Most visiting Florida think of sandy beaches, busy coastal cities, or a vacation with Mickey Mouse in Orlando. Mountains, lakes and old-fashioned charm don’t typically come to mind. So when we heard about “Mount Dora”… well …we had to “explora Mt Dora!”
Mount Dora is the most charming little lakeside town in central Florida. In fact it’s in the very heart of the Sunshine State. And while Mount Dora is not actually mountainous, its hilly and has a fun colorful history, and a fabulously cute downtown overlooking a big lake for boating.
Arriving in Mount Dora, we were immediately captured by the New England style architecture of the homes, arbors and eyebrows, tidy small-town sidewalks with street lamps, and a hilly landscape leading “uptown” from the lake shores.
Fun fact, Mount Dora was featured in a 1981 Hollywood movie “Honky Tonk Freeway” about how the townspeople painted the downtown pink to attract tourists, promoting a waterskiing elephant named Bubbles. Another factoid, Mount Dora is sister city to Forres Scotland, and has its own official Scottish plaid tartan, a local bagpipe and drum band, and hosts an annual Mount Dora Scottish Highland festival.
Our Mount Dora visit was during their Light Up Christmas fest, and the pretty village was decked with bows and boughs, twinkling lights and holiday décor in every window, in every store. Mount Dora was Whoville for Christmas – not a Grinch in sight! Mount Dora is a festival city, hosting dozens of festivals annually including Wine Walks, Art Walks, 4th Freedom on the Waterfront, Blueberry Fest, Sailboat Regatta, Octoberfest, and more.
Shopping the quaint boutique lined streets, 3rd, 4th and 5th and Donnelly, would have kept me happily busy for the afternoon. So many clever shops like The Ivy, Cozy Nest, Maggie’s Attic, Walk in the Woods.
Lunch at 5th Avenue Streatery was worth the stroll up the hill from town. This remodeled gas station serves fabulously fresh homemade fare. The Mount Dora burger, with bacon onion jam, pesto, and fried goat cheese, sounds extraordinary, and its extraordinarily good! Streatery’s team is friendly, and the food is filling (as you’d expect in a converted fuel station) and delicious from scratch, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, served al fresco.
Adventure on the Lake was beckoning. My husband Greg was eager to try a CatBoat Tour. It’s a short walk from town to Mount Dora Boating Center and Marina to find a cheerful welcoming crew ready to take us boating. Our bright yellow “catboat” looked zippy and fun, and after our brief but thorough orientation, we were launching. As we idled out of the Marina, in queue with our fellow cat boaters, we passed the humble Mount Dora lighthouse, and the waterfront park where a Christmas concert was setting up. Captain Ronnie guided us out into the wide-open lake, its over 4,000 acres, and let us hit the throttle. Immediately our squirrely little boat was skimming across the water, we were flying just 6 inches off the surface, our wake splashing our legs and spraying our sunglasses. It was exhilarating and surprising with just a 30 hp engine on our two-seater, two pontoon boat (hence the name cat for catamaran).
A highlight of the CatBoat trip was exploring Mount Dora Canal, where we skirted through a mystical tree canopy of Cypress and Live Oaks draped with Spanish moss. Alligators and turtles perched on logs and rocks, snake birds fished in this teeming swamp. The Canal ended as we emerged from the aquatic forest to Lake Eustis and the Chain of Lakes – which leads to the St. John River, all the way to St Augustine. On our two-hour tour, Captain Ronnie guided us to picturesque Boat House Alley, and to two magnificent bald eagles – named Betsy and husband Ross (get it?) perched high above the Lake. The Mount Dora tour company also offers Glide Segway Adventures zipping you around town and to the high point of Mount Dora at 148 feet, high and dry!
My curiosity about the naming “Mount Dora” was quelled when certain locals shared that the town is named for legendary lady Dora, who was very “hospitable” in the 1800s, alleging she operated the first brothel here, and the reference to mount isn’t to the height of the hill but more of a verb based on adult activities that involved Dora and her girls. More rumors swirl around how haunted Mount Dora is, a ghost tour is offered if you dare!
For lodging in Mount Dora, The Lakeside Inn is the quintessential historic waterfront hotel and grand resort, Florida’s oldest continuously operating in since 1883. Its gracious grounds and classic yellow Victorian buildings lead to the lakeview pool and beach, and you’re steps to downtown. Since Lakeside was full for the holiday festivities, we stayed in the heart of town at the delightful Simpson’s B&B. The Simpson family once owned much of this town, and you can feel their pride at this very private quiet hotel. Our Carol suite had an eclectic garden-inspired theme, with a kitchen, separate parlor, and private bedroom and bath, and nice amenities with a personal note.
Dinner at Pisces Rising was the perfect cap to our amazing day of exploring Mount Dora. This contemporary waterfront dining spot has a commanding view of the lake, especially from the spacious outdoor bar area. This is where the locals gather for sunset drinks. Craft cocktails and delicious blackened Ahi tuna was our starter, followed by the signature crab stuffed salmon entrée. The pièce de resistance was Pisces’ tableside presentation of Bananas foster flambé, beautifully executed with bright flames and so yummy with its warm spiced rum sauce!
The compact town of Mount Dora was hopping after dinner, with Santa and the tree lighting taking place. So we strolled off dinner along the spirited streets. Interesting fact, Mount Dora is an open container tolerant town, you can purchase a beverage at a bar on the street and stroll their designated “entertainment district”, like Key West, Savannah, Memphis, New Orleans and Vegas (only much cozier and not so crazy). We found ourselves drawn to The Frog and Monkey for live music in a happy pub atmosphere. Meeting a few locals who were fascinated as to why we came to Mount Dora from our home town of St Augustine was a reminder of how humble and welcoming Mount Dorans can be.
Sunday morning in Mount Dora, streets were calm and quiet save for a few dog walkers. We walked to Cody’s on 4th. A classic sidewalk café, we sipped Salted Caramel Lattes awaiting our homemade breakfast sammies – a smoked salmon topped asiago bagel for me, Carla’s hangover breakfast for him. Both were delish, and soon disappearing.
We walked to the Sunday morning Village Market in Sunset Park and browsed wonderful fresh food offerings. I gladly bought some veggies and French cheese, then browsed local candles and crafts on display. A pleasant walk along Lakeside Boulevard was our farewell tour, before departing this fanciful town. I should note Greg offered me unlimited “window shopping” – knowing his wallet was safe since most shops don’t open until 11am on Sundays.
One more friendly local gal Kirra mentioned we MUST go to Renninger’s as we drove out of town. Renninger’s Flea and Farmer’s Market is a MASSIVE potpourri of everything from junk to funk, crafts to clothes, antiques to locally sourced produce and boiled peanuts, plus pet stuff! Mount Dora Renningers Market spans 117-acres of indoor and outdoor booths, open weekends with hundreds of merchants and independent dealers. Bring cash, comfy shoes, an open-mind and trunk space to this bric-a-brac of stuff for sale.
Mount Dora definitely rose to our expectations. Friendly locals, lots to do and see in town and on the expansive lake. Visit during one of Mount Dora’s fun festivals, or anytime you want a slice of old Florida …far from the big beach cities, strip malls, and busy amusement parks.
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“Gone to Florida, be back never…” -unknown happy traveler quote