Mr. Chatterbox

Where Are Sarasotans Supposed to Retire?

Mr. C has a suggestion: Mount Dora.

By Robert Plunket August 1, 2019 Published in the August 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Image: Regan Dunnick

The whole world comes to Sarasota to retire. But where are we Sarasotans supposed to retire? I guess we could all stay here and gradually peter out, but what fun would that be? We need one last adventure, one last set of friends to make, one last cable guy to wait for.

It has to be in Florida, of course. I’m not facing a Northern winter ever again; even Tallahassee is a little iffy. And Sarasota has spoiled us so, with its-hard-to-beat amenity package. Is there any place that could possibly top us?

Well, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Mount Dora.

You’ve probably heard of it, maybe even been there on a day trip. It’s just north of Orlando, in that confusing mess of towns and lakes that make up Central Florida. Places like Eustis, Leesburg, Apopka and Okahumpka. There’s an awful lot of sprawl up there, but many of the towns are old and charming, and Mount Dora is the acknowledged jewel in the crown.

The town is much smaller than Sarasota, with only 13,000 inhabitants. It faces a large lake, so large it even has a lighthouse. You’ll also find some things so novel and unexpected for Florida that you get a little shock when you see them. They’re called hills. You’ve probably forgotten how much aesthetic pleasure they can add to a town, and Mount Dora’s hills are just the right size and scale, even for replaced knees and hip joints.

The general atmosphere is a Norman Rockwell-ish small town. Walkable, nostalgic architecture, parks and views, no high-rises, everything neat and clean. The whole downtown area of perhaps eight square blocks is all gussied up and entirely devoted to touristy shops. Frankly, it’s a little too much. But for an active retiree obsessed with wind chimes, modernistic jewelry, artisanal olive oil, tin lizards, soy candles, and/or terrariums, it would be heaven.

Thank God 20 or so interesting restaurants are interspersed among the shops. They don’t have the sophistication of Sarasota’s dining venues; they’re mostly ethnic or “fun,” but they will do just fine and many have live music in the evenings. There’s one called 1921 that was started by celebrity chef Norman Van Aken, and my personal favorite, the Magical Meat Boutique, where the big attraction is British beef and mushy peas.

Mount Dora is famous as an antique mecca, due not to the shops downtown so much as the enormous flea market, Renninger’s, out on U.S. 441.  It’s one of the best in the state. I went two days in a row and still didn’t see everything. Aside from the coconut cake at the food truck, the best part was the big air-conditioned building that houses booth after booth of antiques and collectibles. The quality was excellent and surprising well-priced, and the dealers came across as knowledgeable and worldly, like they would make good retirement buddies. We could discuss china, both kinds.

Mount Dora seems like a very arty little town. Of course, it can’t compete with Sarasota in quantity or quality, but in a way that’s a relief. Here the arts are so important that sometimes they seem like a ponderous god we’re being forced to worship. In Mount Dora they have a much lighter touch.

Like the Modernism Museum. It’s wonderfully weird—an old car showroom that is now mostly furniture, the current exhibit being the work of Ettore Sottsass, the Italian designer who created the “Memphis” look—colorful, cartoon-like, very 1980s avant-garde. They even have David Bowie’s dining room table on display, something you’ll never see at The Ringling.

I loved the museum, but it was while having a drink in the bar of the Lakeside Inn that I sort of fell in love with the town. The place is not modern at all. Calvin Coolidge stayed here after he retired, and it’s the oldest continuously operating hotel in Florida. It was over my second Old Fashioned I realized that Mount Dora and Sarasota are kindred spirits, and yes, I could live here quite easily. I could get one of those cute 1920s cottages for just under $200,000 and become a docent at the Modernism Museum. Then I’d start looking around for a new wealth adviser, cardiologist, urologist, dermatologist and medical marijuana dispensary as I explore my new hometown—which, as it turns out, even has a secret history.

Mount Dora may look cute, but it is famous in post-apocalyptic literature. Fictionalized as Fort Repose, it’s the setting for one of the greatest nuclear war novels of them all, Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. The story of a small Florida town that survives a nuclear war, it was published in 1959 and has been a classic ever since, now taught in high schools along with To Kill A Mockingbird.

Mount Dora obviously recognized itself, and for the next year the mayor and the town banker, along with many of the leading citizens, got together and in the greatest secrecy began building a 5,000-square-foot communal underground bomb shelter beneath an orange grove on the edge of town. Each of 25 families got a 12-foot-by-12-foot room. There was also a kitchen, rec room, clinic, sewage system, air filter, arsenal and enough food for six months. They also stowed away bags of seeds so that when the radiation cleared they could restart the world.

Of course, nobody outside the group could find out about it because when the sirens went off they’d all come running and beg to be let in, and what are you going to do?

So they kept this enormous project a secret. They also had a special committee to decide when to shut the 2,000-pound door and refuse to let anybody else in, even if they were members who were late with car trouble.

The bomb shelter is still there, full of palmetto bugs and its location still a secret.

Imagine—tracking it down, fixing it up, turning it into a bed and breakfast. Sounds like a dream retirement project.

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