By Lake Monroe on the St. Johns River, DeBary is a city named for a 19th-century wine merchant. He decided to build a winter estate near the river, and in doing so, opened up this forbidding watercourse to commerce and future settlers.
DeBary’s stately mansion is now preserved as a museum. On a tour you’ll learn about some of the house’s luxuries and list of guests that included two presidents.
I’m in love with the natural splendor all around DeBary. Natural springs percolate to the surface at places like Gemini Springs Park, and Blue Spring State Park.
With vast preserves safeguarding its banks close by, the St. Johns River looks much like it did in DeBary’s day. So an eco cruise needs to be high on your list of things to do in the city.
1. Gemini Springs Park
This park has a special location, along a bayou on the northwest corner of Lake Monroe. The name of Gemini Springs Park comes from a pair of natural springs issuing almost seven million gallons of water each day.
This water bubbles to the surface among almost 200 acres of lush woodlands. I can’t think of a better local spot to spend a couple of hours outside. After a while you’ll notice that wildlife abounds here, from alligators to turtles and sandhill cranes.
You can come for a walk along the nature trail or do some fishing from the dock. There’s also a playground, pavilion, community center, and several sites for primitive camping.
2. Blue Spring State Park
Close to DeBary, the St. Johns River is fed by myriad natural springs. The largest of these is at the Blue Spring State Park, right next door to the city.
Water bubbles to the surface at 73 ° year-round. This makes them warm in winter, when they attract manatees, but also refreshing in the fierce summer months.
Fishing, camping, photography, and snorkeling are popular, and for those who’d like to explore the St. Johns River, it’s possible to rent kayaks for the day.
As far as I’m concerned you don’t need to be too intrepid to see the best of the park. There’s a scenic stretch of boardwalk, while the light Pine Island Trail guides you through a landscape of pine scrub.
The ideal time to be here is on a chilly winter’s day when hundreds of manatees congregate in the crystalline waters.
3. St. Johns River Eco-Tours
Flowing past DeBary, from Vero Beach to Jacksonville in the north, Florida’s longest river is a true natural wonder. To see it from a unique perspective, I’d suggest taking an eco-tour.
Based at Highbanks Marina & Camp Resort, St. Johns River Eco-Tours offer a variety of options on-board their spacious pontoon boats. You can visit seldom seen parts of the river that you can’t even get close to on land.
The main nature tours depart twice a day, at 10:00am and 1:00pm, seven days a week. Floating on an environmentally friendly pontoon, you’ll see the river as it appeared to Native Americans or pioneers.
During the winter months, the area is a stop-off point for migratory birds and manatees that flock to its relatively warm waters.
4. DeBary Hall
This refined Italianate mansion was built in the 1870s by the city’s namesake, Frederick DeBary. He made his fortune in the champagne importing and distribution businesses and chose this area for his winter retreat and hunting lodge.
Despite being built during the austere Reconstruction years, DeBary Hall is equipped with cutting-edge amenities you don’t often see from this period. Among them are a wired call system, wall-fed electricity produced on-site, a luggage elevator and running water.
As well as taking a guided tour of the house, make sure to check out the Visitors Center. Exhibits here go into detail on DeBary’s life, and his role in developing the St. Johns River.
5. Swamp House Riverfront Grill
Though swamps aren’t generally associated with fine dining, the Swamp House Riverfront Grill is a place I recall fondly.
The restaurant sits on the shores of the St. Johns River by a scenic and busy marina. Not surprisingly, much of what you’ll find on the menu is Southern-style seafood.
This is prepared in both traditional and contemporary ways. There’s broiled snapper, shrimp tacos, and a Reuben sandwich made with fried fish instead of corned beef.
If you’re feeling adventurous you can always sample some gator tail. I tried tropical gator tacos, which are topped with a sweet mango salsa. The Swamp House is a hopping kind of place, with local bands performing on weekends.
6. Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens
One of Greater Orlando’s star attractions is a minute or two across the St. Johns River from DeBary. The Central Florida Zoo has a history going back to the 1920s, and moved to its present site in 1975.
Today more than 400 animals from 100+ species reside at this park. A few of the most popular are the clouded leopards, giant tortoises, Indian rhinos, Amur leopards, and cheetahs.
For an extra cost you can hand-feed giraffes, or pet the rhino, which is more docile than I thought it would be. Parents here with smaller children will appreciate the splash pad, with seating in the shade if you need some time out.
7. River City Nature Park
West of Lake Monroe Park there’s another picturesque public park further down the St. Johns River. River City Nature Park is a passive park, with big stands of native trees.
I saw skyscraping slash pines, bald cypress, live oaks, and sweet gums. There’s also a large open space for games and relaxation.
