By Roger Cox, Editor
Although located just 35 minutes from Walt Disney World and 30 minutes from downtown Orlando, the Mission Inn Resort & Club has rarely registered on tennis vacationers' radars. Its address in a town with the peculiar name of Howey-in-the-Hills sounds more Appalachian than Floridian while the resort's name evokes Spanish-era California. It does, however, have a long tennis pedigree under Cesar Villaroel, who has run his own junior academies there while also seeing to the needs of guests and convention groups. Then in 2008, it seemed destined for greater notoriety when it became the site of Justine Henin's 6th Sense Tennis Academy (a young Monica Puig was a camper). Although that project foundered once she left the tour and returned to her academy in Belgium, her trainer, the renowned fitness guru Pat Etcheberry, who had relocated here at the same time, stayed on. He continues to work with athletes in various sports, including Frances Tiafoe and the University of Virginia tennis team.
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Sprawled over 1,100 rolling acres, the family-run resort encompasses 176 rooms, suites, and villas, two 18-hole golf courses, a 6,200-square-foot spa, a fitness center, trap and skeet shooting ranges, a swimming pool, hiking trails, and a marina on Lake Harris, the largest of an eight-lake chain. The low hills that characterize the landscape—and contributed to the town's name—give this region a very different appearance from the rest of Florida. It's a place of small towns and citrus trees, the latter introduced by William J. Howey, who, in 1916, bought 60,000 acres for the express purpose of creating a horticultural empire. He also built the inn and its original golf course, laying the latter out through towering forests and along spring-fed lakes. All of this is just 30 minutes from downtown Orlando, but feels completely different. The pace is slower; the atmosphere, tranquil—features that Henin found so appealing that she chose to set up an academy here in order to have a place to retreat when she needed a break from the tour. Once she left the tour, that need evaporated and along with it the academy, but the atmosphere that drew her here in the first place remains.
Pro Shop: (352) 455.6815
Originally from Bolivia, where he played for the Davis Cup team, Cesar Villaroel went on to coach players on the ITF, ATP, and WTA tours and run junior academies with his brother in Orlando and at Mission Inn. He continues to seek out promising juniors, but his approach to the academy has changed. "I do boutique junior academies with one or two players who come with their parents for an extended stay," he told me. For adults he offers the usual clinics and private lessons as well as customized camps for groups and teams. Among the unusual optional features of those camps are a fitness assessment by Pat Etcheberry and video of your match play shot—get this—from a drone. "It's a much better way to see patterns," he explained, "and if you couple it with video on court it's almost like getting it in 3-D." In addition to instruction, he runs a few sanctioned adult and junior tournaments each year.
Courts & Fees. There are two hard courts immediately adjacent to the inn and an additional 6 Har-Tru courts (two of these with lights) in a parklike setting near the spa and golf pro shop roughly half a mile away. There is a tiny pro shop adjacent to the Har-Tru courts.
Golf Courses. There are two 36-hole courses at the Mission Inn: El Campeón, one of the oldest courses in Florida, and Las Colinas.
El Campeón: Built in 1926 from a design by Scottish architect Charles E. Clarke, it is notable for having more than 85 feet in elevation changes, giving it rolling fairways and undulating greens. Length: 4,811-7,003 yards. Par: 72
Las Colinas: Wide-open fairways and gently rolling hills combine with large undulating greens to create a course that accuracy. Length: 4,931-7,217. Par: 72.
Gary Gilchrist Golf Academy: A short-term and live-in academy for juniors.
Spa & Fitness Center. The 6,200-square-foot Spa Marbella has five treatment rooms. There is a long, narrow fitness center in the golf clubhouse with a dozen pieces of cardio equipment facing windows on the foliage outside as well as freeweights, dumbbells, and half a dozen Cybex workout stations.
And ... There is a small swimming pool and hydrospa behind the inn, as well as sand volleyball courts, jogging and cycling trails, a trap and skeet range, and a nearby lake with a marina for fishing and charter-boat rentals.
The rooms are spacious, with two queensize beds in heavy wooden frames with high-backed wooden headboards, armoire with traditional TV, rough stucco walls painted a pale yellow, botanical prints, a safe, a coffeemaker, free wireless access, a sofa, screened in patio with views of golf course, tennis courts, or countryside, a smallish marble-tiled bathroom with single sink in granite surround and tub/shower combo. There's also a coin-operated guest laundry on the first floor of each of the two inn buildings.
There are four restaurants at the Inn, highlighted by El Conquistador, a second-floor, steak-and-seafood dining room overlooking a fountain plaza.
If you like the quiet, low-key atmosphere of the Mission Inn with customized tennis programs, also check out:
Mission Inn Resort & Club
The lodging options include deluxe hotel rooms, suites, and 2-bedroom villas (the last may require a minimum 7-night booking).
Visit the website for current rates
Seasons. Although the resort is open year-round, the best period for tennis runs from late September into May.
Travel Instructions. The Mission Inn is 50 miles northwest of Orlando International Airport (MCO).
General Tourist Information. For general tourist information about Howey-in-the-Hills and other attractions of Florida's Lake County, visit the Lake County Visitor Information website.