Spotlight: DeBary

August 14, 2015

Remarkable tidbits about DeBary and why you should visit.

By Laura Knight

I’ll acknowledge right up front that this is a LONG post, but bookmark it and come back to it leisurely when you can, because there is a lot to see and to know about DeBary.

Let’s start with six interesting facts about The River City.

  1. The prominent settler who loved DeBary is also the man who introduced Champagne to the United States. Well, when you’ve got good taste …
  2. DeBary’s current mayor is under 30 years old.
  3. DeBary is a hot spot for disc golf and boasts one of the top-rated courses in Florida.
  4. DeBary Hall was the first place in Florida to have an in-ground swimming pool.
  5. DeBary is a designated bird sanctuary.
  6. The city of DeBary is barely old enough to drink — it didn’t incorporate until 1993.

DeBary Hall — “Downton Abbey,” á la tropical

Cost: $5 for a 1-hour tour (tours given when requested)

Images: GHMumm.com and FindGrave.com

Images: GHMumm.com and FindGrave.com

DeBary was named after Samuel Frederick von DeBary, a wealthy New Yorker who came to winter there and who invested heavily in steamboats and citrus in the area.

Well, that sounds familiar (reference: just about every other town in Florida) and not all that remarkable.

But … the story doesn’t end there.

Next time you indulge in a little bubbly, raise your glass to Samuel. He was the German noble-man who first introduced it to the states by selling it to New York’s elite for G.H. Mumm’s Champagne back in the late 1800s.

Who needs the hassle of New York winters? As if.

The luxury goods business went well for Samuel, and If you were a millionaire during this time (which he was), Florida was the place to be during the winter months.

That hasn’t changed much, has it?

So, in 1871 Samuel built a mansion in Central Florida near Lake Monroe and the St. Johns River to host his wealthy family and friends. They held grand parties, hunted, cruised along the river and drank lots of champagne.

That mansion is known today as DeBary Hall. Over the decades it has served the community in various ways, even being used as the “clubhouse” for the surrounding neighborhood — and you thought your tennis court and community pool were nice.

It’s still standing, opulent as ever, and you can spend an hour touring all of it for $5 (its grounds are now a state park and the mansion a historical site).

Images: (L) Laura Knight; (R) State of Florida archives at FloridaMemory.com” Images: (L) Laura Knight; (R) State of Florida archives at FloridaMemory.com

Images: (L) Laura Knight; (R) State of Florida archives at FloridaMemory.com

St. Johns River Eco Tours

Cost: $25 adults & teens | $12.50 children (2-hour tour, morning or afternoon)

I stepped off the boat after a 2-hour tour with one word floating around my mind: genuine. This is a true Floridian experience.

The water, the breeze, the wildlife, the amazing greenery … I felt like I was connected to people who traveled along the St. Johns River decades ago because we shared the same path along the water.

Except now, we can take photos really fast with our fancy phones and share them with our friends nearly effortlessly.

The staff aboard the boat were refreshingly genuine, too. It’s clear that they love the St. Johns River and are passionate stewards for it. Both Captain Jeanne and our guide, Doug, are immensely knowledgeable about wildlife, native flora & fauna and conservation efforts. They also have plenty of river tales to share.

A highlight of the tour for me was learning about how Native Americans used many of the plants along the river and how we still use many of those plants today in modern medicine. It was fascinating.

Practical things to know before you go

  • Reservations should be made.
  • Parking is free at the High Banks Marina.
  • There is a bathroom on the boat and a canopy, so the sun isn’t beating down on you.
  • Complimentary, cold bottled water is available for all passengers.
  • Mosquitoes were not a problem (ask your guide why, it’s interesting).
  • You can bring your own food and drinks, including adult beverages. There is also a country store at the marina.
  • Dogs are allowed to cruise too, if they weigh less than 40lbs, are leashed and well behaved.

Specialized tours – Beyond their regular 2-hour nature tour, St. Johns River Eco Tours offers several specialized excursions, including a history tour, a plant tour and a digital media tour for photographers (amateur and pro). Sunset cruises are seasonal. Visit their website or call for details about these options.

A little something extra

SwampGhosts copy.jpg

“Swamp Ghosts,” a new crime-thriller inspired by the St. Johns River

While I was planning my day trip to DeBary, I virtually stumbled upon a new crime novel that was inspired by this stretch of the St. Johns River and the SJR Eco Tour company. If you enjoy crime-fiction, check out Central Florida Author, Marcia Meara’s “Swamp Ghosts.” I’m on chapter three, and it’s one of those books I know I’ll finish quickly.

When you love your day job …

I’m sure Captain Jeanne and Doug have done hundreds of these tours, but none of it felt too scripted, and they seemed excited to share all the beauty, history and wonder of the St. Johns River with their passengers, which means you’ll have a fantastic journey.

Every season offers something new, and I’m looking forward to another trip in the fall. As one passenger said, “you never know what will be around the next corner.”

Foodie stuff is happening in DeBary

I’ve got to mention the good eats.

Breakfast/Lunch – Our first stop was at Donuts to Go & Deli. As first-time visitors, we were warmly greeted and treated to two free donuts.

Yes, coffee deserves its own sub-heading.

I have a coffee addiction, and it’s always the first thing I scope out when I visit any place for the day. Donuts-to-go did not disappoint me. I favor iced lattes (sometimes with an extra shot, woo hoo!). They did not have that on the menu, but I did ask for a simple iced coffee and it was good. They made it just right, smooth and strong — and not watered down (despite the ice!).

Dinner

For dinner we went to Genuine Bistro & Lounge, I describe it as a gastro-pub. It was developed by the same restaurateur that brought Yab Yums and Kit Kat Club to Orlando. It was in jeopardy of closing recently, but a new owner who recently fled war-torn Ukraine has kept it going strong. There are southern staples like shrimp & grits, fried chicken and blue crab woven into the menu. The patio seating offers live music and is decorated like a lush garden.

A new craft brewery

Central 28 Beer Company just opened its doors in July 2015, and I plan to hit up the tasting room on my next visit. Have you been yet, what did you think?

All in all, my day in DeBary was great. In general, the West Volusia area has a lot to offer whether you are just visiting or a local. VisitWestVolusia.com has many resources to help you plan a trip to the area.

And don’t forget to check out the River of Lakes Heritage Corridor website, too, which I learned about when I visited Palatka.

I’m looking forward to seeing more of this part of Florida, while taking pictures, making memories and stopping for coffee, of course.

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