Although it’s a bit of a haul to the nearest interstate and points beyond, I love living in the town of Winter Haven, the Lizard Lounge’s fair city (population 32,577). It has access to recreation, art, and fine wines just like any larger city, but also has a lot of the charm of smaller towns that can’t be fully appreciated unless you’ve lived in one.
I grew up in rural Alabama. Although we had easy access to nearby small towns and cities with their corporate chain grocery and department stores and the same fast food everyone else in America ate, I also have great memories of being able to explore the creek and woods behind our house, getting an ice cream sandwich from the tiny country store down the road, and learning to drive in a manual transmission car on a gravel road. (Loose gravel and an uncoordinated 15-year-old were not a winning combination.)
To my knowledge, Winter Haven doesn’t offer many gravel road opportunities, but there is an amazing produce stand not too far from the Lounge that I suppose could qualify as a country store (no ice cream sandwiches, though). It’s just a tin-roofed, open-air shed enclosed in chicken wire, but it always has some of the most beautiful in-season fruits and vegetables, including cantaloupes so sweet their fragrance is almost intoxicating.
There’s always a car wash staffed by the kids in the marching band being held somewhere on Saturday and the local Imperial Symphony Orchestra usually has an “Outdoor Pops” concert scheduled on the shores of one of the many lakes in town. (Winter Haven is known as “The Chain of Lakes City” because of the 24 lakes within the city limits that are connected by a system of navigable, man-made canals.)
We have an award-winning community theatre which also houses a rotating art display space, we host the Cleveland Indians for spring training each year, and it’s not unusual to see an alligator snout floating on the surface of one of the lakes in the chain. Delightful diversity!
There’s a small but vibrant downtown area with a variety of shopping, dining, and entertainment opportunities, including weekend musical events or antique car shows in the downtown park (a park which is also home to a small but growing sculpture garden).
The nice guy in the paint department at Home Depot knows me by name, the Publix grocery store where I shop is happy to stock things I ask for (like pumpkin seeds), and I can run on any street in town at any time of the day or night without worrying.
I lived in Atlanta for several years and, while I loved having access to everything a larger city has to offer, I find it much more satisfying at this stage in my life to just pop in for an occasional visit to get my “urban fix” and return home to my small town comforts, like enjoying the scent of orange blossoms from a comfortable chair on my front porch.
In fact, I think I’ll do that right now…