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Delray Beach: welcoming, rich in culture and best beach on Florida's East Coast

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The cheerful atmosphere of The Colony Hotel just continues out on Atlantic Avenue, which has managed to preserve all the charm and character of "Old Florida" seaside town.

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It's not a tourist city, though visitors flock here. Delray Beach is a real community - you can visit the public library (it celebrated its 100th anniversary), the landmark Tennis Center - a major stadium which annually hosts the Chris Evert/Raymond James Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic (Jeannie Evert is a tennis pro here) in November and the International Tennis championships in February, where kids are coming for their lessons.

I would have liked to be the one who dubbed Delray Beach, "The Most Fun Small Town in the USA!" because it is. (The label came from Rand McNally, USA Today and the Travel Channel on a nationally televised special, Best of the Road, in 2012).

It is one big smile here.

And it comes from many sources.

It's a small town that still has sophistication and cultural interest. And it's an authentic place that exudes personality and sociability.

And it seems there are always festivals, events, concerts going on.

This is a place you want to walk around, be a part of.

It could be the scale of the place - no building is over five stories (and there are no buildings on the beach at all). The shops, galleries, restaurants, cafes and bars have personalities - there are no retail chains here (though there is a Starbucks, which is in one of the prettiest buildings, and a Subway, but I guess that's not what they mean).

Atlantic Avenue, which runs through the center of town from I-95 to the ocean, is the longest Main Street in Florida. It is a most charming streetscape filled with marvelous shops, fine restaurants and entertainment.

Delray Beach’s booming art scene is an experience for the eyes and the soul! More than 20 galleries and public art pieces are located downtown and in the Pineapple Grove Arts District, home to Artists Alley, where you will find working artists in their studios. Gallery Walks draw visitors on Friday nights from October to April. Delray Beach’s signature event, On The Ave, held five times a year, always features food, music and an outdoor art gallery.

The downtown is known, nationally, for its family-friendly festivals such as the Delray Affair and Delray Beach Garlic Fest and for its famous 100-foot Christmas Tree, where visitors can walk inside to see animated displays. (Come for the Tree lighting and see Santa arrive via helicopter!)

While we were there, there was an outdoor fashion show on Atlantic Avenue - actually hosted by The Colony Hotel (so all the models were changing in the hotel and then strutting out to the runway.

We were lucky enough to be there for the Festival of Arts - a street festival with truly fantastic artists and artisans - paintings, sculpture, glass, jewelry, photography - exquisite.

There's 5th Avenue Jazz, which is part of the Art & Jazz on the Avenue event, which offers entertainment, open houses, refreshments during August, October, January, May and June.

Island Flair on the Avenue every third Saturday (May-October), with live Caribbean music and food and craft vendors.

The Delray Beach Center for the Arts is one of the centers where you will find art exhibits and concerts. Housed in several historic buildings, the award-winning, nationally recognized center successfully combined historic preservation and the arts to become the catalyst for the 1990's renaissance of downtown Delray Beach. The center includes the Cornell Museum of Art and American Culture (in the former 1913 Delray Elementary building), presents rotating local, national and international exhibits of fine art, crafts and pop culture; the intimate, 323-seat Crest Theatre (in the former 1925 high school building), presenting world-class musicals, variety, Broadway cabaret and lectures with nationally renowned speakers; the Vintage Gymnasium (c. 1925);The Pavilion a state of the art outdoor performance venue where concerts are presented on Friday nights from October through January; and the School of Creative Arts (located in the Crest Theatre classrooms and studios), where events, theater, exhibits and learning opportunities enrich the South Florida community. (Located at Old School Square, 51 N. Swinton Avenue at Atlantic Avenue, 561-243-7922, delrayarts.org).

There is also the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum, the only African American Cultural Heritage museum of its kind in Palm Beach County. Opened in 2001, it is located in the former home of the late Solomon D. Spady, the most prominent African American educator and community leader in Delray Beach from 1922 to 1957,. It has become a destination for people of all cultures seeking information about Florida’s early black communities and culture. The museum has exhibited a series of shows, highlighting the talents and influences of African-Americans, Caribbean-Americans and Haitian-Americans. Shows ranging from handmade quilts to photographs from the Civil Rights movement have adorned the Spady Museum. In addition, through its Kids Cultural Club, Trolley Tours, special events, annual Living Heritage Day and guest lecture series, the museum has moved beyond Delray Beach, reaching statewide and regional audiences (www.spadymuseum.org).

