If you're interested in having a little "time-warp" day away from theme parks, then think about an escape to what some call the "New England" of Florida, the antique capital, as well as the rose capital of Central Florida, Mount Dora. Located 25 miles northwest of downtown Orlando proper, in Lake County that has over 1,000 lakes in the county. According to Mapquest, it is about 43 miles and 50 plus minutes on their recommended route from my Butterfly or Crystal in Kissimmee, which are to the southwest of Disney.
You can go North on US 27 to US 19 then to US 441. Or you could go North on I-4 into Orlando and take Exit 81 for Florida 408 to Florida 423 to US 441. They've recently opened the new section of the high speed toll road, Florida 429, that goes north from U.S. 192, near Butterfly and Crystal, all the way to US 441. The toll road also joins Florida Turnpike north. You can get off the turnpike at exit 285 for the intersection with US 27 and Florida 19.
They've recently opened a new section of the high-speed toll road, Florida 429, that goes north from US 192 (very close to Butterfly and Crystal) and intersects with the Florida turnpike. You can either turn onto the Florida turnpike and go to exit 285 for the intersection with US 27/Florida 19, or continue north on Florida 429 to US 441.
If you take either route 27 or Florida turnpike to exit 285, and fancy a side trip with a bit of a difference, then stop by Yalaha on the way up to Mount Dora. Yalaha is located on the south side of Lake Harris.
From my Butterfly or Crystal, in 2006 before they opened the toll 429, I took US 192 west to to US 27. Turned north and proceeded through Clermont. A number of miles to the north on US 27 watch for Florida 19 where you turn right and follow it through Howey-in-the-Hills, the smallest town in the county. Shortly after passing thru Howey-in-the-Hills, you come to a "T" junction where Florida 19 turns right. If you're taking the side trip to Yalaha, instead of turning right to stay on Florida 19, you can follow the sign saying to go straight ahead to Yalaha. There's a German bakery on the left hand side. On Saturday morning they have a bit of entertainment and you can eat outside if you wish. You can then proceed back to the "T" junction and turn left to go north on Florida 19 toward Tavares. You'll go across a part of Lake Harris and then come to Tavares. Turn right on Florida 46 and follow the signs to Mount Dora.
Mount Dora was first established in 1880. It was named after an early pioneer who allowed the U.S. surveyors to camp on her land while they surveyed that part of the state. They named the lake to the immediate southwest after her and then the town was named after the lake. The fact that the town is on a very high plateau for Florida, with a peak of 184 ft. above sea level, was what led to the humorous use of Mount as part of the name.
It's a well preserved, seemingly frozen-in-time town with a dozen turn-of-the-20th-century buildings clustered around its downtown shuffleboard courts, including the eerily exuberant Steamboat Gothic Donnelly House straight out of a Charles Addams cartoon.
Mount Dora can be quite crowded on weekends, so go early for free parking lot access. The downtown is quite compact and accessible by foot. There are a number of eateries, say like the Sunshine Mountain bakery for breakfast. Everything is fresh baked and made that day. They offer many different types of croissants, bagels and Danish so there is plenty to choose from.
There must be about 30 restaurants in the town. I've tried a few and looked in a lot of them. The real problem is that you can really only do justice to one of them on a trip, especially if you elect to stop at the bakery and coffee shop. If you're going to spend the day, you may want to skip lunch and just have a coffee and small snack, that way you can enjoy your evening meal.
When you get into Mont Dora go to the restored railroad depot that serves as the Chamber of Commerce tourist information center. It was built in 1913 and decommissioned in 1950. Here you can learn about special events and famous festivals. The chamber can provide information on less-crowded times of the year and such activities as walking the Palm Island Nature Trail, 3,400 feet of mulched path and 1,676 feet of boardwalk on Lake Dora, longest in the state; watching the action at the Lawn Bowling Club, second largest in the state with 14 playing surfaces, eight of them lighted; or strolling the shops that some have referred to as the antique trail.
The artists arrive the first weekend in February. In April, antique boat enthusiasts gather at the Lake Dora marina the first weekend. The sailors takeover Lake Dora the second-to-last weekend for Florida's largest inland regatta. During the second-to-last weekend in October, cyclists rally for a celebration of the sport and all levels of touring. Also in October is one of the state's largest craft fairs plus an invitational golf tournament. For more information and many additional festivals, check out the website for the Mount Dora Chamber of Commerce.
