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Monday, July 22, 2024

Lake County, Central Florida’s Best Kept Secret

Want to paddle a canal, take a seaplane, shop and eat delicious food? It’s all waiting for you just outside Orlando.

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Text and photos: Maureen Littlejohn

After picking up our rental car in Orlando, my husband Steve and I drove 45 minutes west where another world opened up. Tranquil small towns were filled with independent shops and delicious eateries. A chain of freshwater lakes offered paddling and seaplane rides. The accommodations were inviting, elegant, and steeped in history.

Our first stop was the Citrus Tower just outside the town of Clermont. Taking the elevator up 22 stories, I was able to get a panoramic lay of the land in surrounding South Lake County. Built in 1956, the tower was one of the state’s first attractions in what was once a citrus grove hub. There was an admission charge of $11, and going up 22 stories definitely did not provide the same thrill in 2024 as it did in 1956, but it was still interesting to get an aerial view of the surrounding countryside and lakes. Most of the groves are gone now, having succumbed to extreme freeze events over the years, but there was plenty of green parkland that stretched to the water.

Down on the ground level I indulged in an ice salted caramel latte at the Citrus Coffee Co. In keeping with the theme of the tower, the café also offered citrus coolers and even an orange crème latte.

Next, it was time for lunch and a stroll through downtown Clermont. We headed to Montrose Street Market, a food hall featuring scratch-made items from local entrepreneurs including burgers, pastries, pizza, and tacos. I opted for a couple of tacos from Taco Maniaa which were outstanding.

Main Street, lined with boutiques, beckoned for a bit of shopping. Wandering around some side streets I discovered West End Plaza, which was jammed with stalls of independent artisans featuring handmade items including jewelry, clothing, and bath products.

Nearby were the Farmers’ Market and the Clermont Historic Village with a museum and an assembly of buildings including a chapel, library, railroad depot, and some early homes. Unfortunately, we were there on a weekday. The Farmers’ Market was open on Sundays and the historic buildings were open on weekends, so we could only admire them from the outside.

After speaking with some locals, I learned the place to go for an innovative happy hour in Clermont was the Crooked Spoon Gastropub. Owned by chef Steve Saelg, the pub’s origin was a food truck, one of the first in Central Florida. A signature plate here is the bleu cheese chips which are kettle chips covered in crumbled bleu cheese. They also had rib-sticking items such as beer cheese fondue, meatloaf, shrimp and grits, and a cocoa and coffee burger which was made of Florida beef, crusted with cocoa and coffee, and topped with Boursin cheese.

For beer drinkers, the town had two craft breweries – Clermont Brewing Company and Suncreek Brewery. Once again my timing was a bit off since both presented live music on weekends.

A little north of Clermont I came across Tavares. Known as America’s Seaplane City, we decided to hitch a ride with Jones Brothers Air and Seaplane Adventures. Flying over the Harris Chain and River Run, I had a bird’s eye view of Lake Eustis, Lake Griffin, and the Ocklawaha River. The pilot did a splash-and-dash landing on the river which made it all the more exciting.

Next door to the Jones Brothers operation, was Adventure Outdoor Paddle, owned by Katrina Aho and her husband Travis. Our adventure of choice was kayaking the Dora Canal, a mile-long man-made canal. Paddling under the branches of cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, I heard what sounded like a loud croak. “What was that?” I asked Katrina. She smiled and raised her eyebrows. “Alligator.” We didn’t see the fellow, but I was doubly sure not to fall in. What we did see were great blue herons, egrets, osprey, limpkins (a large brown wading bird), and anhingas, or snake birds which have to dry out their wings before flying, much like cormorants.

Our après adventure snack was at BTW – Burgers, Tacos, Waffles, a fun spot with house-made items. The burger was delicious.

That night we checked into Mission Resort and Club just outside of Howey-in-the-Hills. We didn’t have time for a game of golf, but the 500-acre resort had two eighteen-hole courses, as well as a spa, gym, and a couple of restaurants. Built in 1964, it was recently recognized by the Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Breakfast the next day was at Donut King. Although it looked non-descript on the outside, we could tell it would be good because of the steady stream of customers exiting with large take-out boxes under their arms. And it was.

I spied a Mediterranean Revival mansion near the Mission Resort and Club and was pleased that I could make an appointment for a tour. Frances O’Keefe Wagler, manager of the estate, met us at the front door.

“Welcome to Howey Mansion,” she said, ushering us into the home’s drawing room.

Built by William Howey in 1925, the home’s housewarming party included special guest President Calvin Coolidge, who stayed overnight.

“The party had 16,000 guests and Howey had the New York Opera Company come and perform on the lawn,” Wagler explained.

Howey, who was born in Illinois, had an eye for oranges and became the greatest citrus developer in Florida. At one point he owned 60,000 acres of citrus groves of which he sold half to investors and then managed the groves for them.

He also was mayor of Howey-in-the-Hills (named for him) for 11 years.

Originally sitting on 15 acres, his house is 7,200 square feet in size and made of concrete, painted to look like stone. Modern touches were electricity, central heat, and an interphone system. The chauffeur lived over the three-car garage.

Wagler showed us many of the home’s details. Plaster was stained to look like marble by an Austrian artisan. And most thrilling of all was the secret subterranean vault. Howey enjoyed a drink, and since he lived there during Prohibition it was imperative that he keep his bottles well stashed.

Feeling a bit peckish, we headed to Yalaha Bakery. Known for its German breads and pastries, the site also had a delightful outdoor patio where we could dig into our sweet treats.

At Lakeridge Winery, just outside Clermont, I was introduced to a new grape. Muscadines are probably the only type of grape that can grow in Florida’s hot, humid climate. Indigenous to the Southeastern U.S., they are sweet. Red wine is made from the Noble variety, while whites come from the Welder and Carlos varieties.

A video explained how owner Gary Cox came to start Florida’s largest winery in 1989. A Floridian with a background in agriculture, Cox scooped up the land after one of the citrus freezes when the land was cheap. Now his 127 acres produce 2.5 million bottles a year. I didn’t mind a couple of their dry vintages, but our tour guide said their biggest seller was Southern Red, a sweet number that accounts for almost half of their sales.

The last part of our Lake County adventure was spent in Mount Dora. Chalk-a-block with arty boutiques, cafés, and galleries, the town is also known for its many festivals including the Mount Dora Art Festival, and Florida Storytelling Festival. A popular spot for Orlando residents to visit on the weekend, the streets were filled with people, and the brunch spots were packed. Thankfully we got up early enough to secure a spot at Cody’s on 4th for some delicious avocado toast.

Lakeside Inn, our accommodation, is Florida’s most historic hotel and was built in 1883. Sitting on the shores of Lake Dora, it had a lovely lakeside pool where we spent the rest of the afternoon. Heavenly.

Lake County, for me, was a breath of fresh Florida air. It has preserved much of the charm and natural beauty that first drew wealthy northerners down to spend the winter.

If you are looking for a respite from theme parks and fast-paced cities in Central Florida, Lake County is the place to go.

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