Heritage Museums and Gardens on Cape Cod

Most who visit Cape Cod blow past the town of Sandwich, Massachusetts, on their way to Provincetown or the shore. Their loss.

Sandwich Village, just south of scenic Route 6A, looks like an old colonial town, which it is—the oldest, in fact, on Cape Cod. It has lots of historic buildings, a venerable inn, a cluster of shops and cafes, a restored and working grist mill picturesquely set beside a large pond, and the highly regarded Sandwich Glass Museum.

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The boardwalk to Town Neck Beach.

On the north side of Route 6A is a quarter-mile boardwalk across a marsh to Town Neck Beach, where the placid waters of Cape Cod Bay lap onto the sand. You’ll also find a few waterfront restaurants at the town marina, and nearby is the Cape Cod Canal visitor center and the bike trail that runs alongside the canal.

But Sandwich’s most surprising asset is hidden away just past the village center at the end of a residential road. If you’re looking for diversions beyond the beach, Heritage Museums and Gardens is one of the best on Cape Cod.

Josiah K. Lilly III, of the family that founded and ran the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Company, established Heritage Museums and Gardens 50 years ago to showcase some of the Lilly collections. Now encompassing 100 acres, it is the largest public garden in southern New England—and much more. It has three museum buildings devoted to automobiles, art, and Americana, a STEM school for young children, and a restored antique carousel from 1908.

Sue and I visited Sandwich just after Labor Day in perfect weather. While we didn’t go to the Sandwich Glass Museum—we were still glassy-eyed from our visit the day before to the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York—the Heritage site was our top priority.

Heritage Map

We walked through garden areas first. Heritage contains a variety of gardens, all interconnected by paved paths, but it is perhaps best known for its hydrangeas and rhododendrons. We visited while the hydrangeas were in bloom, which occurs from early July through late September. We noticed a profusion of rhododendrons throughout the park. The gardens must be spectacular when they are blooming, usually from early May to mid-June.

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The park office building from the North American Hydrangea Test Garden.

Besides the accessible paved pathways, unpaved paths loop through the woods throughout the rolling terrain, so you can walk quite a distance and vary your route. You can also hop on a free tram that stops at several points in the gardens.

Heritage has three museum buildings, and because this was its 50th anniversary, each museum contained exhibitions celebrating that event.

The Automobile Gallery occupies a wood and stone Shaker round barn. The exhibition in this area was called From Carriage to Classic: How Automobiles Transformed America. Most of the 23 vehicles chosen to illustrate this theme dated from the first four decades of the 1900s, all restored to a dazzling shine and many of them drivable. They included a White Steamer from 1909 purchased by President William Howard Taft, the first president to be officially transported in an automobile.

The American Art and Carousel Galley contained a small but diverse selection of artifacts from the Heritage Collection, which numbers more than 12,000 objects, including military miniatures, weapons, models of sailing ships, paintings, and much more. The objects on exhibit were organized around four themes: “Sense of Place,” “Home,” “Work,” and “Conflict of Ideas.” The Hundred Acres School and the 1908 Looff Carousel are in the same building. This is one of only about 10 Looff carousels that you can still ride.

The display in the Special Exhibitions Gallery was called Through Your Eyes: 50 Years of Heritage Memories. It contained a careful chosen selection of works from the collection, many accompanied by people’s photos and memories of their visits to the museum.

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Heritage Gardens’ Old East Mill, typical of wind-powered mills once used on Cape Cod, was built in nearby Orleans in 1800.

Displayed throughout the exhibition galleries and grounds were 50 objects from the collections chosen by museum friends, experts, and local leaders as their favorites—a truly engaging way to celebrate the museum’s first half century.

The park has a small café with decent clam chowder and other food, and a covered outdoor space in which to enjoy it. Or take a break during your Heritage visit as we did and visit one the many local ice cream places. We headed to Shipwreck Ice Cream, where we noticed a line of people the evening before. Interesting flavors, large portions, and reasonable prices were the reasons why.

So next time you visit Cape Cod, take a break from the beach and spend a few hours here. Or spend a whole day and explore the rest of Sandwich too. You won’t be sorry.

David Romanowski, 2019

Botanical Gardens in Florida

During our annual spring trip to Florida, Sue and I always seek out new places to visit: Old Florida attractions, state parks and other nature preserves, and, lately, botanical gardens. Over the past few years, we’ve visited or revisited quite a few throughout Florida. We haven’t explored together most of the southern third of the state, so we still have many more to see. Here are some we’ve visited within the last couple of years.

Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
Gainesville
62 acres

Tucked away just southwest of Gainesville and the University of Florida, Kanapaha is an almost hidden gem. We always stop to visit when we’re passing through. Arrive early in the morning and you’ll have the lush gardens pretty much to yourself.

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A serpent and other creatures in the Children’s Garden.

After entering the botanical gardens at the Summer House, we usually head left and wander through the cluster of small gardens set along a meandering stream, including an oriental garden, a rose garden, and a whimsical children’s garden, a highlight you shouldn’t miss.

Then we make our way to the other side of the Summer House. There a loop trail threads through a palm hammock, a native woodland, and spectacular stands of bamboo, the largest public display of the woody grasses in Florida. In all there are two dozen separate gardens throughout the property linked by a mile and a half of paved paths.

Washington Oaks Gardens
South of St. Augustine
20 acres of formal gardens

Washington Oaks doesn’t appear on lists I’ve seen of Florida gardens, but it should. It’s one of the loveliest places I’ve ever been to in the state. Less than 20 miles south of St. Augustine, it was once the winter retreat of Owen and Louise Young, who acquired the property in the 1930s. Just before her death, Louise donated Washington Oaks to the state, stipulating that its formal gardens be maintained for the public to enjoy. Washington Oaks is now a state park. The gardens are part of the Washington Oaks Historic District, which includes the Youngs’ modest cottage beside the Matanzas River.

As you wander along the river, down the nature trails, under the live oaks, and through the manicured grounds surrounding a lovely pond, you may find yourself wishing you could live here. I know I did.

Coquina rock and tide pools on the beach.

Be sure to visit the other section of the state park across Route A1A from the gardens area. A short drive takes you down to a beach of coarse, orange-brown sand, where you can climb around on extensive outcroppings of coquina, a rock made of sand and shells that was used to build many structures in Florida, including the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States.

Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens
Port Orange
10 acres

Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens is another place you likely won’t find on lists of Florida gardens. Snuggled in a suburb just south of Daytona, it is maintained by a local volunteer group and is open to the public for free (donations appreciated). I first visited it on one of my Bike Florida tours and again on a second bike tour. I finally brought Sue here this spring.

Part of a former plantation, Dunlawton contains the ruins of a sugar mill. Exhibit panels explain the sugar mill operation and interpret the preserved ruins you can explore here. Along the wooded and shady garden paths, you will find ruins of a very different sort: concrete dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, the remains of Bongoland, a kitschy tourist attraction that existed here into the 1960s.

I wouldn’t consider this a “destination garden,” but if you pass this way it is well worth a detour. With its campy concrete dinos, interesting sugar mill ruins, and rustic but well maintained gardens along quiet wooded paths, Dunlawton is not far but worlds away from the famous sands and screaming speedway of Daytona Beach.

Harry P. Leu Gardens
Orlando
50 acres

The first time we tried to visit Leu Gardens, Google Maps directed us to a locked gate rather than a public entrance. Then we discovered that this particular Sunday was a free-admission day with a plant sale taking place. The parking lot was full and the neighborhood streets were jammed. We gave up and left.

We returned on Monday, and the gardens were wonderfully quiet and peaceful. Leu Gardens focuses on plants that can be cultivated locally (USDA Zone 9B to be exact). The gardens are centered on the Leu House Museum, a 19th-century home last lived in by Harry P. Leu and his wife Mary Jane, who donated the property to the city of Orlando. The house was closed when we visited due to ongoing repairs from Hurricane Irma.

While we enjoyed wandering along the extensive system of walkways through the Tropical Stream Garden, Idea Garden, Rose Garden, Arid Garden, and more, I can’t say that this is one of my favorite Florida gardens. Maybe it’s the suburban setting or that I prefer the less formal design of a place like Kanapaha Botanical Gardens to Leu Gardens’ more neatly manicured grounds. But don’t let that discourage you from visiting.

Bok Tower Gardens
Lake Wales
50 acres of gardens

Bok Tower Gardens has been an iconic Florida attraction since 1929. The “Singing Tower” with its 60-bell carillon, featured on many a vintage postcard, stands atop one of the highest hills on the Florida peninsula (elevation about 295 feet). Edward W. Bok fell in love with the property near his Florida winter retreat and bought it in the 1920s to create a bird sanctuary here. He enlisted the renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. to design and develop the grounds.

