CHALET SUZANNE: The forgotten gem of Lake Wales
Shaun and I spent a few weeks earlier this year visiting my parents in their snowbird home – Lake Wales, Florida (with stops in Nashville, Louisville and Key West). Lake Wales is a sleepy little town in central Florida about 1.5 hours south of Orlando – and the area (Polk County) is home to well over 100 retirement communities. My parents’ is called Saddlebag (great name) and our time there was full of cards, wine, bingo, The Price Is Right, and Let’s Make A Deal. Perfection. My parents have been going there for years and so far the highlight had been a drive to Spook Hill – an optical illusion that makes a car in neutral appear to travel uphill. Awe. Some.
That all changed this year when on a drive to the local WinDixie my mom casually mentioned a little resort called CHALET SUZANNE that was legendary in the area – first gaining popularity back in the 1930s and 40s. I wanted to see it so we decided to pull in and check it out.
Originally named the Carleton Club,Chalet Suzanne was intended to be a resort for golf and tennis fans and was the combined vision of cheese baron James L Kraft and Carl and Bertha Hinshaw. Kraft bowed out shortly after and when Carl passed away in 1931 Bertha decided to take a chance and opened up her home as a restaurant and inn for travellers – serving unique dishes on fine china she had gathered from around the world.
In 1943 the Chalet Suzanne was destroyed by a fire, but resourceful (and determined) Bertha quickly rebuilt it using salvaged parts from the stables, servant quarters, and the chicken house. This resulting unusual design remains unchanged today.
From the minute we drove through the gates you got the feeling that time had just stopped. Everything is over the top – antiques, stained glass, opulent tiling, an overgrown fountain, art-deco lam posts adorned with dolphins, and a colour palette of pink, yellow, teal, and blue. I loved it.
Here are some other weird and wonderful things you should know about Chalet Suzanne:
- Chalet Suzanne has its own soup cannery – making soups and sauces from their own recipes (this was started by Carl Jr in 1953 out of their garage)
- The soups were so popular that they were selected by NASA and the crew of Apollo 15 to be onboard their trip to the moon in 1973
- You can see a can of their signature “Romaine” soup at the Smithsonian Museum – with a special “Moon Soup” label
- Chalet Suzanne has 5 dining rooms, 30 guest rooms, a cannery, an experiential vineyard, a citrus garden, a gift shop, spa, ceramic studio, and a private landing strip
- One of the early names was Suzanne’s Tavern, but when people started to wonder exactly what KIND of business it was, the name was changed to Chalet Suzanne
- One of the first visitors to Chalet Suzanne was Duncan Hines, who went on to create “Adventures in Good Eating” – one of the first leisure travel books in the United States (and always prominently featured Chalet Suzanne)
- Chalet Suzanne is listed on the national register of historic places
- More about the soup: they went up with Apollo 16 too and the Russians enjoyed them at a joint meeting in space on Apollo-Soyuz
Sadly, not even being a national historic place was able to save Chalet Suzanne. The Hinshaw family (still run by the same family that started it) has placed the property and all of its contents up for auction a few weeks after we visited.
I hope Chalet Suzanne ends up in the hands of someone who really loves the history of this weird and wonderful place.