HOWEY-IN-THE-HILLS, FLORIDA -- OK, it's not Miami. And it's not Palm Beach or Naples, either. This sleepy little town of 1,200 people in the middle of orange-grove country in central Florida, 45 minutes north of Orlando, is in "the middle of nowhere." True enough.
But the middle of nowhere is not a bad place for a resort that offers the activities of Miami, the landscaping of Palm Beach and the golf of Naples, all without the crowds and traffic.
Mission Inn Resort and Club is a surprise to those who drive through its entrance gates for the first time. They discover a beautifully appointed Spanish Colonial style hotel surrounded by 1,100 acres feturing eight tennis courts, two championship golf courses, three restaurants, a trap and skeet shooting range, a huge lake with 52-slip marina, fishing, powerboats and a luxurious 6,200-square-foot spa.
Add to that an incredibly challenging "Adventure Learning Center" for corporate team building that is not unlike the courses that the military Special Forces must face. It includes a high wire (and "high" means up in the treetops), a climbing wall and a balance beam. The latter requires that the whole team balance on board while changing places according to their birth dates. If anyone falls off, the team has to start again.
The fact is, you could stay at the resort for days and days without repeating an activity.
We chose the golf courses, which are renowned. El Campeon, one of Florida's oldest at 97 years, is ranked in the top ten of the state's 1,500 courses. It is both difficult and beautiful, with tropical vegetation that takes your mind off the hazards. The 17th hole is on a small island surrounded by a beach (which in golf terms is a "hazard") and the 18th, known as "Devil's Delight," ends over a wide swath of water just at the edge of the hole.
The blooming azaleas on this course in March are just as pretty as those at Augusta, and, in addition, the 8th hole boasts a spectacular pink tree, the Tabebuia, which looks like a blossoming cherry tree on steroids. The beauty of the flowering trees helps calm one's nerves when trying to hit your ball over the water.
Las Colinas, the newer course, is completely different, and you would not want to walk it, as the space between holes is lengthy, running through tree farms, ponds, open fields and deep woods with trees dripping with delicate Spanish moss, which some call "Grandfather's Beard." (When El Campeon first opened, incidentally, golfers moved from hole to hole by horse and buggy.)
Both courses are recognized as among the "Best Places to Play in North America" by Golf Digest, and both are surrounded by protected animal and bird life. When we were there, a mama alligator lolled in her own little marsh area, with her three little babies playing on top of her nose. A resident osprey has its own webcam on the resort site. Turtles watched us putt at Hole 8. Sandhill cranes flew overhead as we played and bald eagles watched as we drove from the tee. This was the real "Animal Kingdom" just 45 minutes north of the Disney one down in Orlando.
Of the five different restaurants, two lounges and poolside bar, our favorite eating place at Mission Inn was El Conquistador, an elegant indoor/outdoor dining room overlooking the fountain plaza where, on the night we were there, chairs were set up for an upcoming outdoor wedding. Talk about special service: when my husband asked for a martini, the cocktail waitress asked if he would like her to hand-stuff the olives in the drink. The "Veal Conquistador" is a scaloppini cut with Marsala wine topped with artichoke hearts, bearnaise sauce and mashed potatoes. Their "sampler appetizer" included bruschetta, chilled shrimp, crab cake, blue fin ahi tuna and calamari, all served with their own sauces. Fresh angel hair pasta was simmered in a creamy green apple vodka and asiago cheese sauce, and the dessert we chose was a Swedish lingonberry creme brulee. All was cooked to perfection by the young and talented executive chef Krystle Seaman.
There isn't much that would make you want to leave the property while at Mission Inn, but we were encouraged to check out the town of Mount Dora, a sweet lakeside village that claims to look like New England (it does, a bit) and is filled with antique shops and good restaurants. The nearby Lakeridge Winery and vineyards in Clermont gives guided tours and tastings, and the unexpected Yalaha Bakery three minutes down the road is a find for those who love German bread and pastries, a good deli and a lot of atmosphere. This may be the only bakery in the country that holds barbeques and live music parties on certain nights of the week.
Room prices at the resort start at $169, with a $12 resort fee per room per night. Mission Inn Resort & Club is at 10400 County Road 48, Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida, 800-874-9053, www.MissionInnResort.com