Category Archives: Florida Tourism

A Weekend Getaway at Weeki Wachee

I hadn’t been to Weeki Wachee since I was a child, or so I thought, but nothing looked familiar and I think I might be remembering Silver Springs instead. Located on the corner of US 19 and SR 52, we headed north, over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Sunshine Skyway Bridge

I booked a room for two nights at the Spring Hill Marriott. Or so I thought. Turns out I booked a hotel room in Tampa, NOT Spring Hill…the name of the hotel was “Spring Hill Suites at Marriott”. We were about 45-60 minutes away. The hotel service was excellent, the room modern and comfortable, and it was a non-refundable deal, so we decided to stay.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? I should have. Our weekend getaway to Weeki Wachee coincided with a major bike rally. For some reason, bikers decided that the land of mermaids was the place to display their colors and tattoos. I was extremely uncomfortable having to walk through a crowd of at least 1,000 bikers to get to the entrance. I found out later that the rally was for a police officer dying of a tumor. Police! Dressed up like thugs! Later, inside the park, they held a raffle. For guns. In a kids’ park. It just seemed bizarre to me.

The park’s entrance fees were reasonable, I thought: $13 for adults, $5 for kids. We headed right, toward the swimming area, which turned out to be very nice, with picnic areas, a white sand beach, two large water slides, and lots of room for swimming and tubing down the inlets.

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The spring is shallow, the water a constant 74 degrees. There are several concession stands, a shop that offers swimsuits, sunscreen, etc., restrooms and volleyball courts. There is also a fenced off pool for toddlers.

We explored the other side of the park after that. The Wilderness River Cruise does not last 25 minutes as advertised. It’s more like ten minutes. We did not find King Neptune’s daughter, Princess Wonderous, or her home.

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The space is shared by canoes and kayaks, so it was crowded during our visit. Any wildlife had long been scared off, save for the fish.

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The Underwater Theater show was cute. We watched the “Fish Tails” program.

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“The Little Mermaid” show is offered twice a day, as well. The young people who perform are very talented.

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This young woman dove 117 feet down to the source of the spring, against currents strong enough to push her face mask off, holding her breath for over 2 ½ minutes.

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We also saw mermaid try-outs and according to the two middle-aged women who sat beside us, there are mermaid camps for girls of all ages. They were participating in one.

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Water ballet used to be popular back in the 1940s, when Weeki Wachee was first developed. Back then, the women would line up in bathing suits beside the highway, waving in the cars that passed. Even if the audience only had one person in it, they performed.

The grounds are well manicured and peacocks and pea hens roam freely.

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We skipped the Wildlife show. We were at the wrong end of the park and missed it, but did enjoy the short Tranquility Trail.

The park is an excellent choice for families, particularly those with young children, and most definitely for families with little girls who dream of a life “under the sea”. We thought the value was excellent. For around $50, a family of four can spend the entire day swimming and tubing in the spring (a triple tube is $15, less for singles and doubles) and ride the wilderness cruise and/or catch a free underwater or wildlife show when they need to escape the sun.

Dakin Dairy Farm-Wholesome Food and Fun

Dakin Dairy Farm, Wholesome Food and Fun in a Rural Setting

Established in 1973, Dakin Dairy Farm is located on Betts Road, off SR 70, east of Bradenton, Florida. No true seeker of Finding Florida would overlook the state’s rural areas and since there are only 150 dairies still in operation in the state of Florida, this producer of superior dairy products should be high on the list of “must-see’s”.

The family-operated dairy embraces old-fashioned values coupled with today’s technology and modern farming practices. Some milk is bottled on site, some is sent for processing in Miami.

Dakin DairyDakin Dairy Farm is a “sustainable farm” and composts its own fields. Mixing the grasses (harvested twice daily), homegrown hay and fresh grains creates a diet rich in beta-carotene, Vitamin D & E. The cows are closely monitored by a qualified nutritionist, for optimum health for the cow and more nutritious milk for the consumer. The CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids) are natural cancer inhibitors and improve healthy milk-fats. The proof is in the taste, deemed sweeter and high above that of competitors, large or small. An added benefit is a creamier texture.Dakin Dairy Farm/Organic Approach

The Dakin family takes an organic approach to dairy farming, allowing the cows to come in for milking as they choose. The philosophy is that when cows are allowed to set the pace according to their instincts, stress is reduced and milk production increases.

