East Central Florida

East Central Florida

Day 1


     Mt. Dora is a fine example of small town America!  There is antiquing, boating, shopping, eating, wine tasting, relaxing, and sightseeing. We made this our home for 3 nights.  We’re back in central Florida.  http://www.mountdora.com/


     Tremain Street Cottages are charming, functional, and reasonably priced.  We have a large bedroom with sitting area; full, if tiny, kitchen; dining area/second sleeping area (pull out love seat), and bathroom with a cast iron tub!  It’s all decorated with a French Country style.   The owners have gone green, so if you are ecologically minded, this might be the place for you!  However, the internet connection keeps disappearing!  We need to keep up on the internet, so this is a big deal for us.  For you, it might not be.  Rates for our suite are $111 per night.  http://www.tremainstreetcottages.com/ 


     There are so many towns, springs, state parks, events, and other activities in the area, travelers could use this as a base for day trips, or spend a night or two and just explore Mt. Dora.

       There are two places in downtown Mt. Dora that offer wine tastings.  One, Julianne’s Coastal Cottage on 4th Avenue, is a gift shop that features local art and foods, including the Florida Orange Groves, Inc. wines we tasted.  They are mostly fruity wines which we consider desert.  They were flavorful and we did buy the kiwi and white sangria.    The other, Ridgeback Winery is an actual winery!  The owners, Ron and Ellie Thompson named the winery for their Ridgeback dogs, which they love.   They are sweet dogs!   Ron hosted our tasting.  We chose red wines.  He is cordial and very knowledgeable; hence, we learned more about wine.   Ridgeback Wines are dry, and we prefer dry wines.  Their wines are produced in small batches, allowing for a more flavorful beverage.  We enjoyed all the wines, but especially the Nouveau Ridge, Amarone Private Reserve, and Roscoe’s Port. They are moderately priced.  Wine accessories, such as wine holders, glasses, etc. are available.  The winery is on the corner of Third and Baker.  We’ll be returning!  http://ridgebackwinery.com/

     There are plenty of places to eat!  Among our favorites are One Flight Up, The Frosty Mug, and Mt. Dora Sushi.  One Flight Up has a balcony overlooking the main street.  Wines are served along with light repasts.  It’s moderately priced. The Frosty Mug offers “Viking” style foods, such as smoked salmon with brie on a bed of greens, drizzled with a honey mustard sauce.  We each added a bowl of soup and a glass of wine.  We loved it!  Total before tip was $41.   The Viking Bar upstairs is open for cocktails.  Live music is often featured in both locations.  Pricing is moderate.  The atmosphere is fun, with Viking murals and medieval shutters on the windows. http://www.thefrostymug.com/about.htm


     Mt. Dora Sushi serves sushi, steaks, and Japanese fare.  On a recent visit, we enjoyed several types of sushi, and soft shell crab tempura, served with onion and sweet potatoes.  Two glasses of wine added to the enjoyment.  Pre tip tab was $ 54.    http://mtdorasushi.com/


     There are many places to shop for home accessories, gift, clothing, shoes, children, antiques, and even pet dogs.  We’re waiting for a shop that caters to cats, so we can shop for Tepes.  Mt. Dora is a pretty town, quiet, and friendly.  It’s on Lake Dora, so eco-tours on the lake are offered on a daily basis.


  Events are frequent.  While there, we attended the Plant and Garden Sale.  Orchids, palms, native plants, fruit trees, and roses were offered, as were garden accessories.  For example, wind chimes, planters, and even waterfalls were on sale. We recommend at least 1 day.


     In the nearby town of Inverness, is the charming bed and breakfast, Lake House.  Built in the  1930s, it offers soaring ceilings, period charm, lovely lake viewws, a huge stone fireplace,  and lots of conversation areas, both inside and outside.  The hostess, Cathy, is amiable and a fine cook.  Our breakfast was delightful:  lots of coffee, juice, oatmeal with spices and cream, quiche, and the surprise – chocolate cake! Her dogs, Sophie and Bear, are polite and friendly.  The grounds are spacious and quiet, just the right place to relax.  http://www.thelakehouse.org/


     Leaving Mt. Dora, we headed to Orange City  http://www.ci.orange-city.fl.us/

and the Clark Family Campground. http://www.clarkfamilycampground.com/  We have Wi Fi!  How cool is that in a campground!  And it’s available at our site!  That’s even cooler! There is a pool, coin laundry, modern bath houses, game room and playground for the kids, mini grocery, rec room, catch and release fishing, and planned activities.  Tent and RV sites can choose electric. Wildlife is welcomed, so birders, here is your destination!  Cranes, owls and storks are some birds that visit.  Other animals include squirrels, coons, and snakes. Kim, in the office, is very helpful and friendly.  We felt very comfortable with her.  Rate per night is $31, and a AAA discount is offered.