The park’s only active facility is a 36-hole disc golf course. If you’re new to the sport, this course is a great intro, and has a blend of open ground and woods. You can even rent disc golf sets from the Parks & Recreation office at City Hall for a small fee.
8. Spring-to-Spring Trail
When I compiled this article, this multi-use trail was gradually taking shape between Gemini Springs Park and DeLeon Springs State Park.
When completed, the Spring-to-Spring Trail will be more than 25 miles long. As it is you can cross a big swath of southern and western DeBary on this path.
The longest completed section in the city takes you from Gemini Springs Park east into Deltona, where you can connect with a section of the East Central Regional Rail Trail.
In DeBary there’s a trail linking the Spring-to-Spring Trail with the SunRail station, and a spur taking you to DeBary Hall.
9. Black Bear Wilderness Area (BBWA)
There’s a trailhead for this beautiful tract of wilderness just a few minutes away in Sanford. The Black Bear Wilderness Area is more than 1,500 acres of marshlands, woven with stands of hardwood and cypress swamp.
Despite carrying you into a swampy environment, the trails at BBWA have been laid out on historic levees. This keeps them high and dry, although seasonal flooding can be a factor.
From the trailhead I walked the blue-blazed, which is a 7+ mile loop skirting the St. Johns River. I saw a few alligators near the path, as well as a few wild hogs. Otters are commonly sighted here as well, along with the black bears that give the landscape its name.
10. Lake Monroe Park
Near where the St. Johns River flows into Lake Monroe there’s a treasured public park, run by Volusia County. Lake Monroe Park is a hit with boaters and kayakers, with its set of boat ramps close to U.S. Route 17.
Best of all for me is that if you don’t have your own vessel you can rent one here. Lake Monroe Park is a location for the rent.fun kayak share service. All you have to do is download the app to get started.
On or near the water are boardwalks, fishing docks, a pavilion, and a playground. You can also pick up the Spring-to-Spring Trail at this park.
One of the most transformative things to happen to Greater Orlando since the 2000s, SunRail is an expanding commuter rail service that began in 2014.
Following the opening of Tri-Rail in 1989, this is only the second commuter rail in Florida. For infrastructure geeks like me it’s exciting to think of the possibilities.
When I wrote this article, DeBary was the northern terminus for the network. That will change in the future when Phase 2 North is completed. For now, it’s a hassle-free way to get to neighboring communities without a car, and you can take a bike on the train with you.
For example you could plan a day trip to genteel Winter Park, or hop across to Sanford, with its thrilling downtown and beautiful Riverwalk.
12. Central 28 Beer Company
This craft brewery’s taproom is a fine place to spend an evening out of the harsh Florida elements. On one such night, I got swept up in the first game of bingo I’d played since I was 12.
The two classic beers you have to try first at Central 28 are Up River (American Pale Ale) and Show Pigeon (IPA). The tap list is enhanced by a large roster of regulars, new releases and seasonal beers, from malty Stouts to a crisp Grisette (Trekker Bier).
Though they don’t serve food, there are often food trucks onsite selling all kinds of tasty fare. Central 28 has menus from nearby restaurants that deliver on days the food trucks don’t show up.
13. Gateway Center for the Arts
This non-profit community arts center has more than 700 members from across Volusia County.
If you’d like to dip into the area’s cultural scene, this is just the place to do it. You’ve got juried art shows in two galleries, as well as a theater stage for plays and musicals. On my most recent visit there was a production of 12 Angry Jurors.
The center is also a first-class resource if you want to pick up some creative skills. On the schedule are open studios, workshops, a wide range of art & craft classes, and tuition for the likes of improv and singing.
14. Freedom Fest
I think it’s safe to say that DeBary knows how to celebrate the nation’s independence. The annual Freedom Fest is on the Fourth of July at Gemini Springs Park.
The highlight is a jaw-dropping fireworks and laser show, all soundtracked by patriotic music. There’s more going on throughout the evening, with two stages of live entertainment, food trucks, and family games.
There’s also a kids’ zone to ensure little ones have the best time possible. If you’d rather bring your own food and drink then coolers are welcome, along with pop-up tents.
15. Glen Abbey Golf Club
Opened in 1974, this semi-private course in DeBary has won a lot of acclaim for its impressive layout. The fairways at Glen Abbey Golf Club are bordered by marvelous stands of pine, oleander and live oak.
The whole course is laced with water, including a 60-acre lake. One of the holes that stood out on my round is #5, a challenging par 5 with a dogleg and a lake breaking up the fairway.
Also memorable is #15, a par 4 that forces you to weigh up an approach over water, or play safe along the fairway. There’s a driving range and full practice area in case you need to loosen up pre-round.