Mount Dora is often called “the southern town of New England”, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see why. This charming little artsy town just 110 miles from the Tampa Bay area sits amidst rolling hills reminiscent of Connecticut. A popular restaurant proudly touts its Maine lobster rolls. And the Victorian mansion near the heart of the city could be straight out of old Newport.
On a recent visit to Mount Dora, my husband and I browsed the shops, saw a terrific exhibit, ate too much, and enjoyed watching the sunset over Lake Dora from the comfort of the Adirondack chairs. It was a nice break away from the hustle and bustle of the bay.
Mount Dora was settled in the mid-1800s by pioneers like William and Dora Ann Drawdy, who traveled from Georgia by raft, horseback, and wagon to claim 164 acres in what eventually became the city. After William’s death, Dora often fed and housed surveyors; legend has it that they were so grateful that they named the nearby lake after him.
The other locally prominent name is JP Donnelly. Originally from Pennsylvania, he married a neighbor when he moved to Florida and they combined their holdings to encompass most of what is now downtown Mount Dora and the lakefront. Donnelly, also called the “Father of the Tangerine” for his work in the citrus industry, served as the town’s first mayor when Mount Dora incorporated in 1910. He and his wife donated land for churches, parks, a fire department and other community improvements. . The couple’s Victorian home still stands in gingerbread splendor on Donnelly Street, one of the main streets in the compact town centre.
We spent two nights at the Lakeside Inn, billed as the oldest operating hotel in Florida. Since opening in 1883 with just 10 rooms, the Inn has hosted President Calvin Coolidge, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and other notables. The main building has been expanded and there are now several other buildings on the lakeside property, all painted a cheerful yellow. We stayed in the 1927 Gables house in a room with vintage glass doorknobs and authentic framed postcards from Mount Dora’s early days. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, we had a view of an expansive lawn, the pool, and the lake, one of many lakes in Central Florida’s beautiful chain of lakes.
After check-in, we took a quick stroll downtown, then headed for happy hour at Pisces Rising, an open-air restaurant and bar overlooking the lake. Mount Dora has an impressive number of restaurants offering a variety of cuisines. There are also enough cafes, sweet shops and bakeries to keep you satisfied throughout your visit.
For dinner, we returned to the inn, which itself has three full-service restaurants, including the verandah on the long porch. We cooked a tapas-style meal of fried green tomatoes, baked cranberry brie, and baby beef tenderloins while watching the sun set over the lake. Then, because we were lucky enough to arrive on the third Thursday of the month, we did the Mount Dora Art Walk that evening. Nearly a dozen galleries open for strolling, many offering sangria and canapes while you stroll.
The next morning, we went directly to the city’s museum of modernism for an unprecedented exhibition: “Space Oddities/Sottsass/Memphis”. In the 1980s, Italian architect Ettore Sottsass started what came to be called the Memphis Group, known for its bright and quirky furniture and homewares. Late rock icon David Bowie once owned several of the exhibits, including a fire engine red Olivetti typewriter and a pink, red, white and green table with one of its three legs resting on a large ball.
Open from Friday to Sunday, the Museum of Modernism has extended the popular exhibition indefinitely. There’s also a gift shop across the street and a restaurant, 1921, with artwork on loan from the museum.
After a lobster roll at Let’s Do, a lunchtime spot on Donnelly Street, we took a two-hour boat trip on Lake Dora and the Dora Canal. Dozens of bass boats passed before we headed into the quieter channel, hand-dug decades ago from what had been a small stream. While some stretches of the canal are lined with decidedly unscenic trailer parks, others pass through a primeval Florida swamp filled with alligators, herons, and ancient cypress trees. Several companies offer tours; the $32 per person rate on ours, which starts at the Lakeside Inn, was well worth the price.
By late afternoon, the weather had turned cold and windy, so we dined indoors at Olive Branch, an Italian-Mediterranean restaurant. Despite the cold, we ended the evening with a walk at Palm Island Park, which has an elevated walking path along the lake. A side path leads to the old red and white striped lighthouse that still shines on the lake.
Leaving town the next day, we passed what the locals call the Starry Night House, a large house painted in the style of van Gogh’s famous work. The owners, whose autistic son loves van Gogh’s painting, fought with city officials, who deemed the place an eyesore and ordered it repainted. In 2018, the city apologized and the house remained as it was – just another of Mount Dora’s many attractions.