Another unique attraction in Florida is The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, which by an extraordinary set of circumstances has become the only center for Japanese arts and culture in South Florida as well as experience the extraordinary tranquility of the gardens. It offers sensational rotating exhibitions in its galleries, tea ceremonies performed monthly in its Seishin-an tea house, and Japanese traditional festivals celebrated for the public several times a year. It features a museum in the original building, named the Yamato-kan, modeled to suggest a Japanese villa, with a permanent exhibit chronicling the history of the Yamato Colony, a Japanese farming community in South Florida 100 years ago as well as Japan Through the Eyes of a Child, an interactive children’s exhibit. Another highlight are the magnificent Japanese gardens that reflect major periods of Japanese garden design, from the 8th to the 20th centuries, and serve as an outdoor extension of the museum. The Morikami Gardens consist of shinden islands, paradise garden and contemporary garden. This is also a magical place to dine. (Morikami, 4000 Morikami Park Rd., Delray Beach, FL 33446, 561-495-0233, morikami.org

You can take a Ride and Remember Historic Trolley Tour, sponsored by the Spady Museum (2nd Saturday of the month, Sept-May, 561-279-8883 for reservations); and a Narrated Bus Tour of Historic Delray Beach, conducted by the Museum of Lifestyle & Fashion History (4th Saturday of the month, 561-243-2662 for reservations, www.mlfhmuseum.org).

A free old-timey trolley bus is operated by CRA making its rounds, adding to the pleasant ambiance.

On our first evening, we stroll down Atlantic Avenue, looking at all the shops and restaurants, and experience first-hand why Delray Beach has earned the label ""most fun small town."

We stop at Johnnie Browns for dinner. This is a casual beachy saloon-style open-air restaurant with a large bar, TVs - because of the cold temps, the plastic windows are rolled down, and portable heaters made it completely comfortable. This being a Friday night (Saturdays, too), there is a live band (several places on Atlantic Avenue offer live music, we find), which is most entertaining. The restaurant serves very imaginative burgers (superb) and a great selection of beer, and I was happy as a clam watching the Vanderbilt basketball game on one screen, the Australian open on the other, listening to live classic rock music and eating superb burger (I have the Juanito, an Angus burger with avocado salsa, pepper jack cheese, chipotle mayonnaise, red onion, lettuce and tomato).

This is a happening place with a sense of humor (and goes with the "fun" that seems to define Delray Beach). I learn that it is named for Johnnie Brown, a mischievous and fun-loving spider monkey who would sit on one of shoulders of Addison Mizner. Mizner was the architect who brought the Mediterranean Revival style to South Florida, and apparently, a real imposing figure. "Folks knew they were somebody if Johnnie recognized them; he even ran for Mayor of Palm Beach. Johnnie reportedly enjoyed great food and good music." Johnnie Brown passed away in 1927 and is buried in the courtyard of Mizner's villa off Worth Avenue where his headstone calls him "the human monkey" (www.johnniebrowns.com).

Johnnie Browns is just alongside the railroad tracks - and a couple of times, a train would rumble by, adding to the atmosphere.

It is also very pleasant to bike down A1A - the coastal road with stunning views of the ocean as well as prime real estate.

Nature Abounds

Biking south along the magnificently scenic A1A, from Delray Beach down to Boca Raton, I come upon the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. There is a marvelous quarter-mile boardwalk through coastal hammock which passes by a 2,000-year old Glades culture midden, a trash receptacle of Florida's indigenous population. You also can climb a 40 foot observation tower for a bird's eye view of the Hammock, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. But the most fascinating part is the Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center, which only opened January 2010, where you can see injured sea turtles being nursed back to health, and a sea turtle research laboratory. Four outdoor seawater tanks house a variety of marine animals including sea turtles, sharks, rays, spiny lobsters, urchins, and a variety of fish, representing the local marine environments. Volunteers do feedings once a day while talking to guests about the biology and ecology of the animals and the ecosystems in which they live (feedings are 2:30 pm. Sunday-Friday and 11:30 am. on Saturdays). Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, 1801 North Ocean Boulevard, Boca Raton, FL 33432 (open Monday-Saturday, 9 am-4 pm., Sunday, noon-4 pm), www.gumbolimbo.org.

