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A perfect lake in a perfect area describes Lake Dora in Florida's Eastern Central Region. The Lake Dora area has been a favorite destination of northern retiree 'snowbirds' for nearly 50 years. Part of the Harris Chain of Lakes, huge Lake Dora is rich in wildlife and fish, with many miles of waterways to cruise and plenty of activities to keep visitors and winter residents occupied and interested. Only a half hour north of busy Orlando and its bustling theme parks, Lake Dora presents a quieter, more relaxed face to the world.
Named in 1846 after Mrs. Dora Drawdy by government surveyors she befriended, the land around Lake Dora was originally planted in orange groves. A canning factory was built in the town of Mount Dora and shipping oranges became the main cash economy. Killing freezes in the late 1800s ended the industry for the most part, with many farmer going broke and abandoning their dying groves. Vegetable farming in the rich muck soil soon became equally lucrative, with lettuce, cucumber, cabbage, tomatoes, and watermelons favored crops. Much of the land was underwater most of the time until drainage ditches were dug to increase acreage during World War II for food production. At one time, Lake Dora was fished commercially, shipping out barrels of fish to northern eateries. Even during periods when the surrounding land was not economically productive, one business continued to boom: large resort hotels sprang up near Mount Dora, patronized by the well-to-do visitors from northern states. One large hotel has been in operation from the 1880s until today. Fish camps sheltered along the lakefront to provide lodging and guide service to anglers.
Lake Dora is part of the Ocklawaha River basin, which eventually empties into the St Johns River. Lake Apopka forms the headwaters of the system. The Apopka-Beauclair Canal was first excavated in the 1890s. As Lake Beauclair connects to Lake Dora via a short channel, the 1956 Apopka Lock and Dam controls the northerly flow of water from Lake Apopka into the rest of the chain. Burrell Lock and Dam on Haynes Creek between Lake Eustis and Lake Griffin further serves to control Lake Dora's water levels. Originally, the Elfin River traveled the short less-than-two-mile distance from Lake Dora to Lake Eustis. In the late 1800s, a steamboat captain, tiring of the sometimes impassible river, hired a crew of laborers to dig a channel. The resulting Dora Canal has been called the 'most beautiful mile of water in the world', with towering 2000-year-old cypress draped with moss and a wealth of wildlife lining the shoreline. Sheltered here, nesting ospreys, herons and egrets raise their young as otters, alligators and wading birds enjoy the waters. Cruising the waterway, either via pontoon or guided cruise is a once-in-a-lifetime afternoon excursion. Retakes for the Humphrey Bogart classic "African Queen" were filmed along the Dora Canal.
Lake Dora, along with other lakes in the chain such as Lakes Griffin, Eustis, Yale, Harris, Beauclair, Carlton and Little Lake Harris have been famous for bass fishing for many years (note that Lake Yale is not directly connected but is considered part of the chain). Until the last twenty years, major bass tournaments were held on the lakes regularly. However, water quality degraded due to agricultural run-off, destroying the lakes for bass fishing. Through massive effort and at great expense, environmental agencies have purchased much of the former agricultural land and returned it to wetlands. Water quality has vastly improved and the bass fishery is returning to the Harris Chain of Lakes. Along with Largemouth bass, black crappie, bluegill and catfish are caught in Lake Dora.
The shore of Lake Dora supports the towns of Mount Dora and Tavares. Mount Dora, named for the 186-foot hill the town has encompassed, is a quaint Victorian-era town with many preserved older homes and buildings. Mount Dora has an old-fashioned feel and is a haven for antique connoisseurs. Ice cream parlors, boutiques and specialty shops dot the sloping streets leading down to the water's edge. Mount Dora has maintained its New England-like persona by actively encouraging the arts, antique festivals and craft fairs. The largest inland regatta is held annually on Lake Dora. Crappie tournaments are held regularly, including one for children. Among the wealth of lakeside parks, the town provides one park with a 1,700 foot freshwater hiking trail and boardwalk and a rare inland freshwater lighthouse. A water taxi takes passengers back and forth to Tavares and marinas provide docking facilities for the many pleasure boats and sailboats enjoying Lake Dora.
Lake Dora supports all types of water sports, including jet skis, water skiing, wind surfing, canoes and kayaks. The northern shore of Lake Dora is designated as a Lake County Blueway; an easily accessible paddle sports water trail that follows the Dora Canal into Lake Eustis and beyond.
Although not the Victorian picture book that is Lake Dora, historic Tavares provides a multitude of water-focused activities around Wooton Park. One of the best attended is the annual Antique and Classic Boat Society Show. Wooton Park also supports an unofficial seaplane base and a marina. Tavares is the kind of town where residents are just as likely to take the golf cart to the grocery as their car, adding to the laid-back resort atmosphere. Or, just take the golf cart to the golf course - there are several in close proximity to Lake Dora.
If the visitor tires of the boating, shopping, airboat rides and canoeing the Dora Canal, a variety of other activities are available nearby. Less than 15 miles to the north of Lake Dora, the southernmost reaches of Ocala National Forest provide thousands of acres of hunting, hiking, mountain biking and camping facilities. Designated OHV trails provide plenty of area to enjoy Florida animal and plant life. Canaveral National Seashore is only 70 miles to the east. This national park, located on a barrier island offers fishing, surfing, boating, swimming, sunbathing, canoeing, camping, hiking, nature and historical trails. The lucky visitor may see Atlantic bottlenose dolphin and manatee in the lagoon or catch the summer return of sea turtles to the beach to lay their eggs. And Mosquito Lagoon provides excellent recreational fishing.
Vacation rentals are available at Lake Dora year round. Both Mount Dora and Tavares hold many commercial lodgings in the form of hotels and motels, with a few bed-and-breakfast establishments overlooking the water. Private cottages and homes are available by the night, week or month, many with lake frontage. Or, book a room in the 100-plus year old Inn as did the wealthy visitors years ago. And real estate is available in every price range for those that decide Lake Dora should be home. So, pack the fishing gear, binoculars and golf clubs and come to Lake Dora for your first visit. It very likely wont be your last!
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