 

 

The on-site farm market carries a full line of milk products, honey from local bees, homemade ice cream, and small gifts. Milk choices range from whole, 2%, 1%, fat-free, and chocolate milk. Cream, heavy or half & half, is also available, as is eggnog and orange juice. All products are 100% all natural, with no artificial ingredients.

Milk can be purchased at the Dakin Dairy Farm itself or statewide at Whole Foods stores, as well as local Sweetbay grocery stores. Additionally, over 150 local restaurants and farm stores offer Dakin Dairy Farm products, as well.

Milk products are not all that Dakin Dairy Farm sells, though! Compost (15 yards or more) is also available for purchase, as are bull calves (heifer calves are not for sale).

Educational and hands-on “Agri-Tours” and school field trips are available October through April. Visitors can see the process of milk production from cow to bottle, take an informative hayride (or the cow train!) through the ranch, and bottle-feed a calf. Autumn brings additional treats of corn and hay mazes, and, for those interested, fossil digs. Birthday parties are a popular choice. Don’t miss out on one of their picnics for a true Myakka City experience, where you can order up anything from boiled peanuts to pulled pork sandwiches to S’Mores over a campfire.

For those seeking a rural Florida experience, Dakin Dairy Farm in Myakka City is a good place to start. Y’all come visit, they’ll make you welcome.

Additional photos may be seen at Julie North Photography (permission granted), whose daughter has become so accustomed to the taste of Dakin milk that she thought a competitor’s had gone bad!

 

 

 

 

 

 

King Mango Strut in Coconut Grove

Bring Your Enthusiasm and Sense of Humor to King Mango Strut in Coconut Grove, Miami, Florida

King Mango Strut is an annual event held in Coconut Grove, Florida on the last Sunday of the year. Since its beginnings in 1982 as a poke in the ribs to the Orange Bowl’s King Orange Jamboree Parade organizers who snubbed The Mango Marching Band. For some odd reason, they didn’t have any use for a couple of Grove residents who used kazoos and other eclectic “music makers” to entertain the crowd as they marched along wearing conch shells on their heads.

In retaliation, the King Mango Strut was born. Turning bitterness to laughter, King Mango Strut is no ordinary parade. Instead, it offers participants and onlookers an irreverent tongue-in-cheek review of newsworthy events of the past year. Oftentimes described as “the weirdest parade in the universe”, its participants vow to “put the NUT back in Coconut Grove”. Be sure to bring your sense of humor to this event, because boundaries of good taste are oftentimes tested!

If you visit Florida this year, and you are in the metro Miami area, don’t miss the 32nd annual King Mango Strut held on December 29th. The parade starts at 2 PM (come early for a good seat) and the “After-Strut-Party” continues until 6 PM in Commodore Plaza. It’ll be quite a party.

The good citizens of Coconut Grove know how to celebrate (photo courtesy of Michael Wayne Cole studio).There’s something here to appeal to every sense of humor, from political (Michael Wayne Cole studio) to protest (photo courtesy of flickr.com/lurker), whether complaint (photo courtesy of Michael Wayne Cole studio), environmental concern (photo courtesy of Michael Wayne Cole studio) or personal entreaty (photo courtesy of flickr.com/lurker).

Some of the marching bands, such as the New Orleans Funeral Marching Band, travel some distance to join in the revelry. Others, such as the Grove Jugglers, are local. And if you’ve ever had a longing to be Grand Marshall, you may bid for that honor on ebay.

No mangoes were hurt during the parade? Well, THAT’s a relief!

