The oldest city in Highlands County, Avon Park was incorporated in 1886 and lies an hour south of Orlando.
In the early 20th century the city came to the fore as an upscale tourist destination. At that time, the Jacaranda Hotel attracted a number of prestigious guests including Hollywood actors and sports stars.
I’m happy to say that the hotel is still in business a century later, and is the centerpiece of a compact downtown area. Close by there’s a beautiful lakefront park with a beach, as well as the South Florida State College Campus, and a lot of interesting little museums.
The Avon Park area is also a golfer’s dream, with a string of seven highly-rated courses on the Citrus Golf Course Trail.
1. Donaldson Park
Avon Park’s Main Street runs past this sublime community park on Lake Verona. Donaldson Park’s downtown location makes it the go-to for outdoor public events like the Bluegrass Blueberry Festival in spring.
At any other time, the park’s big draw is its sandy, white, lakeside beach. This is the perfect place to take the kids swimming or just relax on a sunny day.
The beach is bordered by a large green area, with a lot of handsome live oaks providing shade. There are picnic tables under the canopy, as well as a boat ramp, restrooms, and playground equipment for the littles.
2. Avon Park Depot Museum
The Avon Park Historical Society runs this compelling museum in a converted depot from 1926. This was built for the Seaboard Airline Railroad, which served the area up to the mid-1960s.
Knowledgeable volunteers will be happy to show you around and impart lots of interesting historical insights.
Perusing the exhibits I saw refurbished railroad equipment, a vintage switchboard, a newspaper library, photographs, preserved documents, and a lot of militaria. There’s also an elegant old dining car outside, and you can visit for special lunches by appointment.
3. Avon Park Historic District
One thing I’d recommend doing in Avon Park is taking a stroll along Main Street. The blocks from South Delaney Avenue to US 27 are an historic district, with 13 contributing buildings.
One that is hard to ignore is the Jacaranda Hotel, built in the mid-1920s, and dubbed Avon Park’s “gracious lady”. Esteemed past guests include Clark Gable and Babe Ruth. Now the hotel is owned by South Florida State College, ensuring its preservation.
There’s a clutch of shops and restaurants close by, and I love the linear park threading between Main Street’s two lanes. Right in front of the hotel is a gorgeous grove of live oaks, with benches in the shade.
4. South Florida State College Wildstein Center
SFSC has a marvelous performing arts stage at the Wildstein Center. A real cultural asset for Avon park, this 1,460-seat venue hosts 30+ performances each year, and has welcomed the likes of Kenny Rogers, Jay Leno, and The Beach Boys.
The top entertainment venue for Florida’s Heartland, the state-of-the-art auditorium is equipped with cutting-edge lighting and acoustics, and there’s not a bad seat in the house.
On the calendar are musicals, plays, concerts, dance, comedy, talks, and family entertainment. For example, when I was in town the famous naturalist Grant Kemmerer was giving his Wild World of Animals show.
5. Avon Park Bluegrass Blueberry Festival
To celebrate the blueberry harvest in spring there’s a fun shindig every year at Donaldson Park. Running for more than a decade when I went to press, the Avon Park Bluegrass Blueberry Festival happens on the fourth Saturday in April.
True to its name, there’s several hours of live bluegrass music to enjoy at this event. You can also purchase fresh blueberries, as well as a host of blueberry treats from wine to muffins.
You’ve also got a choice of food trucks, raffles, kids’ entertainment, a bake-off, craft vendors, and much more.
6. SFSC Museum of Florida Art & Culture
A great reason to visit the SFSC campus is for this wonderfully presented museum that opened in 2001.
A giant showcase for celebrated artist Christopher Still, this free attraction features a unique blend of art and historical items, exploring the state’s culture and past.
I was especially intrigued by Still’s series of gicleé panels charting half a millennium of Florida history in the Concourse Gallery.
Elsewhere, permanent displays touch on Native Americans, the economy, and the roles of women and African Americans in the state’s history too. October to May you can also check out temporary exhibits in the Main Gallery.
7. Highlands Hammock State Park
To see Highlands County as it looked hundreds of years ago, I’d make the short trip south to this state park. On 9,000 acres, Highlands Hammock first opened to the public in the Great Depression, and was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
There are nine different trails to hike, as well as a three-mile bike loop. If you only have time for one, I think it has to be the elevated boardwalk leading through a magnificent cypress swamp.
For something easier, you can ride the seasonal tram. This hour-long tour reaches some remote parts of the park, while filling you in on its rich nature and history. Also allow some for the museum telling you the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps in this part of Florida.