There are two other jewels:

Just about 15-20 minutes drive from The Colony Hotel is Wakodahatchee Nature Preserve. Photographers come from all over for the extraordinary profusion and close views of an astonishing array of birds (and alligators, too). Wakodahatchee has a half-mile boardwalk that loops through about 50 acres, which you brings you incredibly close to an amazing array of birds. You literally stand over them, and some fly right to the wooden railing. On any given day, you can see some 30 or 40 species, but 150 species have been sighted in the preserve during the course of the year. The best time to visit is early morning or late afternoon, and especially in February, when nesting season is in full feather, but any day and any weather produces amazing sightings. On the second Tuesday of the month, there are tours with local volunteers (sign up by calling 561-641-3429). Wakodahatchee is located on the east side of Jog Road between Woolbright Road and Atlantic Avenue (Exit Route 95 onto Atlantic Avenue West; (www.pbcgov.com/waterutilities/wakodahatchee).

Green Cay Wetlands is literally around the corner from Wakodahatchee and yet offers a very different experience. Here you walk an elevated boardwalk over the wetlands-one loop is one mile long; another is half-mile long. The nature center is excellent, with exhibits that feature an indoor turtle pond, a frog habitat, an alligator hole (explaining why alligators are called a "keystone species") and a wetland diorama. One exhibit lets you travel back through 150,000 years of time to see how the geology and culture of South Florida has changed. A variety of educational programs are offered as well. Green Cay Wetlands and Nature Center, 12800 Hagen Ranch Rd., 561-966-7000, www.pbcgov.com/parks/nature/green_cay_nature_center.

Delray's Distinctive Hotels

Delray Beach has some really interesting choices for hotels.

We were enthralled by The Colony Hotel & Cabana Club a 1926 historic landmark, with the appeal of a romantic Old Florida setting with all the modern amenities (www.thecolonyhotel.com/florida).

At the Sundy House Restaurant and Inn, you can swim with the fish in the Cenote pool, stroll lush botanical gardens, and converse with the parrots while dining outdoors. The hotel has 11 uniquely themed rooms and suites with hand painted details and original artwork. The inn's major attraction is the Taru Garden, a true tropical paradise with a majestic Royal Poinciana that is the oldest documented one of its kind in Palm Beach County. Within this acre are more than 5,000 plants and 500 varieties of foliage from all over the world, including tropical fruit trees, small edible plants, bamboo groves and flowering trees, two large fish ponds, streams and waterfalls and a Cenote —one of the only naturalized, freshwater pools in the country. It’s a popular spot for nature lovers, artists and avid gardeners. You can meander down quiet coral paths, and discover gazebos and benches hidden for quiet contemplation. The inn offers a complimentary garden tour, Tuesday – Friday beginning at 10:30 am (reservations are required) (www.sundyhouse.com).

Crane’s Beach House Hotel & Tiki Bar is a magical hideaway with a Key West flavor. The hotel has 27 charming rooms and suites as unique and fanciful as their tropical namesakes. The Tiki Bar is a popular hotspot for locals and tourists alike (www.cranesbeachhouse.com).

The Seagate Hotel & Spa is where island meets urban chic. See the 7,000 gallon shark tank or the 5,000 gallon aquariums, sea-inspired fixtures and natural elements evoking tropical tranquility (www.theseagatehotel.com).

The Delray Beach Marriott and Residence Inn Marriott overlooks the beach and is an easy walk to Atlantic Avenue's shopping boutiques, bistros, cafes, art galleries, restaurants and nightlife (www.Marriottdelraybeach.com).

Hyatt Place is a new business hotel, which opened August 2012 in the Pineapple Grove Arts District (http://delraybeach.place.hyatt.com).

Delray Beach is 30-45 minutes from Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale International Airports, and only an hour north of Miami.

I'm going to come up with my own label for Delray Beach: "Florida's Best Beachtown."

For more, call 561-279-1380, visit www.visitdelraybeach.org; also, downtowndelraybeach.com.

See also:

The Colony Hotel, Delray Beach: It's delightful, it's delicious, it's de-lovely and slideshow

Where to be wild in Palm Beach County, Florida

Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner

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© 2014 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit www.examiner.com/eclectic-travel-in-national/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/eclectic-traveler-in-long-island/karen-rubin, www.examiner.com/international-travel-in-national/karen-rubin and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. 'Like' us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.

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