     Lake Helen and Cassadaga are two tiny villages that are worth taking the time to see.  Lake Helen is on the little lake of Lake Helen.  There are some very pretty houses and parks. http://www.lakehelen.com/    The Lake Helen coffee and Tea Company offers delicious light meals for a good price.  We each had a Cuban Midnight Sandwich.  Greg had the apple-cabbage slaw, while my side was the cucumber salad.  An ice tea and lemonade were our drinks.  Everything was tasty!  Total bill was $15.  http://www.lakehelencoffee.com/About_Us.html



Cassadaga is known as the spiritualist town.  It is a 115 year old community.  Classes in spirituality, healing, meditation, and other topics are offered several days of the week.  Take some time to stroll down the side streets.  It seems that every other house is a medium.  The Hotel Cassadaga offers séances, past life experiences, healing, and classes and seminars in Native American Medicine, Palmistry and other paranormal beliefs.  A café is in the hotel.  The hotel and village have gift shops and book stores. Allow about 45 minutes.  http://www.cassadagahotel.net/


     Back at our campsite, we cooked a tasty meal of steak, potatoes roasted in the coals, and fresh tomatoes.  This campground is a good place to get off the road for one night, or to make a home base for several nights.  Blue Springs, Deland, de Leon Springs, Hontoon Island, and Daytona Beach are nearby, as are golf courses, tennis courts, and flea markets.


Day 2


     The springs were calling our name, and we heeded the call.  After cooking breakfast at camp – oatmeal with fresh blueberries and hot coffee, we followed the trail to De Leon Springs State Park in the town of De Leon Springs.  The park is beautiful, with majestic Live Oaks draped in Spanish moss.  There are copious picnic areas, a lovely butterfly garden, canoe rentals, an eco tour on the river, and a Visitor Center.  The water of the springs is a constant 72 degrees F. and is clear and refreshing.  We took a quick dip, noticing the tiny shells on the bottom of the pool.  The water is so clean feeling!   We checked out the source, a deep pit that gushes water!    Water birds, deer, alligators, and fish are among the animals living here.  Our appetite wetted, the best solution was the Spanish Sugar Mill!  The mill operated on the Spring Garden plantation when it was at this site in the 1800s.  The Mill retains the rustic ambiance, all wood and history.  Outside, in the back, artifacts of the old mill wait to be discovered by new visitors.   Inside, griddles on the tables invite customers to cook their own pancakes.  Maple syrup, honey, and molasses can be toppings.  Blueberries, peanut butter, pecans, and chocolate chips are extra toppings.  Not interested in pancakes?  Soups, sandwiches, and salads are available.  I made multi-grain pancakes with peanut butter, and Greg had a tuna sandwich.   Good food!  The bill was $ 15.   A tiny gift shop is in the corner.  Native Americans used the spring, as did European settlers later, and Seminole War and Civil War soldiers.  In an effort to lure tourists in the 19th century, a fountain of youth was constructed, remaining today, although now dry.  Camping, fishing, hiking, and birding are some on hand activities.  Admission to the park is $6 per carload.  Allow an hour, at least.  www.floridastateparks.org/deleonsprings


    Blue Springs was still calling, so . . . . we went for another swim.  Blue Springs State Park is in Orange City, about 25 minutes from De Leon.  I snorkeled up to the head spring!  The water is extremely forceful coming out, and swimming upstream was work!   I was rewarded, with turtles, fish, and deep blue algae that seemed to dance.  Again, the water is clean and fresh, with a constant 72 degree temperature.  The water is so clear, I felt like I could almost see all the way to the St. John’s River.  Both Greg and I felt so refreshed after our swim.  The surroundings are more natural than De Leon, with many submerged trees, and braches hanging low over the water.  Be cautious not to snag yourself on a log or branch!  We saw mullet, catfish, and many water birds.  A fascinating phenomenon, the clear spring water meets the dark St. John water and a defining line develops before they blend together.   The Thursby House is on the grounds.  This is the first house built in the area, in the mid 1800s.  The Thursby’s had 10 children!  As of 2000, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.  It’s on a midden, or Native American refuse heap.  Camping, canoeing, hiking, birding, and fishing are offered.  This a manatee preserve, so they are usually around in the winter months.  Swimming with them is not permitted.  Admission to the park is $6 a car.  Give yourself at least an hour.   www.floridastateparks.org/bluespring