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(photo courtesy of Michael Wayne Cole studio)

If you wish to participate, download the entry form from the King Mango Strut website. Entry is free (however, donations to help defray costs are happily accepted) and there are no other requirements (except safety rules) for qualification to participate. Whether onlooker or participant, if quirky, good-natured fun is for you, come strut your stuff with other zany fun seekers at the King Mango Strut in Coconut Grove, Miami, Florida.

 

Gulf of Mexico Wildlife

Wildlife in and Around the Gulf of Mexico

Sometimes, wildlife in and around the Gulf of Mexico visits you when you least expect it. Not all the dangers are in the Gulf waters, though. Alligators in mating season tend to roam, oftentimes ending up in a backyard swimming pool or taking a siesta under the family sedan.

Alligator mating season 2

Snakes are about. A friend was sleeping in his bed, felt something cold on his leg and found a black snake curled up next to him. Bears are a problem  from time to time, as well. One family’s car was torn apart when a black bear from the Ocala National Park entered it, probably searching for food, and became entrapped when the door closed behind it.

Sometimes it is man himself who harms the environment, as in the case of Beggar, the bottlenose dolphin who used to reside in this part of the Gulf of Mexico. Also known as “Mooch”, Beggar hung out in the Intracoastal, near the Albee Point Bridge and was popular with boaters who delighted in feeding him.

Beggar was a poster dolphin for man’s encroachment on animal habitat. Most dolphin cruise over large areas of the Gulf of Mexico, but Beggar hung out in the Intracoastal and became used to begging.

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Feeding dolphin is against the law, but few boaters can resist that cute face and friendly attitude (of course, Beggar probably felt no affection. He was just hoping for a handout) and unless the Marine Patrol was out and about, Beggar got fed everything from bait fish to Dorito corn chips. Drunk people would try to pour beer down his throat and worst of all, those who find themselves with no food or drink will sometimes throw a non-food item…a piece of plastic, perhaps, or a pop-top…and Beggar, who knew no better, consumed it all.

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When people buy a boa constrictor or a monitor lizard and release them into the wild, it upsets Florida’s fragile ecosystem. When they swim with the dolphins and smear their human germs on them, it harms wildlife. They toss marshmallows to alligators and then wonder why the alligator ate their dog.

Fortunately, not all encounters with Florida wildlife are so intimidating. I was awakened the other morning by a ruckus at my window. It sounded like a cat climbing the screen, probably chasing a lizard, I thought, and rolled over to go back to sleep. The scratching on the screen continued.

I got out of bed, raised the shade and came face to face with a great horned owl! It was a baby, still full of downy gray feathers, and was as surprised to see me as was to see him. I grabbed my digital camera, but it turned its head each time until I stopped and we just stared at each other. I tried one more time…

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…and succeeded. My visiting owl finally had enough and flew away.

 

 

 

Whether in or out of the Gulf of Mexico, Florida’s wildlife never ceases to amaze.

 

 

Confederate History of The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park

Confederate History of The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park: Blockade Runners and an Escaping Secretary of State

Confederate history buffs will find a story of interest at the Gamble Mansion, but at the time of the Civil War, it was kept from public knowledge.

The owners played a pivotal role in the Civil War Confederate history of the Gamble Plantation Historic State Park. By 1865, the Gamble mansion was owned by Civil War blockade runner Archibald McNeil, who helped to keep the commerce shipping lines open during The War of Northern Aggression. Judah Philip Benjamin, secretary of state for the Confederacy and advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, asked for McNeil’s help after Confederate surrender. Benjamin, a prominent New Orleans plantation owner of Jewish decent, was on the run. A $40,000 bounty was on his head for allegedly arranging Lincoln’s assassination.

Helped by Confederate supporters as he moved around in disguise, Benjamin evaded capture, crossing the Suwanee River and eventually arriving at the Gamble Mansion. McNeil secreted him away on a boat bound for Bimini, slipping down the Manatee River, past watchful eyes along the blockade. After a trip through the Caribbean, Judah Philip Benjamin eventually arrived in London and became a well-respected barrister there.

