canals and onto open lakes, we passed cypress trees, subtropical flowers and luxury homes. Koerner proved to be a fun and knowledgeable guide, identifying plants and birds as we went along and also detailing some of Winter Park’s history.
He pointed out a house formerly owned by NBA player Horace Grant, which at one time was one of the largest in Winter Park. More recently, Koerner said it was dwarfed by a 27,000-square-foot abode on Lake Osceola.
He also said that during Winter Park’s beginnings in the late 19th century, lakefront land sold for just $2 per acre. Across the lake from the 27,000-square-foot mansion, we saw a 2.25-acre empty lot selling for $6.5 million.
Oh, how the times have changed.
When Koerner first moved to Winter Park in 1988, business at restaurants and retail shops slowed down during the hot summer months as wealthy homeowners fled north for cooler conditions, he said. Not so anymore.
As we paddled across Lake Osceola, we passed the house formerly owned by Fred Rogers, a Pittsburgh native who attended Rollins College.
As we paddled down Venetian Canal, heading north to Lake Maitland, Koerner talked about why he enjoys roaming the chain of lakes.
“It’s surrounded by Orlando and Winter Park, but out here, you’re away from it all,” Koerner said. Plus, even if you can’t participate in the lives of the rich and famous, you can at least get a glimpse of how they live from the lakes.
When we reached Lake Maitland, we paddled past Kraft Azalea Park, glancing up at the birds flying overhead.
Over near the Isle of Sicily, we saw where comedian Carrot Top and Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers both have houses.
Ultimately, the tour proved to be as informative as it was relaxing. I enjoyed hearing about some of Winter Park’s storied history while also taking in the sights and sounds of nature.