Shake off the buzzy East Coast and nuzzle up to some Old Florida charm
If travel isn’t front and center yet on people’s agendas, there is a solution. Try rediscovering your own backyard for a little easy, close-to-home getaway. These small-town destinations will take you just down the road—but into some other worlds entirely.
Thirty miles east of Fort Myers along the Ten Thousand Islands south of the Tamiami Trail is an old fishing village—Everglades City—and the even tinier Choko- loskee Island. Everglades City was the county seat for Collier County from 1923 to 1961, when it was moved to Naples after Hurricane Donna. The tiny town, gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands, still has a few classic old buildings from that era, the shimmering Barron River and the iconic Everglades Rod & Gun Club (have a drink there and check out the lobby), which dates from the 1890s. It is a longtime fishing getaway, and even weekenders can charter a fishing guide. It also has airboat tours, Everglades boat tours into Chokoloskee Bay and Florida Bay, kayaking through mangrove tun- nels in the nearby Turner River, swamp hikes in the Fakahatchee Strand or Big Cypress swamp. There are plenty of dining op- tions, from stone crabs (in season) at a fish shack on the Barron River to a platter of fried everything at City Seafood or the Triad Seafood Market & Café.
Across a narrow causeway is Chokoloskee, with a population of about 300 and the famous Ted Smallwood store—now a muse- um—that was once a trading post ca. 1906 and the site of the 1910 ambush and mur- der of infamous local cane farmer and renegade Ed Watson. Ever- glades City is about two hours and change west of Miami, and is your Everglades getaway. Sum- mer can be dicey because of the mosquitos, but go once it cools down for a little swamp magic.
This impossibly bright little artist colony in Lee County between Pine Island and Little Pine Island off Cape Coral on the mainland is just short of three hours from Boca, but may as well be on another planet. Matlacha was once a fishing village, in the South Florida days people made a living fishing for mullet instead of selling real estate. When a 1992 ban on net fishing was enacted, those days were over. The mullet fishermen burned their boats, and the town reinvented itself as“a funky arts community that likes to fish,”according to one descrip- tion. This is a place to wander through the art galleries and little boutiques, maybe rent a paddle- board, stay overnight if you have a hankering. A popular choice is the modest and comfy Bridgewater Inn with its big porch, or go a few miles north on Pine Island to the Tarpon Lodge in Bokeelia, which is the top pick for both food and lodging. Other people like Sandy Hook Fish & Rib House, Bert’s, Blue Dog Bar & Grill—but there are plenty of places to get your fish on. This is tiny, laid-back and a great day trip.
A little farther afield, about 3 hours and 20 minutes northwest of Boca Raton past Orlando, is the picturesque town of Mount Dora, a New England-esque Thornton Wilder kind of place overlooking Lake Dora, one in a dazzling chain of Central Florida lakes. The town is on higher ground than most of Florida, and it even feels as if it’s from somewhere else, full of vintage Victorian and Crafts- man houses and a downtown historic district.
Mount Dora is known for its antiquing, among other pastimes, and is the kind of place you want to go for a weekend rather than
a day trip. The Lakeside Inn (ca. 1883) is its most famous hotel and is in the middle of everything, but there are plenty of B&Bs and other accommodations. There are many small restaurants, some modest, some beloved, but try the striking, art-packed 1921 Mount Dora, part of the Mount Dora Modernism art complex.
As far as diversions, it’s mostly lake boating and bass fishing or shopping, but there is tons to do all year long, from the Mount Dora History Museum to more festivals than South Florida has in the winter: Annual Arts Festival (February), Annual Taste of Mount Dora (May), Seafood Festival (September), Scottish Highlands Festival (November) and many, many more. But the ginormous Antiques and Collector’s Ex- travaganza, hosted three times a year in November, January and February by Renninger’s Antique Center and flea market, just out- side town, is a legendary Mount Dora draw.
Visit whattodoinmtdora.com for more information.