Deep in the heart of Florida, near a town called Ona, off a series of back roads lined with orange trees and scrub palmetto, there stands a very unlikely sign: Castle This Way. I reached for the blinker and checked with my friend in the passenger seat. He gave a nod. We were on the right route, even if we weren’t exactly sure what we were headed toward.
I’d heard about Solomon’s Castle from my neighbor, a Minnesotan who loves day trips around the state almost as much as I do, and he told me, “It’s wacky in a way you find only in Florida.”
So on a Saturday morning, my road tripping friend and I headed north past Arcadia, following the GPS onto roads that grew progressively smaller. The sky was overcast with dark clouds, and rain began to pour as we neared the castle. It made for an ominous setting.
But when we reached our destination, we were more delighted than frightened. What sort of mind, we wondered, could produce such a thing? Amid a lush green landscape filled with bougainvillea and bromeliads, the castle glowed metallically. Instead of being built from stone, like your typical castle, this one was made with offset printing plates from the Wauchula newspaper. Size-wise, it was smaller than a standard European castle, though it did have a turret and a moat. The windows were made of stained glass with scenes from nursery rhymes—sights of Humpty Dumpty and the cow jumping over the moon.
“It’s a castle, all right,” my friend said as we stood gazing up from the grass. “Just not any castle I’ve seen.”
A tour guide hurried us inside, and we joined a small group of people in the castle’s foyer. It had the dusty smell of an old workshop. My friend, not looking, bumped into a metal statue of a knight that clinked and clanked as it rocked on its frame. He looked at me wide-eyed, and I just shook my head.
The guide began by explaining the castle’s history, how it was built over 12 years by artist and author Howard Solomon starting in the 1970s, and that today it houses much of Solomon’s work. Until he passed away in 2016, Solomon gave the tours himself.
“It’s all his,” the guide said, gesturing to the art and winking at the crowd. “Even the script.”
That script, which she delivered in a merry laughing way, was full of puns. And the artwork itself—much of it made from reclaimed material—had that same jovial sense of humor. A sign that hung above several of the works read “Beer Can Period” and looked to be accurate. Besides beer cans, Solomon favored oil drums and recycled car parts, and most of his art has a wit to its design.
One of the women on the tour leaned over to us.
“Did you know he had five wives?” she asked.
Her friend tittered. “Takes a special woman to deal with a man like that.”
It’s hard to say just what kind of man Solomon was. Eccentric, certainly, and perhaps a touch mad. When he had finished his castle and tired of his art projects, he decided to build a boat. Three-quarters of the size of the Santa Maria, the wooden ship sits beside the castle in a watery depression and is aptly named The Boat in the Moat. Today, it’s a restaurant.
After the tour, my friend and I crossed the wooden bridge to the boat and took a seat inside at one of its heavy wooden tables. I glanced around at the interior of the ship and was seized by a sudden fit of giggles. I was in a Spanish galleon in the middle of the swamp about to have pot roast and sweet tea. My neighbor was right. This place was wacky in a specifically—and wonderfully—Florida way.
Related: The Best Florida Day Trips
If You Go …
Solomon’s Castle is open Oct. 1 to Aug. 1, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The castle is closed Mondays and for the months of August and September. Admission is $12.50 for adults and $5 for children. (863) 494-6077, solomonscastle.com
Every part of the castle is astonishing. Inside, look for the wooden reproductions of Picassos and Modiglianis as well as the giant lion made from an oil drum. Outside, search out the different stained glass windows featuring nursery rhyme characters.
The Boat in the Moat is a fun place to have lunch when you’re done exploring the castle. Stop in for pot roast or lasagna, and be sure to have a slice of the excellent walnut pie.