A DeLand Diversion

Culture, cuisine, history and nature converge in the revitalized “Athens of Florida,” just beyond Orlando.

When New York businessman Henry DeLand founded his namesake town in 1876, he envisioned an “Athens of Florida” where culture thrived. After crop freezes, fires and financial failures, the boom busted. For decades, the town dozed in its lovely landscape of citrus groves, sparkling springs and live oaks worthy of a Southern Gothic novel. Then in the late 1980s, the MainStreet DeLand Association began revitalizing downtown. Like Sleeping Beauty, DeLand responded to the affectionate attention, earning five Great American Main Street Awards from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  

Blue Spring is popular with swimmers in summer and manatee-watchers in winter

Today, DeLand stands at the intersection of past and present. It preserves the past in beloved buildings, still vital a century after the walls were raised. Like a younger sibling refusing to be ignored, present-day DeLand tugs at your sleeve, urging you to explore its trendy restaurants, bohemian boutiques and unique cultural venues.

Henry would be proud.  

City dwellers craving a getaway just a 45-minute drive northeast of Orlando will appreciate DeLand’s pedestrian-friendly downtown. On weekends, sidewalk cafés fill with people-watchers, and festivities fill the calendar. “There’s something going on 50 weekends a year,” says Cam Amici, owner of Dressed Boutique. It happens in a place where driving across town takes five minutes but getting directions from shopkeepers eager to share “must-see” places may take longer. Relax … save the hurry for when you get home.

The Artisan Downtown exemplifies DeLand’s “good things come in small packages” appeal. Sisters Hina and Sarah Patel renovated the 1929 hotel into the kind of boutique accommodations they had seen in Boston and New York. Keeping character intact, they created a chic, comfortable ambience. With the addition of Sinatra’s Ristorante and a piano bar, it’s a complete package.  

 From the Artisan’s staircase window, guests can see the historic county courthouse’s verdigris dome. Weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., you can venture inside the 1927 neoclassical courthouse to marvel at its marble staircases and stained-glass ceiling, as well as “Legendary Florida,” 16 paintings depicting Florida history. 

 The restored Athens Theatre, which opened in 1922 as a vaudeville stage, features plays and musicals

The history lesson continues on downtown murals. View them on the way to breakfast at Buttercup Bakery on East Church Street. The bakery serves made-from-scratch treats and gluten-free quiches. Savor the flavor on Buttercup’s patio or across the street at Sunflower Park. Sipping coffee as sunlight filters through moss-draped oaks and the courthouse clock chimes, you feel part of the neighborhood.

By 10 a.m., DeLand is open for business. Downtown shops sell antiques to Asian food, cigars to vintage vinyl. Standouts include Anna Bananas’ elegant, earthy décor and Dressed Boutique’s glamour with a Florida flair.

Artisan Alley is DeLand’s version of a hipster hangout. Just off Main Street, the Alley generates its own brand of buzz, fueled by Friday night farmers markets and 4th Friday Art Walks. Businesses like Nest, a quirky furniture shop/wine bar and Persimmon Hollow Brewing Company, embrace the retro feel of their converted industrial spaces.

Transition from funky to fine at Museum of Art DeLand’s two locations, downtown and across from Stetson University’s venerable campus. When the museum’s new CEO George Bolge arrived in 2011, exhibits became edgier and more exciting. The John Mellencamp show (Oct. 10-Dec. 28) features the singer/songwriter’s socio-political paintings.

Cress restaurant’s juicy rib eye. 

Another DeLand find, Cress restaurant, is the brainchild of Stetson professor Dr. Hari Pulapaka and his podiatrist wife, Jenneffer. Cress draws inspiration from Chef Hari’s Mumbai origins and the socially conscious couple’s passion for locally sourced food. The 13-table eatery is acclaimed by diners and Zagat, which named it Top Restaurant in Central Florida. After dinner, visit the Athens Theatre for musicals and plays or Café DaVinci for indie acts (The Avett Brothers band played here before achieving stardom).

Like beautiful bookends framing the north and south sides of town, De Leon Springs and Blue Spring make an idyllic ending to this getaway. De Leon Springs State Park evokes an era of plaid picnic baskets, buzz cuts and afternoons with no agenda. The springs are popular in summer, but pancakes rule all year. Inside the park’s Old Spanish Sugar Mill restaurant, waitresses deliver stone-ground batter to patrons who cook pancakes on tabletop grills. It’s a Central Florida rite of passage for children of all ages.

St. Johns River Cruises at Blue Spring State Park offers another escape. Gliding gently past flora and fauna, tour-goers may see egrets riding on the backs of manatees as they graze through surface vegetation. In winter, hundreds of the gentle giants congregate in the warm waters of Blue Spring. Manatees know a good thing when they find it, as do humans, when they discover DeLand, a small town with big dreams. visitwestvolusia.com 

Know Before You Go

Less than an hour from Orlando, DeLand makes a great weekend escape for city dwellers who want a taste of small-town life.

  • Cress restaurant recommends reserving a table two weeks in advance. Likewise, plan ahead to book one of the Artisan’s eight hotel rooms. 
  • When cold temperatures arrive, manatee-sighting begins at Blue Spring State Park. Arrive early to avoid long entrance lines.
  • To explore the residential Northwest Historic District, rent bikes from DeLand Cyclery, 111 W. Indiana Ave., 386-822-9422.
  • The 4th Friday Art Walk (6-9 p.m.) showcases local artists in downtown galleries, museums and businesses.
  • The DeLand Fall Festival of the Arts (Nov. 22-23) attracts 180 national and international artists. 
Categories: Local Getaways