Romance and enchantment at Chalet Suzanne

By Alberte Villeneuve-Sinclair
True North Perspective

Alberte Villeneuve-Sinclair is the author of The Neglected Garden and two French novels. Visit her website to learn more

Alberte Villeneuve-Sinclair

Last week, I promised to tell you about Chalet Suzanne, an enchanting Florida restaurant and country inn we stumbled upon during our January vacation in Florida. We discovered Chalet Suzanne quite by chance when I noticed a huge billboard advertisement at the corner of Highway 27 and Eagle Ridge shopping mall.

Don and I decided we wanted to investigate the place. We were unprepared and pleasantly surprised when we slowly drove up the 100 acre estate owned since 1931 by the Hinshaw family (four generations of them). Situated in Lake Wales, not far from Bok Tower, Chalet Suzanne is an eclectic collection of mostly pink or soft-colored pavilions with guestrooms (all unique), a gift shop, a spa, swimming pool, ceramic studio, soup cannery and even a landing strip for light planes.

Chalet Suzanne at night

We visited the restaurant first and were bedazzled by a series of multi-level rooms brimming with fine antiques, stained glass, old-fashioned lamps, quality porcelain, crystal and silver, mementos from far away places collected by Bertha Hinshaw who loved to travel and entertain. Five dining-rooms, each decorated in a different style, overlook Lake Suzanne. We checked the menu and chatted with one of the ladies who has worked in the restaurant for years. She assured us we would not regret the experience and added there would be entertainment during the evening. Sam Paul Anderson would be playing favorite oldies on the piano. We made reservations for the next night and continued our tour with Don taking lots of pictures of interesting nooks and crannies. We wandered over to the Swedish Bar with its hand-painted murals, read some comments from previous diners and marveled at the photo display of internationally known guests: astronauts, actors, comedians, politicians, princes and kings who enjoyed the gourmet fare offered by Bertha and her family. To name but a few: Astronaut Col. Jim Irwin, Duncan Hines, J. L. Kraft, Johnny Carson, Andy Gibb, Robert Redford, Dinah Shore, Burt Reynolds, Vincent Price, Rosemary Clooney, The Lettermen, Michael Landon and many more.

On our way out, we met Dee Hinshaw who runs Chalet Suzanne with her husband Eric. She encouraged us to visit the gift shop, the Autograph Garden, the chalets that were open for viewing and of course, the Soup Cannery that has produced the famous Soup Romaine or Moon Soup served on Apollo flights to the moon.

Each chalet guestroom we visited had a unique style. The one we loved best was decorated Oriental-style and offered all the comforts and amenities one would expect of a fine inn. All of them had a private entrance and a special name, Hide Away South and Sunset, being two of the 26 units.

After visiting the Autograph Garden where visitors have left the souvenir of their visit on a ceramic tile, we headed for the Soup Cannery. Carl Hinshaw (Bertha's son) started this project in his garage. As the popularity of his soups increased, he built the cannery in 1956. Because Carl had been a pilot in WWII, the property has an airstrip and the family owns their own planes. Guests can fly in for their vacation at Chalet Suzanne and the family holds special fundraisers around the airfield.

Allie and Don at Chalet Suzanne

"Evenings at Chalet Suzanne tend to create memories that last a lifetime." And indeed, they kept their promise. When we arrived at Chalet Suzanne the next evening, the whole place was aglow with thousands of soft lights. We decided we wanted to take a picture before going in and lo and behold the gentleman who offered to immortalize the moment was Eric Hinshaw himself.

We were greeted cordially and offered a table near a window overlooking the lake. One of the ladies recognized us from the day before. She had teased Don for wearing shorts that day, "You must be from Canada!" Indeed we were! For our meal, Don decided on a Black Angus filet mignon and I chose the Saffron shrimp with caviar rice. As we sipped on our drinks, we reveled in the joy of going back in time when atmosphere and fine dining were savored at a leisurely pace, where lace tablecloths, fine dinnerware and good service were offered. Our meal was delicious. Don said it was one of the best steaks he had eaten. We sent our compliments to Chef Larry Barsotti and perused the dessert menu. Very tempting! I chose a rum cream pie and Don chose an old classic, the walnut carrot cake. To die for! We chatted with a young couple from Tampa. They were staying at Chalet Suzanne and asked if we had visited Bok Tower and Gardens yet. A "must see" they told us.

Meanwhile, Sam was entertaining us with his beautiful renditions of such hits as Mona Lisa, What a Wonderful world, Georgia ... During intermission, he came over and chatted with the guests. Don and I both love music and I love dancing so I asked him if we could dance. Sam smiled and said they encouraged their patrons to do so. When we got up to dance, he played Unforgettable and sang for us. It was a special moment in time: our first romantic dinner and dance. An evening to cherish! Our young friends from Tampa applauded and congratulated us.

We purchased Sam's CD and I often listen to it when I want to relax or reminisce. As promised, Chalet Suzanne delivered romance and enchantment ... a lovely memory that will stay hidden in our hearts.

Don't forget, our best souvenirs are often the unexpected ones. But pleasure and enjoyment are choices we make.

Enjoy the unexpected pleasures that come your way!


29 January 2010 — Return to cover.