       Back to DeLand and Stetson University for some culture!  There are art galleries, a theater, museums, and many cultural events in DeLand, the Volusia County seat.  DeLand calls itself the “Athens of Florida” following the lead of Athens, Greece in valuing education and the arts.  We found an Asian market, art school, and book store that back up that claim.  It’s a very charming little town!  There is diverse eating and shopping. Chess Park was a real surprise!  Tables with chess boards in a park with a waterfall!  Many of the older buildings have been restored.  www.deland.org   Stetson University originally was named DeLand Academy.   It was founded in 1883 and is the oldest higher education institution in Florida.   Many of the campus buildings are historic; the campus is on the National Register of Historic Places.   Allow an hour to tour the campus and town.  http://www.stetson.edu/home/     After sightseeing, we visited the Bills and Frank’s Brickhouse Grill on Woodland Blvd, the main street in town.  The food was delicious!  We started with crab stuffed mushrooms.  Greg had a full rack of baby backs with sides of baked potato and green beans; I had the smoked pork chops with sides of baked potato and applesauce.  We had a glass of wine, too.  Our total was $51.   http://www.discoverdaytona.com/deland/restaurants/brickhouse_grill/index.htm 

     The threat of Hurricane Ida, and the blustery day had us taking down our tent at the campground.  We ended the day by staying at the Holiday Inn Express in Orange City for $99 per night.







       Sanford is another of the small towns in Florida that exude charm and history.  Founded in 1877, it has been restored to a rather artsy little place with a brick street and historic plaques on many of the buildings.  We especially enjoyed the décor of the Folk Art shop.   Rollins College was founded here.  It’s worth a look around. Give yourself 30 minutes.  www.ci.sanford.fl.us   But wait, there’s more!  The Central Florida Zoo is in town.  We enjoyed our visit there very much.  A Herpatarium, Amphibian room, insect zoo, birds, wild cat exhibit, elephants, crocodile, and many more animals made this fun!   A zip line complex is offered now, for an additional fee.    We’ll be going back to try it out!    Allow at least an hour   Admission s $10.95 per person.  http://www.centralfloridazoo.org


     The springs were still calling!  Our answer today was a trip to Wekiwa Springs in Apopka, not far from Sanford.  A hill slopes into a pool of clear, cool water.  We watched many mullet jump to the surface of the water, snatch a bug, and dive back to the bottom.  The water, of course, was refreshing, although we only waded today.  History is part of Wekiwa.  Timucuans used the water, fished and hunted, Spaniards explored the area, and in the 1880s and 1890s this was a very popular week end haven for picnickers and those who sought the healthful waters. There is an inviting picnic area, where we had our lunch.  Canoeing and kayaking are available, as are hiking, biking and camping.  We saw some deer and a turtle on our walk.  Allow an hour at the least.  http://www.floridastateparks.org/WekiwaSprings


     We drove through some very tiny towns, including Zellwood, Mt. Plymouth (foliage capital), Lake Jem, Sorrento, and Tangerine.  A huge tangerine colored cowboy boot and tangerine bus stop let us know we where there!  The old post office-general store is also bright tangerine!  We saw some pretty homes, interesting stores, and countryside.  Our favorite, though, was Tangerine.


     Tavares is an attractive town, near Mt. Dora.   We walked downtown and liked the City Hall Building.    http://tavares.org/

 We stayed the night in the Villa Lagoon Inn, a fairly clean and comfortable, though plain and worn, motel.  It was only $50 with tax.  There is Wi Fi, a pool, and fishing in the lake. We had 2 queen beds.  The motel is undergoing some renovations.  Dinner was at O’Keefe’s Irish Pub on S. Rockingham Ave in Tavares.  We both enjoyed our London broil!  Greg had the Irish Whisky sauce, and I had the brown sauce.  They came with baked potato, and we added a salad. Service was good, and the atmosphere was comfy. Total was $50. 



Day 4


     No breakfast at the motel, so we ran over to Kathy’s Café, an unpretentious local gathering place.  Greg ordered the 2 eggs, home fries, and toast.  I changed the home fries to hash browns on mine.   The coffee was good!  Our total bill was $9.


     On to the next adventure – exploring Leesburg.  Founded by the Lee Family in 1857, it is known as the Lakefront City.  There is enough to keep anybody occupied here for a day’s stay, at least.  We found the Venetian Gardens, a beautiful park with meandering pathways and charming bridges.  There were many birds in sight, including heron, ibises, coots, geese and ducks.  This was a project for the WPA in the 1930s, helping to drain some of the marshes.  We saw several people fishing while there, looking for bass.  Picnic spots abound.  Canoe rentals are available, and a pool charges only $1 admission.  A person could spend all day in the gardens, which are free.  Allow at least 30 minutes.  http://www.leesburgflorida.gov/history/index.aspx


     The town itself has been renovated, and boasts many shops, including antique stores.  There are several places to eat.  Little patches of garden are strategically placed to provide color. A tiny museum, The Leesburg Heritage Society and Historical Museum, is full of Leesburg artifacts from the past.  Some items: a dime operated hobby horse; clothing from the early 1900s; old cameras and typewriters; and a telephone switchboard. Admission is free.  We stopped at Sinfully Sweet Treats on Main St for lunch.  Décor was eclectic, with the brick walls partially showing.  Greg ate the Mexican Chicken Wrap; I had the chicken Greek salad.  Toss in a bag of chips.   Everything was tasty!  Our soft drinks came with free refill.  Our total was $23.  Allow 30 minutes to stroll through town.


