By Susan & Simon Veness
When you’re ready to go beyond the obvious places in the Sunshine State, there are a wealth of small towns and other ‘secret’ destinations that the locals know about but which are often a mystery to visitors. This series is dedicated to revealing these hidden gems.
When a town is selected as ‘America’s Main Street,’ with all its implications of being a compelling place to visit, it certainly grabs your attention.
And, when you visit DeLand in West Volusia County (barely an hour north of Orlando), it’s immediately obvious why this uber-cute destination picked up the 2017 award in the national Main Street competition.
Driving along Woodland Boulevard provides the full 1920s profile of a city that was officially incorporated in 1882 but struggled for much of its early existence until industrial magnates Henry Addison DeLand and John B. Stetson poured significant amounts of money into both the newly-founded Academy and local businesses.
It paid off with the 1920s land boom, hit the doldrums in the post-War years and urban blight of the 1980s, and re-emerged as a vibrant, happening city in the new millennium thanks to private investment in the Historic Garden District (adjacent to Woodland) and the Main Street itself, building up a collection of vibrant shops, cafes, restaurants and renovated buildings, like the historic Athens Theatre.
This is where you’ll find must-try novelties like Persimmon Hollow Brewing Co, The Half Wall Beer House, Museum of Art and modern Bistro style of BYTE, as well as super-cute shops such as Pat & Toni’s Sweet Things candy store, the antiques of Marketplace at Rivertown, chic Anna Bananas home market and Pretty Little Things of DeLand.
Make sure you also wander the main campus of Stetson University. Founded as DeLand Academy in 1876, this 175-acre site is on the National Register of Historic Places, with some of the buildings more than 130 years old and featuring an eye-catching polychrome brickwork.
DID YOU KNOW?
Stetson University was renamed for major benefactor John B. Stetson, who spent much of his later life in this part of Florida, investing large amounts in the community. His other claim to fame, of course, was as one of the best-known hat manufacturers in the world!
Discovering Stetson Mansion
Beyond the downtown area, DeLand is home to several more unique features, none more startling than the Stetson Mansion. Built in 1886 as the winter health retreat of the famed Cowboy hat maker, this incredibly intricate 10,000sq ft Victorian treasure has been lovingly restored after falling into disrepair and, today, is an icon of astounding period charm, including its unique electrical system, originally installed by Thomas Edison himself!
You can book tours of the Mansion throughout the year but, from mid-November to mid-January, it becomes a festive highlight of jaw-dropping splendour with their extensive Christmas overlay. If you’re in Florida during this period, it’s well worth making the journey for on its own.
The Delights of Blue Spring State Park
Just eight miles out of town, you’ll find Blue Spring State Park, a haven of natural Floridian charm, with the chance to paddle a kayak or canoe over these crystal-clear, spring-fed waters, which stay at a year-round 72°F and therefore attract manatees in great numbers in the colder months from December to March. In fact, you don’t even need to risk getting wet, as there are a series of trails alongside the spring, as well as an observation platform, that provide great views of the wildlife year-round.
But the downtown of DeLand is really the place to focus on, and it’s here you can enjoy great dining, with more than 20 places to grab lunch or dinner in the space of just four blocks, from Santorini’s Greek Cuisine to the classic hole-in-the-wall style of Neighbors Artisan Taqueria.
DeLand Nightlife & Street Art
For nightlife, there is Rewind Arcade Bar, the lively bar scene of The Blind Pig, and the indoor/outdoor style of Café Da Vinci, with live music three or four nights a week. And, if you don’t at least peek inside the beautifully restored 1922 Athens Theatre – home to live music and a great variety of stage shows – you’ll be missing out on a town gem.
Finally, look out for DeLand’s street art, which is rapidly becoming one of Florida’s secret success stories. Elaborate murals have been a part of the Main Street scene for several decades, but they have been joined in recent years by the iconic Deland Wings, a project by artist Erica Group that has become the must-have photo for any visit to the area.
Find them in Pill Alley, just off W. New York Avenue (around the corner from the West Volusia Tourism Visitor Center) – and come home with a truly original memento of your trip!
Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million copies of their books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.