The Homes at The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park

There are two homes on the property, the 1844 mansion itself and nearby, the Patten House. The Patten home was built fifty-one years later, when the new owner thought the mansion too far gone to disrepair for his family to live in. The Gamble Mansion, dilapidated and useless, became a storage facility for fertilizer, aka manure. The United Daughters of the Confederacy rescued it in the early 1900s, brought it back to its former glory. Today it is owned by the state.

Gamble Mansion #1For those interested in exploring more about Confederate history of The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, visit the mansion and the grounds  in Ellenton, Florida on the Manatee River. It is a short drive from nearby Sarasota and Bradenton to the south and Tampa and St. Petersburg to the north.

The grounds are open year round, from 8 AM to sunset. The mansion is open for tours Thursday through Monday, from 9 AM to noon and 12:45 to 5 PM. The Patten House is only open a few times a year, so it’s best to call the state park first at (941) 723-4536.

The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park

The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park: Plantation Operations

The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park in Ellenton, Florida, preserves a bit of antebellum history and offers up clues that reveal the challenges of homesteading and the politics of the day.

The Gamble Plantation operated because of slave labor, over 160 human beings at its height of operations. The Little Manatee River that runs through the property provided necessary water, diverted to the sugar cane fields through a series of canals built by the slaves. The canals provided easy boat transportation to and from the Manatee River and helped with flood control, as well. One of the original canals can still be seen along the edge of the property that remains.

Gamble Mansion #1

A cistern, seen on the right side of the home in this picture, collected rainwater from the roof for the home’s residents.  Unfortunately, the cistern also attracted mosquito larvae. To combat this problem, Major Gamble kept minnows in the cistern, to eat the eggs, an early form of purification. In addition to sugar, vegetables were raised and cattle were kept.

The plantation (citrus, olives, and grapes were also grown) only operated for twelve years. A crash in sugar prices led to its demise. Major Robert Gamble fell deeper in debt and was eventually forced to sell his property and slaves in 1856.

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Destroyed by Union soldiers in 1864, the remains of a sugar mill are all that remain of the cane operation.

The cane reeds were fed between the sugar cane rollers, and juice was collected in large catch pans. Pure cane  juice is still sold at roadside stands in the Everglades.

The history involving The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park Gamble Mansion in 1865 will be discussed in the next post. Owner Archibald McNeil’s assistance in helping Confederate Secretary of State Judah Philip Benjamin escape prosecution after the Civil War was England’s gain.

 

The Gamble Mansion

The Gamble Mansion’s Thick Walls Protected Against Seminole Attack

The Gamble Mansion is South Florida’s only remaining antebellum mansion. Located in Gamble Plantation Historic State Park in Ellenton, it belongs now to the Florida State Park system after being rescued from decay and neglect by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. But in pre-Civil War days, it was home base for a thriving sugar plantation. The park itself is now known as the Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial.

Shortly after the Second Seminole War ended in Loxahatchee, Civil War Major Robert Gamble staked out his homestead and began to build a home. The mansion was built in two stages. The rear of the house was built first, as protection against Seminole attacks as they fought extradition in a clash of cultures. The US government’s intention to resettle the Native Americans on reservations out west did not sit well with the Seminoles. They used guerrilla warfare to resist, hiding in swamps they knew well and mounting surprise attacks. While many were captured and relocated, quite a few Seminoles avoided capture and maintained their independence. Their descendants are scattered about the state.

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The architectural style called Doric Revivalist Vernacular graced the front of the house. The Greek Revival pillars make it seem larger than it actually is. The original plantation grew to encompass 3,500 acres in its prime; today 16 acres remain.

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The Gamble mansion is built of red brick and tabby, a crushed shell, sand, water, and lime mix. The insulating two-foot thick walls and wide verandas provided much needed relief from the summer heat, as did the numerous Live Oaks found on the property. The home was large for a bachelor: ten rooms in all in the two-story mansion. The building is split into two sections, front and back, with the traditional dog-trot air space between buildings.

Comfort has hard to find, but the homesteader did his best.