You can spot the tower from miles away; finding the entrance to the gardens is a little trickier. The entrance is not on the main highway, where you might expect to find it (your map app may misdirect you). But Bok Tower is worth seeking out; this is one of Florida’s great gardens.

You can spend a lot of time here meandering along the lushly wooded informal gardens, examining the exterior details of the magnificent tower, visiting the estate house, and enjoying the exhibits in the visitor center on the tower, the carillon, and the history of the gardens. And you’ll probably want to relax for a while in one of the lawn chairs near the tower and enjoy its ringing bells and that Florida rarity: an expansive hilltop view.

McKee Gardens
Vero Beach
18 acres

Like Bok Tower Gardens, McKee Gardens also has an Old Florida backstory. It opened in 1932 as the much larger McKee Jungle Gardens. The 80-acre park was created from a subtropical hammock (a Florida forest) and featured tropical flora on grounds laid out by the Olmstead landscape design firm, which had also designed Bok Tower Gardens. A few resident monkeys and an alligator completed the jungle theme. McKee soon became one of Florida’s most popular tourist attractions.

But like many Florida tourist draws popular before Disney World, McKee Jungle Gardens fell into decline and closed in 1976. More than three-fourths of the property was sold off and developed. Decades later, an effort was launched to preserve the remainder of the property, and the reincarnated McKee Gardens reopened in the early 2000s.

If you love botanical gardens, McKee Gardens is one you don’t want to miss. Walkways loop past streams and ponds, through lovely wooded settings, and among thousands of native and tropical plants. The history of the property is recounted in exhibits in the Hall of Giants, itself a historic building from the original park. It still features “the world’s largest single-piece mahogany table”—38 feet long.

An added attraction on our visit were the 21 bronze sculptures of people engaged in everyday activities, created by artist Seward Johnson and placed throughout the park. They were so uncannily lifelike that we sometimes wondered, when we saw someone sitting still on a bench, whether that person was real or a sculpture. We were fortunate to catch the exhibition before it ended. A consolation: An elaborate Children’s Garden opens this summer.

Heathcote Botanical Gardens
Fort Pierce
3.5 acres

Heathcote Gardens is only about 14 miles south of McKee Gardens via US Route 1, so it’s easy to visit both in one trip. Heathcote is much smaller and more intimate than McKee Gardens; it has its own kind of charm. You can easily explore the place in an hour, but the serenity of the gardens on a quiet morning might make you want to linger longer.

The informally laid out grounds consist of a number of small “pocket gardens,” including the Reflection Garden, Japanese Garden, Children’s Garden, Rain Forest, and Palm and Cycad Walk. The most surprising feature is the outstanding collection of bonsai trees, displayed in an outdoor gallery. The garden brochure states that the hundred trees on display comprise the largest tropical bonsai collection in the United States. The only place I have ever seen a more impressive bonsai collection is at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

Nature Coast Botanical Gardens
Spring Hill
3.5 acres

This is another small but charming garden hidden away in a suburban neighborhood about 25 miles or so north of Tarpon Springs on the Gulf Coast. Lovingly maintained by the volunteers of the Spring Hill Garden Club, it is free to the public (donations appreciated). Like Heathcote Gardens, it consists of a collection of small themed gardens, nineteen in all. Some of the more interesting and unusual ones include the Fantasy Garden, Memorial Garden, Florida Native Plant Garden, Poinsettia Garden, Secret Garden, and the Waterfall Garden, which features an outdoor model railroad.

You’ll probably have to rely on a map app to find this garden. But beware! When I first began researching gardens, I thought Nature Coast Botanical Gardens was located a hundred miles farther north—because there is another community named Spring Hill  just northwest of Gainesville and not far from the similarly named Nature Coast State Trail, a well-known bicycle trail!

Other Gardens We’ve Visited

Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo, just north of St. Petersburg, has 30 acres of cultivated gardens along with other natural areas. It is part of a larger park that includes Heritage Village, a 21-acre Pinellas County living history museum. If you are biking along the popular Pinellas Trail, which connects St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs, you will pass right by it, but it’s easy to miss. When we biked this way several years ago, we didn’t see signs directing us to the park. We found it using Google Maps. I don’t have decent photos from that day to prod my memory, but do I recall that both sites were well worth a visit.

