When you’re ready for a break from the theme parks, and want to explore more of what makes Florida the Vacation Capital of the World, or you’re a long-time visitor looking for something new, hop in your hire car and head to DeLand, just one hour north-east of Walt Disney World. Here, the joys of nature replace the magic of make-believe, but the area is also known for one of the quirkiest communities you’ll ever see.
While your day-away tour will be relaxed, and taken at your own pace, you’re going to need some fuel to get you going, and that’s where fluffy pancakes come in. Begin your day at Old Spanish Sugar Mill, a working sugar mill back in the 1830s, where guests can cook their own pancakes on a griddle in the center of their table (you’ll get both stoneground ‘5-grain’ and standard white flour, but don’t be surprised if the 5-grain turns out to be your favourite). Don’t worry about mixing up the batter; that’s all done for you. Simply pour, cook, flip, cook, and enjoy!
The restaurant is rustic, in the best possible sense of the word – it’s clean and inviting, with the feel of a cabin in the woods. And, like a good movie cabin, it’s located on a lake. In this case, a lake in DeLeon Springs State Park, where you’ll find a crystal-clear swimming hole, a cave down into the spring where divers can explore, and a vast lake and river system perfect for canoeing, kayaking, tubing or eco-touring.
Then, choose between a few hours of fun on the water, or on land. Blue Spring State Park, 16 miles south of Old Sugar Mill, makes another terrific introduction to the beauty of the area and to one of the animals that makes Florida so special. The West Indian Manatee makes its home along the peninsula’s coast and in coastal rivers, including the pristine waters of the St Johns River, where visitors can see the gentle giants in their hundreds during November through March, or sporadically in summertime.
The river also has brackish water where gators and other Floridian wildlife flourish, and a boardwalk for viewing the manatees, gar, pacu and other native fish. Nature lovers can enjoy walking trails, birding, eco tours, kayaking, fishing, swimming, diving and snorkelling during non-manatee season (April-October), or take part in our favourite way to relax on a river and hire an inner tube for some ‘rump bumping’ (more modestly known as river tubing). Picnicking is always permitted, but you’re probably still stuffed from breakfast.
Not into getting your hair mussed or your bottom wet? The magnificent Stetson Mansion is only a mile and a half from downtown DeLand, and is the former home of John B. Stetson, world-famous for the iconic cowboy fashion statement, the Stetson hat.
Don’t mistake this for some dry, boring walk through some long-gone rich stranger’s house, with stuffy portraits and furniture you can’t relate to. Not at all. The home has been lovingly restored, and while it maintains the sense of opulent wealth from Stetson’s day (Stetson was a big pal of a certain Thomas Edison, by the way), the details your guide will point out are absolutely fascinating. You will walk away from it wishing it was your full-time residence.
Remember that quirky community we mentioned earlier? You’re heading there next.
Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp has been around since 1894, the legacy of New Yorker George Colby, who, as legend has it, founded the camp with the help of his spirit guide, Seneca. Today it’s a thriving district of like-minded spiritualists, with shops and bookstores to keep any New Ager happy and curious day-trippers entertained.
But this isn’t a place where tarot cards, palm reading or other flashy gimmicks are used. Those interested in a reading can sit with a Medium – a person extra-sensitive to the psychic impressions Cassadaga believes we all experience – and receive ‘spiritual counselling’ based on those impressions.
Of course, you don’t have to go for a reading. All visitors are welcome to wander around the town, or participate in a guided walking tour to learn about the area’s history and the ‘spirit activity’ that occurs in many of the buildings. There is also a night-time Cassadaga Spirit Encounters Night Photography Tour that focuses on energy ‘hot spots’. You may even photograph an energy orb – or something even more interesting!
Be sure to allow time for a visit to DeLand’s charming downtown, too. It has the look and feel of “small town America” without actually being small town America (which, frankly, is entirely functional), and the dining choice is excellent, with nary a chain restaurant or fast food joint in sight.
We had dinner at Byte, where the presentation was as appealing as the food, then we stopped in at Pat & Toni’s Sweet Things for a selection of chocolates to soothe any late-night sweet-tooth cravings. In truth, we came away from it feeling we needed a week there, to restaurant hop and chat with the locals while the balmy Florida evenings settled around us. DeLand has “small town charm” in spades.
After dinner (but while it’s still light out!) pop over to Pill Alley, just 3 blocks from Byte, and have your picture made with the famous DeLand Wings, painted as part of a fashion photo shoot by Erica Group, which has become a social media phenomena.
Cap off the evening at Persimmon Hollow, the local brew pub that takes its name from DeLand’s original title, before it was re-named for its primary benefactor. Like everywhere we visited in town, the service was ultra-friendly, and if you can’t make a choice from what’s on tap, the bartender will do it for you. And he or she will get it right.
If you’d like to try it all with an overnight stay, we can recommend the comfortable Hampton Inn DeLand, or check out one of the cute B&Bs. And with the extra day you won’t have to choose; you can do it all, and add in the fabulous Henry A. DeLand House Museum, which ties the area’s history together and has period furnishings and authentic artifacts that evoke a real sense of a time-gone-by.
When the docent cranks up the old Victrola and plays “The Yanks Are Coming”, or you see the actual Civil War era lap desk that was used by an estate owner to sign each and every one of his slaves’ freedom papers, the historical significance of the museum takes on a very human face.
We’ve travelled all over Florida, and we’ve seen many a wonderful town, but DeLand has that “something special” factor we look for that makes us say, “I could live here.” Make it a day-away trip during your Orlando holiday, and see if that happy pondering doesn’t occur to you, too.
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