Mount Dora is often called “the New England town of the South,” and it doesn’t take much imagination to see why. This charming, artsy little city just 110 miles from the Tampa Bay area sits amid gentle hills reminiscent of Connecticut. A popular restaurant proudly touts its Maine lobster rolls. And the Victorian mansion near the heart of town 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 Adirondack chairs. It was a pleasant break from the bustle of the bay area.
Mount Dora was settled in the mid-1800s by pioneers like William and Dora Ann Drawdy, who traveled from Georgia by raft and horse and wagon to stake a claim on 164 acres in what eventually became the town. After William’s death, Dora often fed and housed surveyors; legend has it that they were so grateful they named the nearby lake after her.
The other important name locally is J.P. 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 sits in gingerbread splendor on Donnelly Street, one of the major streets in the compact downtown.
We spent two nights at the Lakeside Inn, billed as the oldest continually operating hotel in Florida. Since it opened 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 lakefront 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 bay windows, we had views of a broad lawn, the swimming pool and the lake, one of many in Central Florida’s beautiful chain of lakes.
After checking in, we took a quick stroll through downtown and then headed to cocktail hour at Pisces Rising, a restaurant and outdoor bar overlooking the lake. Mount Dora has an impressive number of restaurants offering a variety of cuisines. There also are enough coffee shops, candy stores and bakeries to keep you satisfyingly stuffed throughout your visit.
For dinner, we went back to the inn, which itself has three full-service restaurants including the Veranda on the long front porch. We made a tapas-style meal of fried green tomatoes, baked cranberry Brie and petite beef tenders while watching the sun sink over the lake. Then, because we were lucky enough to arrive on the third Thursday of the month, we did Mount Dora’s art walk that evening. Almost a dozen galleries open their doors for the walk, many offering sangria and canapes as you browse.
The next morning, we went straight to the town’s Modernism Museum for a first-of-its-kind exhibit: “Space Oddities/Sottsass/Memphis.” In the 1980s, Italian architect Ettore Sottsass started what came to be called the Memphis Group, known for bright, quirky looking furniture and household objects. Late rock icon David Bowie once owned several of the pieces in the exhibit, 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 Friday through Sunday, the Modernism Museum has indefinitely extended the popular exhibit. There’s also a gift shop across the street and a restaurant, 1921, with art on loan from the museum.
After a lobster roll at Let’s Do, a lunch-only spot on Donnelly Street, we took a two-hour boat tour of Lake Dora and the Dora Canal. Dozens of bass boats zipped by before we turned into the quieter canal, dug by hand decades ago from what had been a small stream. While some stretches of the canal are lined with decidedly unscenic mobile home parks, others pass through a primordial Florida swamp filled with alligators, herons and ancient cypress trees. Several companies offer the tours; the $32-per-person fare 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 inside at Olive Branch, an Italian-Mediterranean restaurant. Despite the chill, we capped the evening with a walk to Palm Island Park, which has an elevated boardwalk trail along the lake. A side path goes to the old red-and-white-striped lighthouse that still shines on the lake.
Leaving town the next day, we passed what locals call the Starry Night House, a large home painted in the style of van Gogh’s famous work. The owners, whose autistic son loves the van Gogh painting, battled with city officials, who considered the place an eyesore and ordered it repainted. In 2018, the town apologized and the house remained as is — just another of Mount Dora’s many attractions.