Alfred B. Maclay Gardens north of Tallahassee is another garden we visited several years ago but don’t have good photos of. Part of a much larger state park of the same name, it features 28 acres of ornamental gardens begun in 1923 by Alfred and Louise Maclay, who purchased the property for their winter home. The gardens are especially known for their camellias and azaleas. The park contains several miles of walking and biking trails. This was another place where Google Maps directed us to a non-public entrance.

But Wait . . . There’re More!

I learned about many of these gardens through the lists on these two blog posts. I look forward to visiting more of them on future trips to Florida.

“The 15 Best Botanical Gardens in Florida”

“Florida Botanical Gardens”

David Romanowski, 2019

Brookside Gardens’ Model Train Display Recalls the 1960s

Brookside Gardens near Wheaton, Maryland, is one of our favorite local gardens. During the holiday season, it is renowned for its nightly Garden of Lights display. But day or night, there’s another holiday attraction worth visiting here: the Winter Train Display, located in one of the two adjoining conservatories.

Members of the Washington, Virginia, & Maryland Garden Railway Society install, maintain, and staff the train display. The live plantings that adorn the main layout like a miniature forest are provided and maintained by Brookside Gardens staff.

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The main layout contains a model of the conservatory complex (foreground) in which this train display resides. A tiny version of the train display is inside the conservatory on the left!

The display consists of two separate G-Scale (large-scale) layouts: a large two-train/two-track layout occupying the center of the room, and a linear layout representing the Cabin John Trolley Line, which ran from Georgetown in Northwest Washington to Glen Echo Park, a popular amusement park in suburban Maryland. Both layouts contain scale models of iconic local structures and represent the time period of the 1960s.

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In the foreground is model of the handsome Kensington Train Station, one of several iconic local buildings, past and present, recreated in the train display. The station still serves Kensington, Maryland.

The photos below depict the Cabin John Line display. It includes several structures from the heyday of Glen Echo Park plus some others that could once be seen on a trolley ride along the Potomac River from the city into the countryside.

And don’t overlook the rest of the 50-acre gardens, part of Montgomery County’s Wheaton Regional Park. Brookside Gardens is worth revisiting throughout the year.

David Romanowski, 2018

Summer Sojourns, 2018

As summer nears its end, I am somewhat surprised to find that I have spent a total of 47 days—almost 7 weeks—traveling this year so far. I’ve already written about three of these trips. Here are just a few images from some of the others.

My most recent trip was a 10-day, 1,750-mile drive to explore some coastal areas of New England I wanted to get to know better. I passed through Williamstown in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts; spent a couple days visiting Bristol and Providence, Rhode Island; and went on to visit several towns along the south coast of Massachusetts, Sandwich on Cape Cod, Rockport north of Boston, and various towns on the South Shore below Boston. I also took side trips to eastern New York and Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

Along the way I reconnected with quite a few people: my oldest friend (from orientation in college) and his wife (a friend from my Michigan days), two of my newest friends (whom I met through my bicycling trips), two good friends I’ve known since my early working years at the Boston Museum of Science, another friend from the Science Museum I hadn’t seen in 35 years, and a friend from the National Air and Space Museum and his wife, who have retired to New Hampshire. These people span almost every period of my adult life.

The weather cooperated beautifully, Siri’s wayfinding proved invaluable, SiriusXM satellite radio relaxed me on the long interstate drives, and I had a great time.

David Romanowski, 2018

“Roadside Attractions” at the U.S. Botanic Garden

For the second year in a row, the “Season’s Greenings” holiday display at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., has a travel theme. Last year it was “National Parks and Historic Places.” This year it is “Roadside Attractions.”

The display contains more than 40 individual structures made of plant materials, ranging from a Route 66 diner to the Corn Palace, Cadillac Ranch, Mount Rushmore, Lucy the Margate Elephant, Niagara Falls and the Maid of the Mist, and many more roadside attractions you may or may not know about.

Applied Imagination, a Kentucky-based firm, has worked with the Botanic Garden to create a new display every year since 2004. On display each year as well are a dozen models of iconic Washington monuments, memorials, museums, and other buildings also crafted from plant materials.

The creativity and detail work evident in these creations is spectacular. So are the conservatory’s poinsettia displays. Visiting the U.S. Botanic Garden on Christmas morning has become a tradition Sue and I look forward to every year.

“Roadside Attractions” opened on Thanksgiving and is on display until New Year’s Day. For more information, visit the U.S. Botanic Garden website.

David Romanowski, 2017