HOWEY-IN-THE-HILLS, Fla. -- You sort of know what to expect with Mission Inn Resort & Club just north of Orlando. As Drew Toth, director of sales and marketing, says unapologetically, "This isn't the Ritz-Carlton," so you might expect a pretty blue-collar resort.
And that's true, to a point, until you realize that the clientele runs the gamut.
There's something about this place that appeals to everyone. Sure it's not the Ritz, the Omni and even the Hyatt -- there are plenty of those -- but you won't find anything quite like the Spanish Colonial-style Mission Inn Resort.
It has a golf course that dates back to 1917, a tennis academy, plenty of meeting space and some of the best wedding settings in the state. This is the old "sum of the parts exceeds the whole" scenario. What you see isn't all you get. And you can't underestimate the value of a personal touch.
This unique property has been owned for the past 50 years by the Buecher family, which is still active in the day-to-day operations. Maybe that's why you feel like you're part of that family when you're here. But beyond that, there's simply a pretty good product there -- has been for years -- even if it's not particularly glitzy.
For golfers, it starts with the older of the two golf courses. Mission Inn's El Campeon Course, designed by Chicago's George O'Neil in 1917 and enhanced in 1926 by Charles E. Clarke of Troon, Scotland, has as much character as you'll find in any Florida golf course. It's been the site of NCAA championships, state tournaments and local pro events for decades.
These are not cookie-cutter holes on a typical flat piece of Florida land. The finishing stretch includes a par 4 with an island green surrounded by sand, palm trees and water on the 16th, an adventurous, tough par 5 and a dogleg-right par 4 that plays over water off the tee.
The 6,800-yard par-72 course is one of the two or three hilliest in the state, with elevation changes up to 93 feet that come into play on several holes, not only from elevated tees, but also approaches that add a club or two going back up the hill. That may not sound like a lot to folks who play in other parts of the country, but in Florida, that's huge. And many of the greens have false fronts and quite a bit of slope.
"Every hole will give you something to think about," said a GolfAdvisor reviewer. "Playing this course was truly a gift. Cannot wait to return."
Another reviewer chimed in: "An absolute must for any golfer in Central Florida. It is the unique jewel of all the courses in Central Florida."
As for the other course at Mission Inn, Las Colinas, it's enjoyable, too, and certainly a test, but not nearly as memorable. This 1992 Gary Koch design is spread out and not walkable like El Campeon. Still, it complements the other course and gives resort guests two options.
The rest of the story at Mission Inn Resort
If you're staying at the resort on a weekend, you might want to ask for a room away from the lobby. The reason: wedding traffic. Mission Inn does a lot of it, and wedding guests like to celebrate. They're not always quiet when they roll in late at night. So just ask for a room a little farther out -- at least for the weekend -- unless you plan on crashing their party.
I bring this up because much of the same thing that attracts wedding parties -- setting and value -- appeals to golfers as well. The resort has a marina, a poolside bar, pool room, fitness center, nice spa and really good food. I was particularly impressed with the Saturday night prime rib and seafood buffet. Even if you're on a diet, you might enjoy the sushi, crab legs, fish and fresh vegetables. If you're not watching your weight, you can graze for a couple of hours. Be sure to top it off with a sundae and a bread pudding.
If you're like me and play tennis, too, you'll love the tennis facilities, which not only include hard courts, but also six har-tru claylike courts as well as the Cesar Villarroel Tennis Academy. Villarroel is a former Bolivian Davis Cup player who has been at the resort for 25 years, and he knows how to teach, not only in terms of strokes, but strategy as well.
There's also eco-touring, fishing, volleyball, skeet shooting and excursions into the nearby town of Mount Dora. And the resort's 30,000 square feet of meeting space not only attracts wedding parties, but also corporate retreats.