The mattresses on the beds were stuffed with Spanish moss, so named, it is told, because it resembled the early explorers’ beards. Taken from the Live Oaks on the property, the bugs that inhabit Spanish moss, called “chiggers”, also made it into the beds, giving birth to the saying, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite”. The mattresses were secured by ropes, which could be tightened by a key. There is an extra blanket on the roller in case the air turned chilly.

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An early American flag

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Civil War era kitchen at the Gamble Mansion:

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In my next post, we’ll look at the role the plantation played during and after the Confederacy and its impact on operations in and around the Gamble Mansion.

 

Lakeside Inn Dining, Shopping in Mount Dora

Lakeside Inn Dining, Shopping in Mount Dora

That evening, we enjoyed a lovely meal in the Lakeside Inn dining room.

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We split an order of baked brie, warm and smooth inside a puff pastry drizzled with white chocolate and raspberry sauce, topped with crushed walnuts and served with fruit. It could have been dessert! I ordered the St. Jaques Seafood, which was quite good, my husband enjoyed his roast duck. Lakeside Inn dining was delightful. Between dinner and killing a bottle of wine, we were full and opted to take our desserts (raspberry cheesecake and orange cake…fantastic textures!) back to our room.

Lake Dora itself is not a busy lake, and wildlife was bountiful. We walked out on the dock and enjoyed the silence. Thankfully, no one had opted to use the jet skis outside our room during our stay.

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I was pleased with the pictures of a wading heron I’d taken. The surface of the lake was still and glassy as the sun set. A few others joined us from time to time, but none of us spoke much, each of us drinking in the cooling air and sounds of nature.

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The main dock had four or five smaller docks jutting off it, each small dock ending in a park bench. Everyone seemed to walk first to the octagonal deck at the end of the main dock, then back track to one of the benches on the smaller docks, so each of us had the feeling of having the place to ourselves. Nice touch.

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Downtown shopping in Mount Dora is delightful, as are the art venues and galleries. We also enjoyed the old-fashioned bathhouse down by the lake shore near the yacht club.

The only downside was the lack of interest from the staff at the Lakeside Inn. Despite numerous requests, we never received extra clothes hangers or a replacement iron, and our complaint about the gap in the shades was ignored.

Checkout brought another surprise as I looked over the billing that had been slipped under our door. I called the front desk and protested the extra charge of $110 over the quoted package. After a twenty-minute wait, the charge was cancelled.

Before breakfast and checkout, I strolled the grounds one last time.

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Our late morning/early afternoon included a stop at the Renningers Antique Show on the edge of town. As I strolled along, I commented on the prices being asked for the crocheted linens from the 30s and 40s. Many of these items are exactly like the ones I inherited from my beloved Mother in Law. She never could understand what I saw in all that “old junk”. To her, it represented hard times. Another woman overheard our conversation and we started comparing different linens we had and decided we should open up a shop!

The trip home was uneventful, other than the usual nail-biter on I-4. The traffic eases after Lakeland, but it’s still a place to keep alert at all times. I’ll revisit Mount Dora one day, but I’m not sure I’ll give the Lakeside Inn another chance.

 

 

The Lakeside Inn at Mount Dora

An Unexpected Surprise at The Lakeside Inn at Mount Dora

We were excited about our visit to Mount Dora and The Lakeside Inn appeared to be quite promising. We happily stepped up to the front desk, gave our names and confirmation number, and…were told…

“We gave away your room.”

WHAT????

“We can give you a Garden Room.”

No, we reserved a lakeside room. After all, we were staying at The Lakeside Inn. We had stressed the importance of making this a special visit. We wanted to wake up in the morning with a pretty view of water between our toes. Gardens I can get at home! I was not a happy camper. I made sounds about accommodations somewhere else.

“Please sit down and have a complimentary glass of wine while I go speak with the manager.”

Ten minutes later, the Lakeside Inn manager emerged, and said the folks in our reserved room were not willing to move, but she’d found a room in the building closest to the water, bottom floor, steps to the beach and boardwalk.

