When growing up in Massachusetts, my family had a summer rooming-house in a fishing village. Next door was the town toy and gift shop run by a lady named Mrs. Gassett. I got a job as a kid of putting out the windmills, toy sailboats, and beach goods on the store front porch.
Besides having the most popular store for kids, the other thing, Mrs. Gassett did was paint landscapes, but not of New England, but her winter home in Mount Dora, Florida. Her paintings looked like a New England village on a hill, but there were palm trees on the waterfront. Other paintings showed what looked like a seaside New England Victorian inn but with more palm trees.
It was a real shock when my family moved to Florida and I discovered that the town Mrs. Gassett loved so much was fifty miles from the Atlantic. When I finally visited Mount Dora, I had another shock – a 35-foot New England style red and white lighthouse graced Grantham Point at Gilbert Park on Lake Dora.
In case you think the lighthouse is just a decoration: you are wrong. The lighthouse has a 750-watt photocell that uses a blue pulsator that helps guide boaters to the town docks. Boat tours around some of Lake County’s 1200 named lakes begin lakeside at the historic LAKESIDE INN, which started in the 1880s. The town with hilly roads has a New England charm that has attracted people like Mrs. Gassett.
One thing I hope to return is the Royal Palm Railway that took visitors on a 75-minute tour to and from the neighboring town of Tavares. That might not be operating, but the railroad depot is a historic site.
The town and the lake are named for Ms. Dora Ann Drawdy, a Georgian who homesteaded in the 1840s and convinced other Southerners to come to farm and grow citrus. The arrival of the railroad brought the first Northerners, who found the lakes and the 184-foot plateau where Mount Dora is situated a great winter location.
ATTRACTIONS and SITES
Why do people pour into Mount Dora not just in the winter, but on weekends all year? The hilly town of 15,000 is loaded with shops, particularly antiques and art galleries, fun restaurants, historic buildings, and interesting lake and town events.
The people are proud of Mount Dora and like to point things out to you. Some people were so friendly in 1981 that they agreed to temporarily paint their buildings and homes an ugly pink for a stupid movie “Honky Tonk Freeway.”
A star attraction is the 117-acre Renninger’s Vintage Antique Center and Farmers Market outside town on US 441. While it operates all-year on weekends, in the winter months, hundreds of dealers from the North bring antiques here and there are big, promoted shows, where you can buy anything from classic cars to antique guitars. Downtown has many antique shops such as the 60-vendor Village Antiques Mall at 405 North Highland Street.
In case you think the Mt. Dora shops only sell used, vintage stuff, you should visit the Modernism Museum Shoppe at 144 East 4th Avenue. The three block-by-three block hilly downtown has dozens of gift shops, two pet boutiques, five large art galleries, and an abundance of historic buildings, museums, and unique public buildings.
FOOD AND DRINK
Downtown Mount Dora packs twenty-five restaurants into the district, but be warned: the town has been called “The Festive City.” I have only visited on weekends and every-time there was a car show or an art show going on and the streets were packed.
There are two food spots I always want to visit. The Goblin Market might look like a huge multi-storied old house until you discover every room up to the attic has been converted to book-lined dining areas and lounges. This is an expensive restaurant, but people drive from Orlando twenty-five miles away to dine here. Try the whiskey onion soup. (352-735-0059) 330 Dora Drawdy Way
All those antiques make me want to have tea and scones at the Windsor Rose Tea Room and Restaurant (352-735-2551) at 142 West 4th Avenue. If you want something a little more male-like, you will enjoy the highly rated Magical Meat Boutique (352-729-6911) at 322 North Alexander, a British gastro-pub and bar open from 8 am to midnight.
While there are your standard motel chains out by the highway, the heart of Mount Dora is quite unique. Besides the Lakeside Inn (352-3834101) at 100 North Alexander Street, started in 1882 and now a large complex with restaurant, Mount Dora has an incredible eleven bed-and-breakfast spots. It is a B&B paradise for people who love comfy accommodations and friendly hosts. Tripadvisor gives you a good pictural look at the major ones.
It is not surprising that one of the main activities in Lake County is taking a boat tour and if you want to speed along in a two-seater, contact CatBoat Adventure Tours (352-322-1442), located at the downtown Boating Center. Their two-hour tours zip thru the Mount Doral Canal into the Harris Chain of Lakes, where you will see mansions and gator swamps. This firm also does Segway tours around the town.
For people who prefer letting someone else cruise the lakes, there is Premier Boat Tours (352-434-8040) waterside at Lakeside Inn. Their boats are covered pontoon boats that can handle weather issues.
Inside or outside, Mount Dora is a great place to visit or stay.