MOUNT DORA, Fla. — Where do Floridians go for their day trips?
When Sunshine Staters have had enough of the beaches of Fort Myers, the theme parks of Orlando or the culture of Miami, they often head for this cute central Florida town.
Now with about 13,000 people, this city about 35 miles northwest of Orlando was established in the 1880s and grew slowly as the farms and orchards of the region struggled to overcome devastating freezes in 1894 and 1895. Mount Dora also experienced the building booms and busts that characterized the rest of Florida before World War II.
But the town forged forward. Its central location, picturesque surroundings and quaint downtown architecture made it a popular tourist destination with both Floridians and out-of-state visitors.
The “mount” for which Mount Dora is named would barely qualify as a hill in most parts of the country. But in flat Florida, the gentle rise and fall of the surrounding landscape adds a bit of topographical interest — making this a popular spot with bicyclists who crave just a bit of up-and-down.
The city is located on the shores of pretty Lake Dora in the heart of Florida’s Central Valley lake region.
One of the best ways to appreciate the local geography is on an air tour. Two companies offer floatplane tours, taking off and landing on the 4,500-acre lake. I flew with Beaver Air Tours and pilot John Justad in his classic de Havilland Beaver floatplane.
Through headphones, Justad narrated the 30-minute flight with stories about the history and geology of the area that includes the Harris Chain of Lakes, a stretch of eight natural lakes linked by canals. Pollution had damaged the ecology of the lakes, but they’ve made a strong comeback in recent years, Justad said. The lakes certainly looked lovely, stretching out below us like cerulean beads on a backing of green velvet.
Visitors who would prefer to stay closer to Earth can also take a boat ride on Lake Dora to see alligators, bald eagles and other wildlife.
Another tour option is the Orange Blossom Cannonball, pulled by a 1907 steam locomotive on the scenic Tavares, Eustis & Gulf Railway. The train runs between Mount Dora and nearby Tavares. Passengers can take a 90-minute round trip or depart the train to explore Tavares, making the return ride later in the day. But I didn’t feel the need to look for entertainment beyond Mount Dora, where there was plenty to see and do.
Many buildings and homes in the center of town date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the well-preserved downtown historic district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Visitors can pick up a free walking/driving-tour brochure featuring descriptions of more than 40 of the most interesting buildings. Many of them, such as the 1928 Princess Theater, reflect the Mediterranean styles that were popular in Florida because of the state’s Spanish heritage and semitropical climate. Others, such as the 1893 steamboat gothic Donnelly House, reflect the tastes of some of the leading citizens of a century ago.
The town’s past is also on display at the Mount Dora History Museum, located in the Old Jail. Built in 1922 as a fire station, the structure was quickly expanded to add five cells to house area miscreants.
The town is filled with galleries, gift shops and boutiques as well.
One of my favorite stops was the Modernism Museum Mount Dora. The museum focuses on the intersection of fine art with design and on artists who have found beauty in utilitarian objects.
One of the featured artists is Wharton Esherick, called the “dean of American craftsmen” and known for his visionary wood furniture. (If I ever went in for a Pink Panther-style museum heist, my target would be Esherick’s sensual, curvaceous 1966 Spiral Library Ladder.)
The privately owned museum is closed for a major exhibit change but will reopen in the fall.
Visitors also have a wide assortment of restaurants, brew pubs, cafes and wine bars from which to choose, some with lake views, others overlooking the bustling streetscape. Al fresco venues — often featuring live music — are a great place to watch and meet people. I chatted with several fellow visitors, many from Florida. I met several fellow travelers who were repeat visitors, happy to sing Mount Dora’s praises.
The town’s many bed-and-breakfasts and inns also offer comfortable lodging for those of us visiting from further away than Orlando or Ocala. I was fortunate to stay in the old, magnificent Lakeside Inn, located directly on the shore of Lake Dora. The inn, built in 1883, was the first in town, catering to guests who arrived by boat before reliable roads reached Mount Dora.
Lakeside Inn has accommodated many prominent guests through the years, including Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and President Dwight Eisenhower. President Calvin Coolidge enjoyed it so much that he and his wife extended a one-week reservation to five weeks.
I can certainly understand Silent Cal’s infatuation. The main inn building, on the National Register of Historic Places, is an iconic Florida structure, with a vast porch dotted with rocking chairs that allow visitors to lazily daydream while catching the cool breezes directly from Lake Dora while sheltered from the warm Florida sun.
It’s enough to make you forget all about the surf, roller coasters and South Beach.
This article was written by Steve Stephens Dispatch � from The Columbus Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.