Look beyond South Lake’s largest city, Clermont, and you’ll find small towns where a slower pace and friendly neighbors are the norm.
story: Gary McKechnie / photos: Fred Lopez + Matthew Gaulin
There aren’t many places in Florida where you’ll see rolling hills, but they are abundant in South Lake County.
And what else will you find? Explore towns like Mascotte, Montverde, Minneola, and Groveland, and you will discover a waterfront tiki bar, family-owned home-style restaurants, U-pick farms, and a squadron of aviators in hang gliders soaring far above an expansive vista of freshwater lakes.
Linked by two lane roads and open fields, maybe the strongest connection among them all is a slower pace that stands in contrast with the din of nearby development. Visit these places and you’ll recall a sense of Old Florida.
[highlight_orange] Mascotte: The Friendly City [/highlight_orange]
Because only one main road rolls through Mascotte, and that road happens to be coast-to-coast State Road 50, it seems a given that congestion and noise and overdevelopment would come with it.
On the contrary, Mascotte is just beyond the reach of Orlando’s gravitational pull, so when you come to town it appears you’re rolling back in time. One enduring part of this rural time capsule is the circa 1964 Rainbow Restaurant, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Locals still favor it above encroaching chain restaurants, most drawn by all-you-can-eat buffets, homemade donuts, and unusually courteous service.
A short drive west, the Jot-Em-Down Store is another retro treasure — the kind of place Mike and Frank of “American Pickers” would visit to strike a bargain. A can’t-miss profile created by service station signs and road art memorabilia stops traffic on S.R. 50, while the shops themselves are jam-packed with curious curios including Beatles memorabilia, Disneyana, home accents pieces, yard art, and virtually everything else you can imagine (and many other things you can’t).
A block or two south of 50, the quiet setting of Sunset Lake Park is a mirror image of Myers Lake from “The Andy Griffith Show.” And if this scene rekindles a desire to attend a hoedown, you’ll find dresses, petticoats, pettipants, shirts, blouses, shoes, string ties, neckerchiefs, and everything else you need at Virginia’s Square Dance Apparel.
Now that you’ve visited Mascotte, promenade east to…
[highlight_orange] Groveland: City with a Future [/highlight_orange]
Florida’s fastest-growing town isn’t Miami. It is not Orlando, Tampa or Jacksonville, either.
Although Groveland’s population rocketed 189 percent between 2000 and 2010, you’d be hard-pressed to consider the town overcrowded or hectic. The old railroad depot sits in a vacant field as it waits for trains that will never arrive, and the one-story city hall would fit comfortably inside a Dollar General store.
Branching off 50 is State Road 33. Take it south and down the road to the Red Wing Restaurant, a local favorite that looks like an old hunting lodge. Since 1948, generations of diners have settled down for hand-cut steaks, homemade hamburgers, the “Home Wrecker” half-pound hot dog, fresh fish, weekly specials like Monday’s all-you-can-eat crab legs and Wednesday’s all-you-can-eat fried quail, and an orchard’s worth of fresh fruit cobblers: apple cinnamon, blueberry, cherry, strawberry, and peach. If you would prefer to B.Y.O.C (Build Your Own Cobbler), head to Lake Catherine Blueberries and try your hand at their U-pick field.
You may need a side dish of adrenaline to help work off your meal, so keep heading south on 33 until you spot a dirt road leading to Quest Air Hang Gliding. On a tandem trip to 3,000 feet, the instructor may let you maneuver the aircraft. Seize this opportunity to steer a course toward the Citrus Tower and then bank to the east to spy Orlando 30 miles away. Navigating a hang glider on invisible air currents is like riding a motorcycle in the sky.
More down to earth is one of Groveland’s largest companies, Cherry Lake Tree Farms, a wholesale operation where shrubs, palms, crape myrtles, bald cypress, elms, Ligustrums, red maples, magnolias, pines, evergreens, and oaks are planted, nurtured, and grow on 1,000 acres of rolling hills (and on another 800 acres across the state). Another picturesque focal point is Lake David. Stretched out like a trampoline, it flows from downtown well south into a residential neighborhood with Lake Avenue offering a brief scenic drive. Along the way, Lake David Park offers teens an outlet with a basketball court, volleyball court, and adjacent park for skateboards and BMX bikes.
[highlight_orange] Minneola: Delivering Excellence [/highlight_orange]
It may not be Bora Bora — heck, it is not even Mount Dora Dora — but thanks to a South Pacific theme and a wonderful location, the Tiki Bar & Grill at Lake Minneola Inn is one of the most popular watering holes in South Lake County.
Bordered between majestic oaks and sprawling Lake Minneola, the Tiki Bar & Grill is one of those places you have to know about to discover. When you arrive and settle in, you will find a cross-section of patrons — bikers, seniors, college students, and couples — sitting at the bar or at tables beneath umbrellas. And each evening when the sun goes down and the tiki torches light up, it’s possible even folks living in Tahiti would be impressed.
In Minneola, the outdoors are enchanting and where most people want to be. To accommodate those desires, more than 30 miles of continuous walking, running, skating, and biking trails have been created with the merging of the South Lake Trail, the Lake Minneola Scenic Trail, and the West Orange Trail. The trailhead, located on the east side of U.S. Highway 27, offers ball fields, a basketball court, a playground, and picnic areas, and it’s where you can embark on a tour that, with enough stamina, will take you to Clermont, Oakland, Winter Garden, Ocoee, and Apopka, providing views of hills, lakes, and wonderful vistas along the way.
[highlight_orange] Montverde: Historic Small Town Living [/highlight_orange]
It was settled in 1865, incorporated 60 years later, but it doesn’t seem as if Montverde has changed much in the decades since. Bicyclists ride along the trail beside County Road 455; students and instructors stroll across the campus of Montverde Academy; locals are hanging out at Green Mountain Pizza; and the overall feeling is that of a rural oasis.
Montverde’s simplicity and charm is evident at the civic complex, which includes the town hall, the Franklin Pearce Jr. auditorium, a library, the fire department, and a post office. Surrounded by picnic pavilions, basketball courts, and an oak-shaded park where movies are shown and festivals are held, the scene brings to mind images of Harper Lee’s fictional town of Maycomb.
That feeling is enhanced with the presence of Montverde Academy (established in 1912). Opened in a two-room wooden building, the academy today educates nearly 1,000 students, including more than 300 boarding students from 13 states across America and 48 countries. It even has an equestrian center opposite the town hall and adjacent to the town’s picture-perfect Methodist Church, which would make an ideal backdrop in a movie.
From here, head west to the end of Porter Avenue and you will reach Lake Florence Park, a safe place for kids to play and for adults to watch the sun set over the water and hills.
The end of another gentle day in Montverde.