     The Bourlay Historic Nature Park was a find!  Donated to the city by Buddy Bourlay, the park features his grandparent’s home, a three room shotgun style house with the kitchen sink intact.  The other two rooms have photographs of the family and newspaper articles about them.  His great grandparents are the Lees, founders of the city.  There is a pretty little butterfly garden, which I particularly enjoyed, as well as several short nature trails.  We took the Chickee Trail, to the chickee with lumber benches, which had been built by Boy Scout Troop #213.  Beyond was a very short boardwalk out to Lake Harris, with lovely views.  All together, it was a delightful find! (A chickee is an open platform shelter with a palm thatched roof, originated by the Seminoles.)  There is no admission.  Allow 30 minutes. 


     A brief drive to Lake Griffin State Park gave us the opportunity to canoe.  A canal opens into the Dead River, which flows into Lake Griffin.  We saw some herons and egrets and pretty water plants like water lilies and pickerel.  The most exciting sight, though, was a huge alligator sunning on the bank, a few feet from our canoe!  We passed him again on the way back! While in the park, we also hiked an interesting nature trail and stopped by the Mammoth Oak.  It’s one of the oldest in the state, having a spread of 131 feet and a height of 83 feet!  It is a majestic sight!  Park admission is $5.  Canoe rental is $4 per hour. The ranger assured us that it is the cheapest rental in the state!  Allow an hour.  http://www.floridastateparks.org/lakegriffin/default.cfm


     Fruitland Park is across the street!  It’s another cute little town, with some charming homes, and was dressing up for Christmas.  We smiled at the Furniture Barn with the steer on the roof!


   We’re back to the Holiday Inn Express in Tavares for our last night on this tour.  We have two queen beds and a fridge, in addition to the coffee maker, and breakfast in the morning.  There is both a pool and an exercise room.  Cost is $89.


     JJ Fins is a new restaurant in town.  We went over because of a recommendation by the Holiday Inn manager.  This is a good place!  There’s a beach volleyball set up, outdoor bar, and very beachy furnishings, including surf board lights.  Greg fell for the Bait Box – a combination of shrimp, Alaskan crab claws, crawfish, and raw oysters on a bed of ice.  He almost licked the plate he liked it so much!  I went with the shrimp and crab stuffing with black beans and rice.  Yum!  We had wine, and it was 2 for 1.  Our tab was $ 56.


Day 5


     This is the last day.  We enjoyed our Holiday Inn Express breakfast, and then headed to Clermont and the Lakeridge Winery for a tour and tasting.   Our guide was Jason, an informed and entertaining host. We learned that the winery has vineyards in the panhandle, too.  Jason told us that lightening is the biggest crop destroyer.   The best climate for wine is cool and dry.  The hills of Clermont give good drainage for the vines.   We tasted several of the wines, finding them all exquisite.  While tasting, Jason explained the Five S’s: see, swirl, smell, sip, and savor the wine.  He told us that each of us is an expert on wine – the wines we like and what we like to pair with them.  It was a fun way to learn, and we did buy one or two bottles.  There is some type of festival there each month. http://www.lakeridgewinery.com


     We wanted to explore the town of Clermont a little, since it is a historic small town.  http://clermont.govoffice.com/    It’s pretty, and has a wonderful little café called Cheeser’s Palace.  We loved our lunch!  Greg had a half tuna salad sandwich with a cup of Tomato Basil Florentine soup.   I had a bowl of the soup.  He had coke, and I had tea.  Classical music played softly.  Georgian style paneling covered the walls.  Service was prompt and friendly.  The owners, Carol and Amanda are gracious.  The atmosphere was great!   We’ll go back there when in the area.  Soups, salads and sandwiches were creative and reasonable.  Breakfast and chocolates are also available.    Carol told us she is a Certified Cheese Expert and offers cheese classes.  Our total was $19.  http://www.cheeserspalace.com


     Next stop is home.  It’s always nice to sleep in our own bed, sit in our own chairs, have a much wider clothing selection, and be with the family, until the next trip.


     One thing we noticed was how many businesses were closed.  Gas stations, restaurants, Laundromats, and motels that we thought would be open because they are important services.   It certainly is a tough economic time.


     We hope that our back roads trip has nudged you into finding at least a daycation destination or week end getaway near your home in Florida.  There is so much to discover in our own backyard whatever your interests might be!