8. Peter Powell Roberts Museum of Art & Cultural Center
This museum is home to an impressive collection of works by Peter Powell Roberts (1924-2014).
He is remembered for launching the famous graphics programs at Sarasota’s Ringling College of Art & Design, and eventually retired in the Sebring area.
Specializing in oil on wood, Roberts spent years painting the verdant landscapes at Highlands Hammock State Park. He bequeathed many of these works to the Heartland Cultural Alliance, which displays them at this museum.
The gallery here also presents rotating displays by regional artists, while there’s a gift shop selling Peter Powell Roberts prints, as well as sculpture, books, cards, jewelry and books by local authors.
9. Pinecrest Golf Club
A local option on the Citrus Golf Trail is this much-loved 18-hole course that has been around since 1926.
Laid out by the famed Donald Ross, Pinecrest Golf Club benefits from a natural setting. There’s no sign of the condos and winter homes that interfere with a lot of Florida courses.
At Pinecrest I was impressed by the manicured greens and fairways, and natural changes in topography. Strategically placed sand and water hazards that keep things interesting without being annoying.
Check out the newly remodeled Sandhill Grill restaurant here, with hunger-stomping burgers, beer on tap, and several large flat screen TVs.
10. Sebring International Raceway
If the name Sebring sounds familiar, it’s likely because of this world-renowned race track, partly on the city’s airport runways.
Opened in 1950, Sebring International Raceway is one of the oldest continuously operating motorsport facilities in the country.
My time to come is for the world-famous 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race, taking place every March. This race dates back to the year the track opened, and is considered part of the Triple crown of endurance racing, together with the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 24 Hours of Daytona.
Even for those who don’t consider themselves race fans, it’s a big occasion. There’s lots of live entertainment, great food, fun activities, and an all-around festive vibe.
11. Maxwell Groves Country Store
With rockers on the porch, this charming country store is just a couple of minutes east of downtown on E Circle St. Dating back some 90 years, Maxwell Groves Country Store developed from a small open-air fruit stand into a real institution.
Fitting for this part of Florida, this spot is known most of all for its citrus products. During the season (October to May) you can head here for everything from Valencia oranges to tangelos.
Naturally, there’s freshly squeezed orange juice, and even citrus wine, along with tons of local specialty items. But what I think really makes the store essential is the delicious orange soft serve ice cream.
12. Avon Park Lakes Farmers’ Market
If you want to buy some fresh produce and also give a boost to the local economy, there’s a monthly farmers’ market a few minutes away in Avon Park Lakes.
This takes place on second Sunday 9 am to 2 pm, on the picturesque shore of Lake Olivia, at the Avon Park Lakes Clubhouse.
There’s local seasonal produce of course, as well as a wide variety of other items. When I took a look these included honey, jams, jellies, pickles, kettle corn, baked goods, and all kinds of crafts, from jewelry to bath bombs.
There’s a special event to mark every season. For instance, I was in town in October, and there was a dog costume contest.
13. Little Italy
Days spent at Museums, parks, and golf courses may leave you famished. If what you need is hearty, inexpensive fare, there’s no better place to get it than Little Italy on West Main Street.
In an old bank building, it’s just a few blocks west of the historic district and features a variety of delectable pizza options. I couldn’t get enough of the authentic NY-style pizza. This is baked in a brick oven, and is even available by the slice.
You’ve also got other traditional Italian favorites like hot and cold subs, chicken and eggplant parmesan, lasagna, stromboli, and calzones.
14. River Greens Golf Course
Another exceptional public course to consider is River Greens, which opened in 1969. Sitting between three large lakes, this facility is still family owned and has fabulous vistas throughout.
It’s a true Florida golf experience here, with palms and orange trees framing the fairways, sandhill cranes roaming the fairways, and water everywhere.
In fact, I found it smarter to play as safe as possible on this course, as the water hazards can creep up on you. If power is a big part of your game, you’ll love the back 9, with three par-5s on the last four holes.
15. Maryland Fried Chicken
Also on West Main Street this humble, counter serve fried chicken joint is part of a chain with 20+ locations in the southeast.
The Avon Park franchise of Maryland Fried Chicken has been here since 1970. I have it on good authority that it’s the best place to get fried chicken for miles.
You can get it white, dark or all breast, and there are more than 20 herbs and spices in the dredge.
I found the chicken crispy and juicy, and my favorite of the sides was the creamy coleslaw, with the macaroni salad coming a close second.