Travel

Finding Michigan links --- and a giant Christmas tree --- in Delray Beach on Florida's Atlantic Coast

This frigid weather makes me appreciate even more a recent visit to see my uncle in Delray Beach, a sunny Florida coastal town with an intriguing Michigan connection.

Started by African-Americans in 1884, the community was settled a decade later by a Saginaw postmaster, William Seelye Linton, who bought a large tract of land and sold plots for farming. When that effort failed, the fledgling community changed its name in 1901 to Delray, after the little Hungarian enclave that borders the Detroit River in southwest Detroit.

We discovered this Michigan link over breakfast at Caffe Luna Rosa, a tasty Italian eatery overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It was fascinating to realize that Michigan residents intent on escaping winter frolicked in those waves more than a century ago.

Today, there are Segway rentals on the beach across from the Delray Beach Marriott Hotel a block away and a 100-foot Christmas tree in Old School Square downtown, where the black community started Delray’s first school in the late 1800s.

The community’s towering, walk-through tree also has an interesting history: formerly displayed at Parrot Jungle in Miami, it got a new life in Delray Beach seven years ago when the community rented just part of it, the 50-foot top half. It proved so popular that residents rallied and purchased the entire tree two years later for $80,000.

The mammoth, 30-ton structure, topped by a 17-foot-tall star, takes as many as 500 people, including 7th graders, more than three weeks to build, complete with model train layouts and animated elf scenes. An equal opportunity Menorah and Nativity scene were added to the display in the last couple years, and local officials say about a half-million visitors flock to see the tree and participate in special activities each December.

But Delray Beach, which is less well-known that its neighbors to the south, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach, hosts special, tourist-attracting activities all year-round, from arts and antiques shows, chefs’ tasting tables and music events to an annual Garlic Fest and International Tennis Championships (John McEnroe will be there); check here . The latter two events are in February, at the height of Snowbird season.

For a schedule of Delray Beach special events, check here.

While researching Delray Beach’s history, I discovered that Boynton Beach, just north of Delray Beach, also was founded by a Michigan resident, Civil War hero Nathan Boynton. What’s more, there’s a little unheralded Detroit neighborhood next to Delray named Boynton.

Who knew?

Susan R. Pollack
Globetrotting journalist and former Detroit News staff writer Susan R. Pollack has covered travel since 1985, visiting scores of countries on five continents, 48 states, six Canadian provinces and hundreds of cities, islands and outposts along the way. From Alaska, the Galapagos and New Zealand to South Africa, Thailand and Wales, she has suffered the occasional lost luggage, jetlag and Montezuma’s revenge but still delights in sharing travel adventures with readers. In addition to The Detroit News, her award-winning stories and photos have appeared in major newspapers including the Dallas News, Toronto Star, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Chicago Sun Times; and magazines including Delta Sky, Midwest Living, Long Weekends, Experience Michigan, Jetsetter, Home & Away, Hour Detroit, Prevue Meetings and Group Tour. She has contributed to several books including "Rand McNally 2008 Ultimate NASCAR Road Trip Guide," and is the copy editor for secondchancetravels.com. She also has written for websites including gardendestinations.com and travelingmom.com.