The View from Mount Dora

By staff June 1, 2002

I find myself thinking more and more about retirement these days. It used to be some way-in-the-future thing, a sort of end-of-life countdown. So many things would happen to me before then.

Well, they've all happened. I had the boring job; I bought the series of increasingly expensive houses;, I put the little bit of money aside with Merrill Lynch. And now I'm ready for something else-me. Just think-no more toupee, no more morals clauses, no more worrying about all those young Turks right behind you and ready to stab you in the back the minute your guard is down. My grandmother had the right attitude. In her old age she became famous for doing exactly what she wanted. With the utmost old-fashioned Southern graciousness she would say, "Why, I don't believe I care to," to any invitation that involved travel, boredom, or people she didn't like.

Of course, when you already live in what is perceived as a "retirement town," particularly one as notable as ours, you retire? If you stay where you are, you know pretty much what the future holds. So I've decided to move. There has to be one final adventure, otherwise you just fade away. You need that challenge to start over one last time.

And I finally found the perfect place. It's called Mount Dora. I'd been avoiding it for years because it just sounded too cutesy for words but I finally drove up there the other day and the minute I saw the place I knew-this was it.

Mount Dora is famous for being the perfect small town, perhaps the most perfect in Florida. It is, indeed, small (just 8,000 people) and very, very pretty. Yes, there is a mountain; it is 184 feet high, and the village clings to its slope facing westward over a pretty lake. Enormous old trees shade the town from the sunlight that bounces off the lake, giving the whole place a special glow that I imagine in August must be more like a special bake, but let's not dwell on that.

I've already figured out my retirement lifestyle in Mount Dora. It will revolve entirely around housekeeping. I want to spend my entire day maximizing the quality of life. Classes, activities, new friends-forget about it. I want to hang out in gourmet food markets, buying patés and cheeses; I want to truly understand all my window treatment options; I want the perfect sheets and pillowcases; I want to constantly stop and smell the roses, preferably ones I've grown myself-or at least had grown for me-and I want a new Lexus, because I'm not riding a bike up that mountain.

One of the best things about Mount Dora is its housing stock. There's a wide variety of houses in all price ranges; many are older and charming, with views of the lake. For under $250,000 you can easily find a great old place from the 1940s, impeccably maintained, with its original windows, wood floors and lots of built-ins. And for half a million you get a showplace. I noticed a classic 1930s Tudor on the market for around that price that looked like it had been flown in from Scarsdale. And the whole town is full wonderful residential choices. For my poorer readers there are some funky neighborhoods where the houses are not as big or as well-kept, but are still dripping with character, not to mention neighbors who park on the lawn. And if a house sounds like too much trouble there are even several mid-rise condos facing the lake-contemporary but satisfactorily upscale. (Let's just hope the zoning's been changed so no more can be built.)

What is there to do in Mount Dora? First of all, there is a tremendous amount of shopping. It is known as the Antique Capital of Florida, and, while I personally would award this title to Dania, Mount Dora still has plenty of places. Oddly enough, some of the best shopping is not antiques but "shabby chic" home accessories, art galleries, toy stores, bakeries, bookstores, etc. These are for the tourists, and the tourists do come. At any given moment the downtown area, perhaps five blocks square, is teeming with them and their ice cream cones. But they are genteel and well-behaved, and Mount Dora is the sort of town that will never, ever attract spring breakers.

There is also a famous hotel there, one of the great old-time Florida hotels, called the Lakeside Inn. It is so old that Calvin Coolidge dedicated the new wing. I warmed to it immediately, particularly after peeking in the bar and discovering it was full and lively at three in the afternoon. The Inn is a big "couples" place. There are honeymooners, looking shockingly young in their brand-new Bermudas; there are 40-ish couples here to rekindle their relationships; there are gray-haired empty nesters in sensible shoes, no doubt here on a retirement scouting trip. The inn has thoughtfully placed rocking chairs on its porch to facilitate the people-watching.

Judging from the flyers put up around town, you can find plenty to keep you occupied if you so wish. Concerts, poetry readings, many, many-perhaps too many-festivals: the antique car show, the antique boat show, the month-long Christmas celebration and festival of lights. The local community theater was doing "The Caine Mutiny," which I must say piqued my interest. Co-workers are always telling me what a wonderful Captain Queeg I would make. But no more leading roles for me, I'm afraid. I no longer want the pressure of having to "carry" an entire community theater production by myself.

Now, Mount Dora is not perfect. I thumbed through several volumes of local history and detected a surprising amount of racial tension over the years. And the surrounding area, while it has pockets of prettiness-Howey-in-the-Hills, and the big cactus farm on Hiway 441-is among the most traffic-choked and confusing in Florida. (Bring a map, not that it's going to do you any good.) Orlando, 30 miles to the south, is the nearest big city, and Orlando has never been a plus in my retirement plans. The thought of driving from Mount Dora to the Orlando airport, which one would have to do frequently, filled me with dread.

But Mount Dora is a pleasant surprise. It teeters on the brink of cutesiness but never quite falls; it's upscale yet unpretentious; and its natural setting is very special indeed. It may lack the wacky originality of Key West or the breathtaking perfection of Carmel, but when it comes to old-fashioned charm it delivers the goods and them some. I've already picked out my favorite tea room downtown, where I plan to drop by every afternoon and read some E.M. Forster while sipping Earl Grey and nibbling cucumber sandwiches. Then it's off to the bar at the Lakeside Inn. Yes, my retirement years are going to be packed with activities. 

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