Ah, Mount A-Dora
A short road trip away is a town with "quaint" written all over it. Eat, sip, shop, explore, relax.
By BARBARA L. FREDRICKSEN
Published July 14, 2006
If you take a day trip to the picturesque village called Mount Dora, smack-dab in the heart of Florida, get there early. The public parking lots and street parking fill up by 9:45 a.m., and you'll find yourself taking a long hike from your car to get to the goodies.
But go. It's definitely worth the trip. Even if one of the nearly two dozen art, antique, music or other festivals the city holds each year isn't going on while you're there, you'll still have a marvelous time eating at one of the little town's yummy restaurants, shopping in the scores of imaginative shops, ambling along the long boardwalk through hushed wetlands along the shores of Lake Dora, or checking out one of the historical buildings.
That doesn't even count the boat, trolley or train tours leaving from downtown or the newest addition to Mount Dora's excursions, guided and solo tours on the two-wheeled Segway personal vehicles through the town and along the boardwalk ($42 for training and a one-hour tour).
Or the charming Ice House Theatre at the east end of 11th Avenue, about a mile from the center of town, which has a play or musical going on during every month of the year.
Though Mount Dora is a lovely day trip, there's so much to see and do you might want to check in at one of the many bed-and-breakfasts ($99 to $180 and up a night), the historic Lakeside Inn (check www.lakeside-inn.com for frequent specials) or a nearby motel so you can enjoy it for more than one day.
Mount Dora is about 25 miles north of Orlando, but I prefer to skirt the city altogether and get there via State Road 50 to Minneola, north on State Road 19 to Tavares, then follow State Road 46/old U.S. 441 through Tavares on into Mount Dora (avoid new U.S. 441 if possible).
You can always make a brief stop at a fruit stand at the intersection of U.S. 301 to get some fresh Georgia peaches and beefsteak tomatoes. (The incomparable Florida mangoes will be there in August, and if you haven't eaten one, you owe it to yourself to do so.)
Once you're there ...
Our first stop was the Welcome Center and Chamber of Commerce office in the old depot.
To get there, turn right at the stoplight onto Alexander Street just as you enter town. The office has loads of street maps, restaurant menus, brochures on things to do and see, and folders on local accommodations. Also, public restrooms are nearby.
Mount Dora is laid out on a grid system, with avenues going east-west and streets going north-south.
The main shopping strip is Donnelly Street, though nifty shops have cropped up on parallel streets several blocks on each side of Donnelly in the past few years. Avenue numbering starts at the lake and goes north, with Fifth Avenue being the main drag.
Most of the town's restaurants are open seven days a week, starting at 11 a.m. Some serve lunch only; others are open for lunch and dinner. A couple do Sunday brunch.
For lunch, we dined on crepes, quiche and homemade tomato bisque soup under shade trees and a big umbrella at the 2006 Taste of Mount Dora winner, Cecile's French Corner, near the corner of Alexander and Fourth Avenue. We could have gone down the street to one of my favorites, Edwardo's Station, a half-indoor, half-outdoor Mexican restaurant that has been at Donnelly Street and Fourth Avenue since the dawn of the Mount Dora renaissance, about 18 years ago.
If we'd wanted to go fancy, we could have gone to the elegant Beauclaire Dining Room in the Lakeside Inn. For organic cuisine, including organic beer and wines, there's the Fifth Avenue Cafe and Market on the main street into town, Fifth Avenue. For fresh fish with a N'Awlins flair, there's the relatively new Pisces Rising overlooking Lake Dora at the end of west Fourth Avenue.
Palm Tree Grille, across from Edwardo's, has Italian food; the Gables Restaurant on Alexander has sturdy American fare. The venerable Windsor Rose English Tea Room and Restaurant, on W Fourth Avenue (11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily), has English teas, pub food and beer. Those are just a few of the dining possibilities.
Excursions and diversions
The Herbie Express two-car railroad train leaves the Mount Dora stop at 1 and 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, with an 11 a.m. ride added on Saturdays, and makes the round trip to Tavares (about 75 minutes) for $12 for adults, $8 for ages 2-12, free for tots under 2. There's a Pizza Hut Pizza Express ride at 5 p.m. Saturdays for $18 and $14 (call 1-352-589-4300 for the required reservations).
The Captain Doolittle pontoon boat cruises the Dora Canal - called "the most beautiful mile of water in the world" by the locals - from its dock at the Lakeside Inn at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, for $20 a person, plus tax. (Call toll free 1-866-269-6584). There's a special July 4 cruise at 8:30 p.m., when the boat will anchor between Tavares and Mount Dora and watch the fireworks of both cities.
Rusty Anchor Water Tours by the Yacht Club (west end of Fourth Avenue) does one-hour lakefront sunset cruises for $10 and two-hour Dora Canal tours for $20. Call (352) 383-3933 for departure times and reservations.
For a good look at the town, take the Mount Dora Road Trolley, which gives a one-hour narrated tour of the town for $10.75, including a glass of wine for the grown-ups, $8.75 for children age 2 and older. Tours are on the hour, 11 a.m. through 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, with a 3 p.m. tour added on Saturdays. It leaves from the Lakeside Inn.
Shopping, shopping, shopping
Of course, day trippers and others go to Mount Dora to shop, and there's certainly plenty of that, from trinkets to treasures in one fascinating shop after another - books, antiques, novelties, clothing, candles, home decor, garden tools, crafts, jewelry, pet gifts, collectibles and bling of all sorts.
Mount Dora's shops may have items for children, but the shopping is tailored to grownups.
Signs like the one in Timeless Keepsakes send a clear message: "Children left unattended must have a very large allowance." Baby strollers are welcomed in few, if any, stores. After all, the shops in the old downtown are small and filled to the gills, many with breakables and antiques, and a baby and/or stroller could do a lot of damage in a little time.
One of the best places in town is Vincent's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, a woman's boutique chockablock with cotton/linen clothing and beautiful handmade, one-of-a-kind jewelry.
It's up a narrow flight of stairs covered in a leopard skin print, as are several stores in the Renaissance minimall, though an elevator is available there.
No day in Mount Dora is complete without a coffee stop in the morning and an ice cream stop midafternoon. There are at least five such places in the main shopping district to take care of that necessity.
A favorite of mine is Akhtar Hussain's Village Coffee Pot on Donnelly, where you can get not only genuine Working Cow homemade ice cream, gourmet coffees, and Coke floats, but the story of the town's rise from dull complacency 20 years ago to its current glory from Hussain himself, who was there when it all started to happen.
If you're lucky, his upstairs business neighbor Vincent Calvo (yes, owner of Vincent's women's boutique) will be there and can add to the story of how a small group of visionaries looked at the dilapidated, deserted little town two decades ago and saw that it could be what it has become.