In DeLand, Florida, you walk down the main street in town and forget a word like “urban blight” even exists. Like the mythical Willoughby in the classic Twilight Zone episode, this feels like the kind of town that only survives in nostalgic movies. No boarded up shops, almost no “for rent” signs, and people going in and out of all the stores. Most of the buildings are from a century ago.
There’s not a whole lot of history in Florida, at least the kind that’s manifested in buildings and settlements. The Native Americans didn’t build much and the Spanish only got a stronghold in one spot: St. Augustine. Even the most ardent Florida lover would admit this is a state filled with strip malls, cookie-cutter housing developments, and streets that are six lanes wide.
That’s why it’s such a delight to find a place where “old Florida” is alive and well. You may only be able to go back a century or so, but at least you can get a sense of something created before A/C came along and the state got flooded with tourists and snowbirds. DeLand could originally only be reached via a steamboat on the St. John’s River. Settlement dates back to the 1870s and this is the site of the oldest private college in the state, Stetson University.
I spent a few hours here on a side trip from Daytona Beach originally and felt a pang of regret when leaving. It seemed like a shame to just do a whirlwind trip instead of taking it slow in a place like this. So I returned with my family a few months later to take it all in at a leisurely pace.
Charm With no Chains
My teenage daughter wasn’t exactly thrilled with anticipation when I described it, but when she saw the photos of Pat & Toni’s Sweet Things candy shop that helped. When we walked out of the Artisan Downtown Deland hotel though and started exploring the shops on Woodland Boulevard, she started bursting with excitement. Carasells Pop Culture Collectibles store was like her bedroom times 100, filled with comic book action figures, signed Star Wars posters, and costumes. Then there were the two record stores, packed with more vinyl than she had ever seen in one place. Plus the Cliffs Books comic book store and the large Wily Owl toy store filled with items meant to stimulate the minds of curious kids.
We had dinner the first night at modified Mexican spot De La Vega, then dessert at the candy shop we’d been thinking about since making plans. We passed the wine bar packed with a weekend crowd and I marveled at the design aesthetic of South of New York Market, with its funky retail nooks and cool bar serving craft beer and cocktails. The town has its own brewery and coffee roaster.
I got lost in the stacks at the Muse Bookstore, a thriving independent shop with a large Florida authors section. We skipped quickly through Dolls of DeLand, but not before see a collection of Barbie dolls from the 1970s in regional garb to represent different countries. In a place like this you might expect lots of blasts from the past in the form of musty antique stores, but instead you get the Pinup Parlour Boutique and the JAMMIN! Shop drum and music store.
I hate the cop-out tourism phrase “something for everyone” with a passion, but there’s an admirably eclectic run of shops for a lot of tastes on this one main drag, then more as you venture off to other areas.
Plays and Parachutes in DeLand
As improbable the bustling main street is, the Athens Theater really defies expectations. Built in 1921 and restored this century, it manages to fill its seats regularly with bands, plays, and musicals on stage. This despite the fact that Deland only has a population of around 30,000.
The original courthouse from 1929 is a classical structure that now houses offices, but anyone can wander in and tour around, admiring the architecture and the collection of historic Florida paintings from local artist Jackson Walker. More are in the DeLand Museum of Florida Art on the main drag, with its excellent gift shop downstairs.
It’s not all about downtown, as we found when taking a trip out to The Perfect Spot restaurant to watch the Skydive DeLand jumpers come back down to earth as we ate our omelettes and biscuits. On the way back to town we stopped off at Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe to get key lime pie on a stick, covered in chocolate. The factory’s main retail outlet is in Key West, but here you can sample everything they sell there.
Get to this special town by following a spur off the I-4 interstate highway between Orlando and Daytona Beach. For more information on what to do in DeLand and the natural areas around it, see the West Volusia Tourism site.