ORLANDO – Just east of The Mouse, there’s an entire city waiting to be discovered.
This city has long been known for its theme parks and shopping malls, but there’s a cool, new vibe in the city’s growing downtown. Which makes it attractive for not just family trips but also hipsters looking for a fun (and reasonably priced) alternative in the Florida sun. Here are some suggestions.
DRINKING Most folks don’t conjure up images of Orlando when you mention great bar towns, but the cocktail scene has kicked things up a notch or three the past few years and you’ll find a couple of sleek, sophisticated cocktail bars that feel like something out of Toronto’s West Queen West or Vancouver’s Gastown. Herman’s Loan Office features a gorgeous marble bar, a comfy sofa in front of an electric fireplace and soft lights, giving the place a brighter feel than many cocktail spots.
They give you a card that asks how you like your cocktails (e.g., light or dark, comforting or adventurous) and then they take it from there with a bespoke cocktail for just $12. Around the corner on N. Orange Ave., The Courtesy Bar features a wall of drawers from an old dispensary and knowledgeable bartenders who have tattoos on their tattoos. Orange Ave. also features sports bars, Irish pubs and western/cowboy bars.
DINING East End Market is the best place to sample a selection of great food. You’ll find everything from a top-notch coffee spot (Lineage) with perfect pour-overs to a lovely cheese shop and a bar selling cold-pressed juices and smoothies. There’s also a lovely restaurant called Txokos with a fine patio and a Florida shop selling palmetto honey, locally-made bread and dog treats. The Baoery, a vibrant place that’s just a short walk from the downtown core, has Chinese movies playing on the walls and a nice mix of Asian/Mexican/North American cuisine.
The short rib tacos were moist but a little bland. Far better to my way of thinking were the baos: tiny pastries filled with rich bit. The pork belly was great, as was the Asian fried chicken bao with kimchi and cucumber. Market on South, in the fast-rising Milk District, Market on South is a vegetarian spot that makes an utterly fantastic kale Caesar with garlic, blackened corn, red onion and pickled watermelon slices. For an extra $3 you’ll get tasty strips of tempeh “bacon,” tempeh being an Indonesian dish made from deep fried, fermented soybeans. They do Nanaimo Bars, too! Definitely a step above theme park hot dogs.
DISCOVERING Lake Eola is a beautiful lake on the eastern edge of downtown, with an Asian pagoda that’s just steps from a monument to U.S. Civil War dead. You can take a swan boat out and admire the growing skyline, or just take a long walk around the water. Mills 50 is a fantastic foodie destination, with cheap and cheerful Asian food and fantastic Vietnamese markets. The area also is home to a casual coffee spot called Dandelion Communitea, with vegan menus and great java. Ivanhoe Row is a tidy series of shops just north of downtown, with small restaurants, a gorgeous wine shop and independent stores tucked into picture-perfect courtyards overflowing with pink bougainvillea.
DREAMING The Aloft Hotel sits across from the handsome Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Centre. The hotel features a ton of local art, a pool table in the lobby and sleek bar that serves a killer margarita made with George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila, agave nectar, fresh lime and spicy jalapenos. Rooms vary in size and feature funky furnishings (mine had two small, lime green rocking chairs), plus an espresso maker and free Wi-Fi. It’s also said to be one of only two LEED certified gold hotels in Florida.
DAY TRIPPING Just a few minutes from downtown Orlando is Winter Park, a fantastic, pedestrian friendly Florida town with wonderful shops and restaurants. Try Prato for great Italian food and a nice patio out front. They make great pizzas, too. The Alfond Inn is a beautiful, quiet boutique hotel with a lovely rooftop pool. Paul McCartney has been known to stay here when he’s in the Orlando area, I’m told. You’ll also find the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum, with the world’s top collections of Tiffany art. Try a ride on one of the tour boats that take in the sights on the nearby lakes.
DEAL OF THE WEEK
Trafalgar has launched a four-week “buy one, get one for 30 per cent off,” travel campaign. Every week they’ll focus on a different theme and offer limited-time savings on select and new itineraries. For the first week (available until February 22), they’re offering nine of their most romantic trips to Europe with savings of up to $1,184 per couple. Trips include four-star hotels, many local meals, VIP access to selected sights, expert local specialists and more. Themes and activities include French vineyards, olive oil tasting in Tuscany and romantic poets of England and Ireland.
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