Mount Dora's small town charm lures thousands

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MOUNT DORA -- Although some 300,000 people showed up for this past February's 24th annual Mount Dora Arts Festival, this city, with a population of less than 10,000, is an increasingly popular tourist stop for visitors who may have little interest at all in art.

"People come to town for the antiques and for the hometown atmosphere. It's gotten to be a real go-to destination," said Terry Sibilrud, owner of the Gazebo Guest Cottages -- The Upper Room.

Rates for the four rooms at the bed-and-breakfast range from $89 per night, double; for the cottages from $129, double.

New hotels in the Mount Dora area include a recently opened 62-room Hampton Inn, with rates from $69 to $99.

Another property that opened recently is an 81-room Microtel Inn & Suites in nearby Leesburg, about 12 miles away. Rates there are from $39 through Dec. 31.

Among Mount Dora's nine bed-and-breakfasts is the recently reopened Dora Way Bed and Breakfast, which has three rooms, each priced at $125. "Mount Dora is increasingly a destination point for other Floridians. It's become a great little escape town because it's a cross between the Caribbean and a New England town," said Sandy Holsten, co-owner of the property.

The peak season here used to be October through April, but it is increasingly becoming a year-round destination, particularly for couples and others seeking a romantic or getaway weekend, according to Nancy Wills, manager of the Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce.

Major highways bypass Mount Dora, a reality that residents applaud. "Small businesses are coming in, but we don't allow the chains within our city limits," Wills observed.

Instead, visitors to this city's downtown area find coffee shops and bookstores, clothing stores, small sidewalk restaurants and gracious old homes. The chamber of commerce also publishes a walking and driving tour map.

Mount Dora has become famous as a festival city, with a variety of top-rated arts and crafts events, antique boat and auto shows, sailing regattas and seasonal events.

There are about 2,200 hotel rooms in Lake County, according to Dave Warren, director of the Lake County Convention & Visitor's Bureau in Groveland.

The vast majority of visitors are leisure travelers, he said. "Our convention business here is very limited. We really have only a few hotels that have any convention space," he said.

The largest convention space in Mount Dora belongs to the 88-room Lakeside Inn, while the 189-room Mission Inn, Howie-in-the Hills, has the most space in the county. Respectively, these properties can accommodate groups of up to 180 and 400.

No figures were available for numbers of visitors here, but Lake County tourist traffic is increasing, Warren said, observing that about 40,000 people a year visit the county's welcome center.

The nearby city of Clermont is a hotbed of triathlon activity, with races through the rolling hills of the area drawing more than 1,000 people. The National Federation of Triathlons is moving its headquarters into Clermont in the fall of 2000.

Mount Dora Chamber of Commerce, Phone: (352) 383-2165; Gazebo Guest Cottages -- The Upper Room, Phone: (352) 735-5203; Hampton Inn Mount Dora, Phone: (352) 383-4267; Microtel Inn & Suites, Phone: (352) 315-1234; The Lakeside Inn, Phone: (800) 556-5016; Dora Way B & B, Phone: (352) 735-5994; Lake County CVB, Phone: (352) 429-3673

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