My new favourite town in Florida: Delray Beach

IMG_8526DELRAY BEACH, FLORIDA – I had no idea.

I’ve driven past Delray Beach a few times on my way from Palm Beach or Orlando to Miami. But I had no clue it was this vibrant and fun and interesting. And I didn’t know how sumptuous the Boca Raton Resort really was.

I was just down in Florida for a tourism event called Florida Huddle; a chance to meet with hotel and attraction folks and tourism destination reps at the Palm Beach County Convention Centre. But I did a two-day visit to Delray and Boca Raton prior to the meetings that was out of this world good.

We never really had time on our tours for the beach, so I got up early each day for a short walk on Delray Beach, which is unmarred by cars or big hotels or any other buildings and goes on forever. The greenish-blue water was pretty warm and there were some decent waves, but mostly it was great to just walk along the sand and catch the morning sun here on the east coast of Florida.

IMG_8701Most of the hotels and buildings along the beach in downtown Delray are across the street from the water. Outside of the downtown, you’ll find buildings along the beach but it’s a very wide stretch of sand so you never feel hemmed in by tall condos.

Delray Beach has one of the top downtowns in all of Florida. The main drag, Atlantic Ave., goes on for 15 or 20 blocks (no, I didn’t count) from Interstate 95 to the beach, and almost every block is filled with cool shoe shops and independent stores and fabulous restaurants.

We dined at Max’s Harvest on 2 nd Ave., just north of Atlantic a couple blocks, and had fabulous grilled octopus, tender swordfish with meyer lemon and possibly the best short ribs I’ve ever had; tender and tasty and meaty and wonderful. It’s a fun spot with great old photos of the area and a nice patio out back. They also don’t use freezers, so everything is fresh, fresh, fresh. Interesting concept. Oh, and GREAT cinnamon/sugar donuts with dipping sauce for dessert. How can a Canadian refuse?

(I don’t know of any places in Toronto that don’t use freezers, but our weather is a little different. Heck this winter, our entire houses are freezers, often for a week or more at a time.)

IMG_8609I also had fabulous blackened fish tacos at Deck 84, a casual, outdoorsy spot with a fine patio overlooking the gleaming ships that ply the Intracoastal Waterway. I snapped some photos of the waterway just as a ship went by with the name “Wasted Seamen.” Gross, but pretty clever, I think.

The food was equally good at the Seagate Hotel ’s Beach Club on Delray Beach, where I had short rib grilled cheese, featuring big chunks of moist short rib on great bread with provolone cheese. Yum.

Down in Boca Raton, we had dinner at a place called 13 American Table , where they have one of the few Jospers in North America; a Josper apparently being a device that’s kind of a smoker and convection oven and grill all in one. It was great for the fresh shrimp and bavette steak. We also had cooked down eggplant with crispy bread and a wonderful roasted corn off the cob that was simply sensational, plus bread pudding with dried cherries and crème fraiche for dessert. And, yes, there’s a reason I’ve gained weight in five years of writing about travel.

There are some very cool galleries in Delray Beach, including one called the Arts Garage which had sensational paintings in a cool, urban-looking gallery. They also do live music and workshops, and one of the paintings on display this week was a fun black and white image of three women parading through the Sherbourne subway station in Toronto.

IMG_8581The Delray Center for the Arts is located in an old school with great architecture. They also do workshops and there’s a gloriously restored theatre where they bring in top names from New York to do cabarets and other shows. And a fun museum next door where they currently have an exhibit about Elvis Presely in 1956, with great old photos of The King with Ed Sullivan and other shots. It’s only until Feb. 2, however. After that, Elvis will literally leave the building.

I also loved the Morikami Gardens on the west side of Delray Beach; a wonderful and tranquil series of Japanese gardens that surround a couple small lakes. There are pretty flowers, bright green iguanas, swaying, creaking bamboo trees and gurgling waterfalls, plus Japanese style architecture and bonsai trees and a fine display that shows life in Japan through a child’s eyes and another fascinating exhibit on the former Japanese colony in the area.

IMG_8754I wandered down Atlantic Ave. on Monday night at 10 p.m. and the place was JUMPING. The cafes and bars almost all have sidewalk or patio seating, and the action was spilling out into the street with tons of beautiful people and everyday folks out for a stroll. There was an Elvis impersonator playing at a place called Johnnie Brown’s, and the stage was no more than ten feet from the sidewalk. The windows were all open or rolled up, so it was like being in an outdoor club with live music. The dance floor was crowded with folks and everybody was singing along on a warm, perfect night. So much fun.

Delray Beach has been named the most fun small town in North America by the Travel Channel, Rand McNally and other publications. After my short visit, I certainly can see why. It might now be my favourite place in Florida; a town where you can park your car (for free, usually) and hit the beach and also find great food and shopping, all within easy walking distance of several really nice hotels.

I’ll write more next week on the wonderful Boca Raton Resort and tell you about the Hyatt Place hotel in Delray Beach and the Seagate. There are a ton of great options in this part of Florida, for sure.

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