By Diane Daniel
Mount Dora is looking prettier than ever. After a three-year-long streetscape project, the already-charming historic downtown area now boasts new lighting fixtures, gleaming and attractive street signs, and wider sidewalks. Those larger walkways are needed to give ample space to the city’s many visitors, especially during frequent special events and festivals.
Situated along the 4,500-acre Lake Dora, Mount Dora dates to 1880 and was incorporated in 1910. Its name alludes to the fact it sits on a 184-foot plateau, which makes it “mountain”-worthy here in central Florida. With a population of about 14,000 people, Mount Dora easily exudes a small-town, laid-back vibe, while its many offerings will keep you busy. Here are several highlights.
Downtown Mount Dora is compact enough to easily explore in a day but diverse enough to keep visitors there longer.
Historic buildings line the streets, punctuated by palm trees. Three particularly noteworthy buildings are the 1883 Lakeside Inn, the railroad depot (which now houses the visitors center and Chamber of Commerce), and the Queen Anne-style Donnelly House.
Downtown features more than 20 restaurants within a three-block area, where you’ll find everything from Florida classics and seafood to a world of tastes, including Italian, German, and Indian.
The shopping is plentiful, with an abundance of art, craft and gift stores and clothing boutiques for all ages. Every Sunday locals and visitors flock to the Village Market, which highlights local produce, meat and cheese from regional farmers, as well as locally made crafts.
Also popular is the Mount Dora Art Splash, a gallery walk held on the second Friday of every month and featuring extended hours for shops, as well as live music.
City of festivals
On any day, Mount Dora is worthy of a visit, but one of the city’s biggest attractions is its year-round schedule of festivals and events.
Those include large antique fairs sponsored by Renninger’s Vintage Antique Center, which has 200 vendor booths on a regular day. During its Antique Extravaganzas, more than 1,500 antique dealers set up show with more than 800 booths inside and out.
Other popular annual festivals include the Arts Festival, spread across downtown with hundreds of artists; and the Bicycle Festival, which draws more than 1,000 cyclists for several days of riding.
Each year is capped with a Christmas festival, where 2 million lights cover Donnelly Park downtown. The switch is flipped the Saturday after Thanksgiving and a series of holiday events continues through year’s end.
A lake to behold
Mount Dora’s crown jewel is its lake, about 6 miles long and ¾ miles wide, and the city makes sure that visitors can enjoy it.
First, visit Grantham Point Park, also known as “Lighthouse Park” because it spotlights one of the city’s most famous landmarks – a working 35-foot-high lighthouse, among the few freshwater lighthouses in the state. The park is a favorite place for people watching and sunset viewing.
One can follow a path near the shore over to the Palm Island Park Boardwalk, which stretches a mile through tall grasses and marshland, with several covered areas for sitting or picnicking. You’re almost guaranteed to see shore birds among the stretches of marsh, cypress and live oaks.
The "most beautuful mile
The Dora Canal, a highlight of the seven-lake Harris Chain of Lakes, is beloved for its pristine appearance and abundant nature.
Premier Boat Tours, leaving from Mount Dora, gives narrated tours of Lake Dora and the canal. As passengers cross the lake, they’ll learn about the history of the area while also staying on the lookout for bald eagles, osprey and other water birds.
Once under the railway bridge in Tavares, the boat enters the residential section of the mile-long canal, whose first portion was dug by hand. It was dredged in the 1800s by a steamboat company to carry passengers and freight to Jacksonville.
Beyond the canal, the boat follows winds through a cypress swamp draped with Spanish moss. From there, passengers will likely see herons, egrets, turtles and even alligators, all in their natural habitats.
By Trevor Green
Turn back the calendar with a few steps inside Medieval Times. Young and old alike will thrill at skillful performances on horseback with sword, axe and lance. Feast on roasted chicken and beef and cheer for your tournament knight. Stroll through a medieval village and look over artifacts hundreds of years old. It's a night out your friends and family will never forget — and you'll leave talking about how soon you can make it back.
Two connected businesses are bringing world-class design and cooking to downtown Mount Dora.
First came the Modernism Museum, which opened in 2013 and displays the impressive personal collection of midcentury modern furniture owned by Ken Mazik, a prominent downtown businessman. The exhibits change every year or so and have included sculptural furniture of artists George Nakashima and Wendell Castle and a sprawling collection of wildly patterned Memphis Collective furniture and design objects, much of it from the estate of rock star David Bowie.
Three years after the museum opened, the father of modern Florida cuisine debuted 1921 By Norman Van Aken, a chef-driven restaurant focusing on the state’s bounties from land and sea. The restaurant is a partnership with Van Aken, Mazik and others and sits across the street from the museum and alongside its gift shop.
The shop and restaurant are housed in a rambling 1921 structure that originally served as a home for unwed mothers. Not only are Van Aken’s lauded dishes works of art, they’re surrounded by modernist masterpieces from the museum’s collection, which fill the restaurant’s interior. Highlights include the chef's table room lit by a Murano glass chandelier and the Nakashima Room with its hand-crafted chairs and curvy wooden tables.
A fun way to visit Mount Dora and the surrounding area is by train, on Orlando & Northwestern Railway’s service called the Royal Palm Railway Experience.
The new route uses heritage 1950s-era passenger cars to connect Mount Dora to its neighboring “Golden Triangle” towns of Tavares and Eustis. The cars, pulled by diesel locomotives, run regularly and include some glass-dome coaches for optimal viewing.
All cars have cushioned seats and are air conditioned and heated. For a single fare, passengers can hop on and off all day, giving them time for dining, shopping and sightseeing in various towns.
For those not getting off, the trip takes a little more than two hours. A narrated script provides history and information about the three cities and Lake County (which has some 1,400 named lakes). Special-event trains run throughout the year, such as a Mardi Gras train with music, the Charlie Brown Great Pumpkin train ride in the fall and the popular Polar Express ride during the holiday season.
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It’s still kind of hazy, but I remember when I was a kid I went to a park somewhere in Florida where there was a single steel and concrete...