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Chalet Suzanne

Approaching the Chalet Suzanne in Lake Wales, Florida. Copyright Terry Zinn - used with permission.We were a group of 12 seated in the cozy breakfast room overlooking the lake at Chalet Suzanne in Lake Wales, Florida. Except that there are no snow-capped peaks and the climate is temperate and balmy, the Central Florida setting of this legendary country inn and restaurant is as green and flower-strewn as a Swiss mountain valley.


The chalet, together with nearby Cypress Gardens and Bok Tower Gardens, compose a perfect triumvirate of places to turn down the frequency after you have experienced Florida's giant theme parks. Lake Wales is also renown as the winter home of the Black Hills Passion Play.

I first heard of Chalet Suzanne from an aunt and uncle who stopped there on their honeymoon in 1949, the year Duncan Hines, of the cake mix empire, gave it an enthusiastic write-up in his Adventures in Good Eating. "We took a rowboat out on the lake and played croquet," they cooed 50 years later. "I imagine it has changed a lot since we were there," my aunt added with a wistful smile.

Judging from the photos in their wedding album, it hasn't changed all that much. Remarkably, Chalet Suzanne is still owned and operated by descendants of its founder, Bertha Hinshaw. Between my aunt and uncle's visit and mine, name brand guests like media icon Walter Cronkite and astronaut Jim Irwin have enjoyed the Hinshaw's famous hospitality.

Broiled grapefruit for breakfast took me back to my Ohio childhood. Copyright Terry Zinn - used with permission.Breakfast at the chalet began with broiled grapefruit presented on blossom- shaped pottery the exact shade of the caramelized rind. Composed like a still life, it made me wish I were a painter. The first warm bite sent me back to my Ohio childhood where on winter mornings as a special treat, my mother sweetened our grapefruit with brown sugar and slipped it under the broiler until it took on the rich amber of French chestnuts. (Chalet Suzanne uses butter and cinnamon sugar in its recipe.) Then as now, I loved the taste, at once tart and sweet, that mingled on my tongue. The Generations Xers at the table, after confessing that breakfast for them is usually a soft drink, eyed the unfamiliar dish with skepticism but ended up enjoying every bite.

Baskets of homemade cinnamon rolls were filled and refilled, as were cups of tea and coffee throughout the meal of dollar pancakes with ligonberry sauce, ham and scrambled eggs. The food was worthy of our full attention, but there was the lakeside view to be enjoyed and the homey, though elegant interior filled with stained glass and choice antiques.

Warm grapefruit with its unexpected combination of flavors was the first of many pleasant surprises unveiled for us at Chalet Suzanne. Though it is called a chalet, it has the rambling proportions of a large villa with gardens, patios, fountains and balconies at every turn. Pastel-tinted cottages with steeples and gables peep through the landscape and there is even a vineyard and wine dungeon. The 70-acre estate is as self-sustaining as an old castle, but even castles didn't have their own airstrip.

Though it is called a chalet, it has the rambling proportions of a large villa with gardens, patios, fountains and balconies at every turn. Copyright Terry Zinn - used with permission.Determined and gutsy, Bertha Hinshaw opened the chalet, then her country home, in 1931 after she was left a widow during the Great Depression. She named it for her daughter who, along with son Carl, helped her run the inn and restaurant until World War II when Carl, a pilot, went off to war, and Suzanne married a favorite guest and moved to New York. While Carl was away, a kitchen fire destroyed the main house and dining rooms. When he returned after the war to help his mother rebuild, money and building materials were scarce, so the stable and several outbuildings were added to the family playroom, which had survived the fire and still stood over the lake. Today the structure with its unlikely architecture meanders in all directions on at least 14 different levels.

On the property are five dining rooms, 30 guestrooms, a gift shop, a ceramic studio, antique store and even a soup cannery. Chalet Suzanne soups are known worldwide and beyond, thanks to Jim Irwin. They were selected by NASA and the crew of Apollo 15 to be aboard its 1973 trip to the moon. More recently, Chalet Suzanne soups were served on Apollo-Soyuz.

A visit to the chalet, whether for a single meal or stay of several days, would not be complete without a brief stroll to the autograph garden to hunt for ceramic tiles signed by celebrities such as actor Vincent Price. One tile that attracted my attention was inscribed: TPBA annual football payoff dinner, May 1, 1998. Winner-Neff. Loser-Geary. Poor Geary, I thought and wished I lived close enough to make bets that concluded with a payoff dinner at Chalet Suzanne. Many of the tiles mark the wedding anniversary of couples who honeymooned at the chalet.

On the grounds of the Chalet. Copyright Terry Zinn - used with permission.During my visit, a very businesslike, well-informed guide was leading a tour of the buildings and grounds. He caught my attention because he looked so young. He turned out to be 13-year-old Eric Farewell, great-grandson of the founder whose family lives on the property. He conducts tours during National Bed and Breakfast Week in December and for special groups at other times of the year.

Each guestroom has its own character -- a brass bed, a romantic view, an intimate patio. All have a private entrance, private bath, air conditioning, telephone and cable TV as well as access to the European-tiled swimming pool, croquet lawn, volleyball court, horseshoe pitch and badminton court. Guests can jog through the fields or go fishing in the lake. Golf courses and tennis courts are nearby.

Chalet Suzanne is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has received a number of awards, among them 28 Florida Trend Golden Spoons and the American Bed and Breakfast Association's 3-crown excellence award.

Not only is the fourth generation actively involved in running the chalet, but also some visitors are children and grandchildren, and yes, nieces and nephews, of the original guests.

For reservations, write Chalet Suzanne Country Inn & Restaurant, 3800 Chalet Suzanne Drive, Lake Wales, Fl., 33853-7060, or call 941-676-6011, or fax 941-676-1814.

Recorded information on Bok Tower Gardens, a National Historic Landmark, is available by calling 941-676-9412.

For information on Cypress Gardens, call 800-282-2123 or 941-324-2111. Website: www.cypressgardens.com