The 5th Avenue Cafe is worth a look, it's the only restaurant dedicated to organic cuisine. They use fresh organic ingredients, triple filtered reverse osmosis water and all stainless steel cookware. If you want a pure vegan dishor (for those not familiar, "vegan" is an even stricter diet than vegetarian), just a fish filet, or chicken dinner, this place can offer you plenty of choice. They also offer a quick Grab'n Go breakfast or lunch.
The Lakeside Inn on Lake Dora offers a Sunday Brunch on the Veranda and I've been told by those that have been there that the choice and quality is good. The Inn is another of those in a time warp. Its a 120-year historic landmark in a peaceful, romantic setting of how things were. The Inn's cluster of five buildings are grand in the quaint Old Florida style, built to last centuries and garnished with gables, balconies, porches and fanciful Victorian flourishes. The estate is graced with stately oak trees dripping with Spanish moss and an expanse of green that sweeps down to an Olympic-sized swimming pool and Lake Dora. For more details check out their website above.
The Goblin Market Restaurant is nestled on a back alley in the historic downtown Mount Dora village. The restaurant, housed in a renovated warehouse, features two book-lined dining rooms furnished well with modern art hung on the walls. The private tree shaded courtyard and garden patio are open all year for alfresco dining. Low lighting and music add finishing touches to the restaurant.
There are many other eating and drinking places to try. While I have not tried them all you may want to wander by one of these five for a look: Windsor Rose English Tea Room and Restaurant; The Garden Gate Tea Room; O'Keefe's Irish Pub; Cafe Stella; and Al E. Gators.
The town has 12 Antique shops and a small antiques mall with one shop specializing in the Beatles. You can also Visit the Mount Dora English Lawn Bowls Club and if you feel like a break watch a game while you relax with a drink. You may also want to visit the farmers & flea market. It is a well organized and laid out market with some stalls under cover. There is also an antiques section consisting of around six sheds all given a color for recognition. You will find an extensive area set out as a boot-sale and plenty of food and drink available. It is like any other market and covers almost anything you might need to buy. Check before you go as this is not open most week days.
Dora Canal Nature and History Tours
Experience the most beautiful mile of water in the world, where portions of the Humphrey Bogart classic "African Queen" were filmed and giant Cypress Trees line the banks. Otters, Great Blue Herons, Alligators, and other wildlife abound. These tours are about 1 1/2 hours long. The Blue Heron departs from the city dock in Tavares, Florida. Captain Dave's departs from the Villa Lagoon Motel dock in Tavares during the fall, winter and spring. Call for times and to make your reservation.
Note. If you go up either US 27 or the Florida turnpike to exit 285 for US 27/Florida 19 intersection, then you will be going through Tavares on the way to Mount Dora. Tavares almost became the capital of Florida.
Cruise and Dine
Blue Heron also offers dinner cruises. For example, start with a cruise of the Dora Canal, stop for dinner at O'Keefes restaurant, then tour the city waterfront of Mount Dora on Lake Dora, and return through the Dora Canal. Approx. 3 1/2 hours. Dinner not included. I believe the Blue Heron departs from Buzzard Beach Park in Tavares, Florida. Check out their websites for options and times. Call or email for reservation and times.
The Inland Lakes Railway began operations on October 25th, 2003. It is a tourist passenger railroad that runs various tours on the tracks of the Florida Central Railroad that date back to the 1880's. They offer a unique glimpse into the past with a number of vintage rail excursions that are designed for the whole family to enjoy.
One of the tours is the Herbie Express. Its a one hour and 15 minute trip between Mount Dora and Tavares pulled by a 1942 little switch locomotive, Herbie. As you begin the 9 mile round trip you initially pass along the shores of Lake Dora. They you will travel along Old Highway 441 passing thru an orange grove, past a bald eagles nest. Listen to the whistle and bell of the engine as you cross thru railroad crossings. You also travel right down the middle of the road with cars on both sides of the train. In Tavares the train will be turned round on what they call a "wye" junction, just like the railroads did it 100 years ago.
They have other tours that originate from Eustis, another small town just to the North. Check out the Mapquest map link above and look for Eustis to the North of Tavares.
They also have several special trains in different holiday seasons, like the Easter Bunny, the Great Pumpkin Patch, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. For more details on these special excursions, see the website above for the Inland Lakes Railroad.