Relieved to actually have a room, we gathered our belongings and headed for our room. Which ends up being in the BASEMENT. This is a picture of the building we stayed in. Our window is the large one at the bottom of the building:

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Our windows were level with the ground. As people walked by, we saw feet.

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I looked out at the small beach and saw two of those noisy little jet skis parked at the water’s edge, directly in front of our room. The room itself seems okay, other than feeling as if I’m in the bowels of the building.

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The closet area has an iron and ironing board…that’s good. I make a mental note to request a few more hangers. Call me crazy, but one hanger for two people just isn’t going cut it.

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There’s a blow dryer in the make-up/changing anteroom. The bathroom is nice with pedestal sink and other Victorian touches. A bit dirty behind the base of the sink, but I can live with that. The folks above us, in our originally reserved room, seem quiet. On our way out to check the dock area and grounds, we stop a housekeeper and request the extra hangers.

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The dock area is cool. It stretches out far into the lake and ends in a large octagonal deck complete with a pseudo lighthouse in the middle. The lake is quiet, which surprises us, being a Friday evening.

We had a lovely conversation with a man who filled us in on the history of the town, how he’d come to settle there, the lake, etc. We look up to the window of what should have been our room at The Lakeside Inn. It looks empty. The curtains are open. We decided to walk the downtown area and get some dinner, so we left our history buff to his thoughts and made the very short walk to Donnelly Street.

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Even though our stay at The Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora left a lot to be desired, we enjoyed exploring the area, but that’s in the next post…

Mount Dora, a Florida Town With New England Ambiance

Mount Dora has New England Ambience With a Southern Twist

When we slipped away to Mount Dora, we weren’t sure what to expect. It’s a small town situated on Lake Dora (where else?), about a 40 minute drive from Orlando. The trip up was pleasant, listening to NPR radio until it faded, then switching to CDs. I think my favorite town on the way was Howey-In-The-Hills. I just love that name! It’s a pretty town and I think there’s a winery nearby. Didn’t find Howey, though. I hope to return one day to explore the area.

While St. Augustine has a decidedly European feel to it, Mount Dora seems like a trip to New England, with gently rolling hills, quaint storefronts, and Victorian homes. We’d visited for a day last summer for a juried art show. The streets were so crowded, though, that we began to feel like salmon trying to swim upstream and agreed to return when life was quieter. We chose our dates correctly, as we learned from a shopkeeper that this coming weekend is their annual craft fair, which draws even larger crowds than the art shows!

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I explored lodging options on the internet, checked the AAA book, and settled on The Lakeside Inn. I called the inn and made reservations, asking for a lakeside view in a preferred room. I was given “The Great Gatsby” stay, which included two nights, two continental breakfasts, and one dinner with a complimentary bottle of wine. I explained that this was a delayed birthday celebration and we wanted it to be a bit special.

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I thought I’d chosen well. The inn is on the National Historic Registry. The pictures on the website were lovely, showing the original inn and it’s two additional buildings, nice pool and grounds, tennis courts, cobblestone drive, you name it. Stretching out into the lake, a long dock ended in an octagonal seating area, complete with replica lighthouse. We’d mentioned the trip to a subcontractor, who said he and his wife had enjoyed their stay there, but to watch the bill. Note to self: red flags wave for a reason.

We arrived around five P.M. The wide front porch and the white high-back wicker rocking chairs looked inviting. The lobby itself is huge, chairs clustered around a large fireplace, other seating areas scattered around here and there. The one hundred year old wood floor was worn smooth and shiny from decades of use and the front desk still retained it’s original key cubbies and buzzers. A pretty staircase led to the second story of the main building, and off to the left was the bar and a lovely dining room with floor to ceiling French doors that bowed out to the gardens and the vintage train that runs to Orlando and back.

As we waited our turn for check-in, I turned to my husband and said I thought I’d made a great choice. He agreed and we glanced through the brochures about the inn and the town of Mount Dora, discussing what we wanted to do first and time constraints.

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We were in for quite a surprise!