“Who wants to be the co-pilot?” asks Evan Frostman.
Minutes earlier, Frostman, a pilot for Jones Brothers Air and Seaplane Adventures in the central Florida city of Tavares, had expertly landed his plane on Lake Dora. He now waits as my friend Dennis and I size up the Cessna four-seater. We are standing on the dock of the historic Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora, preparing to fly over and splash down on one of the region’s 1,000-plus lakes.
Dennis gallantly concedes, and I step into the cockpit.
The irony of this is not lost on me. A member of the fainthearted flyers club, I have white-knuckled my way through flights on major airliners. To my wary eyes, this craft appears just slightly larger than a Florida mosquito. So why am I boarding a single-engine seaplane? Blame it on my bucket list, an ever-lengthening compendium of inexplicable desires.
When I learned that Tavares had reinvented itself as America’s Seaplane City, I decided it was time to cross another item off my list.
Hoping to shed its “Anytown, USA” status, Tavares built a seaplane base in 2010. The city has logged more than 20,000 commercial and private landings since then. Jones Brothers books another 2,500-3,000 flights per year, including plane-boat-train excursions and bar hop fly-ins to waterfront pubs. The tour operator also offers newlyweds a unique sendoff. After getting married at Tavares’ Pavilion on the Lake, many couples do a flyover of their wedding party before heading to a honeymoon destination.
Back in the cockpit, I watch as our plane skims the water. With the quick grace of a dragonfly, we are airborne. The Gatsbyesque grounds of the Lakeside Inn recede. Mount Dora, a town often compared to a New England village, is equally picturesque at 1,000 feet, its white church steeples peeking through an emerald-green tree canopy.
Frostman’s confident navigation and narration calm my fears. The view captivates me, and I take in details I would never have seen from an Airbus. Several uninhabited islands dot celadon-green lakes rimmed by wooded shorelines.
“Some people are apprehensive at first, but once you’re up here, it’s so serene, you forget about being nervous,” Frostman says, echoing my own thoughts. As we soar over the Harris Chain of Lakes, he adds, “You’d never know how much water there is in Lake County until you see it from the air.”
It’s an appropriate comment to introduce the highlight of our tour. “We’ll prepare for our splash and dash next,” Frostman says, banking the plane left and grinning at my exhilarated “Whee!” I’m equally amused. For once, I’m not clutching an armrest. The nimble Cessna seems built for such moves, and I revel in the reprieve from gravity.
Frostman says he will make his approach over a canal, then splash down onto Lake Harris. Surveying the tangle of trees below, I wonder how he’ll pull this off. Finally, a thin ribbon of water appears and, like threading a needle, we swoop between trees before splashing down and gliding across the water’s surface.
Soon, we are airborne again and, all too soon, back at the dock. Our flight lasted just 15 minutes, but like every experience that commands total attention, each moment transcended ordinary time. It also left me pondering two questions. How often do I achieve this in daily life, and when can I book a longer tour — perhaps flying beneath the trees 10 feet above the dark mysteries of the Ocklawaha River?
That bucket list just keeps getting longer.
IF YOU GO
FLIGHTSEEING: Depending on the number of passengers and route, Jones Brothers “flightseeing” tour prices vary, from $49 to $700 per person. The outfitter runs tours in Tavares and neighboring Mount Dora; www.jonesairandsea.com, 352-508-1800, firstname.lastname@example.org.
LAKESIDE INN: This genteel enclave in Mount Dora’s artsy downtown is Florida’s oldest continuously operated hotel. Ask for the Coolidge Suite, and you can stay where the former president spent a month after leaving office. A self-contained destination with a restaurant, bar and pool, the inn is walking distance to several scenic tours — by seaplane, trolley, boat, Segway or vintage train. Note: Lakeside Inn does not have elevators. Be prepared to climb a short flight of stairs or walk a short distance to your room. Rates $139-$259 a night, depending on season; www.lakeside-inn.com, 100 N. Alexander St., Mount Dora, 800-556-5016.
GETTING THERE: Tavares and Mount Dora are roughly an hour’s drive from Orlando International Airport or Daytona Beach International Airport.