Letting your hair down in Delray Beach

It may not be Palm – Beach, that is – but Delray Beach and its Seagate Hotel will beguile those people who want to chillax with their families this winter in Florida, says Westfair’s senior travel and food writer, Jeremy Wayne.

When the possibility of a family vacay raised its head some months ago, I asked a well-traveled and sophisticated friend – one who knows Florida pretty well – what he thought of Delray Beach. Although none of us had never visited Delray before, I’d heard about its allure. A terrific small town, I’d been told, with two miles of wide, white-sand beach and a humming restaurant scene. This description alone had me half-packed and ready to ship out, while the mention of striped cabanas around Hockney-esque swimming pools and the lilt of evening jazz along Atlantic Avenue had me slamming shut the lid of the case.

But my friend was less reassuring. He fluttered his eyelids, folded his arms defensively and a shadow seemed to fall across his face. “Delray,” he solemnly pronounced, “is not Palm Beach.”

To be honest, I didn’t see that as too bad a thing. Now, I love Palm Beach as much as the next snooty beachcomber, with its glittering history and its Worth Avenue window-shopping and its (mostly) well-behaved citizens, to say nothing of its well-behaved lawns – all primped and manicured to within a millimeter of their lives. But after 18 months of Covid, what we wanted, as a family, was to let our hair down, as opposed to putting it up. What we wanted were Charlie Parker sounds and “Jazz on the Ave,” as opposed to Chamber Music at the Royal Ponciana Plaza. What we were looking for were Bohemian indie stores, not Bulgari. And definitely no high-heels, only Havaianas.

So, I stuck to my guns and we went, and for a blissful week the glorious Seagate Hotel in Delray Beach became base camp. Occupying an entire block on Delray’s central Atlantic Avenue, a hop, skip and barely a jump from the Intercoastal Waterway and just three blocks from the ocean, right where you want to be, it’s a dream of a hotel. Large enough for a lobby life with “buzz” – I love that in a resort hotel – but small enough to cosset and pay attention to you, the Seagate has it all, from a young team of clued-in front desk staff invested in the enjoyment of your stay to great restaurants to a tip-top spa. (And it’s a relative bargain, too.)

Guest accommodations, with their marble bathrooms and Malin + Goetz toiletries, which are already classy, are currently undergoing a refresh (by top designer Robert McKinley,) to be ready for the upcoming winter season.

The hotel has a private beach club, too, open to hotel guests and an on-demand, three-minute shuttle ride away, which is reason enough on its own to stay at The Seagate. (Indeed, the beach club is opposite the site of the original hotel, which was built in 1945 by an heir of Henry Flagler, a founder of Standard Oil. It’s now a row of luxury condos, commanding fittingly luxurious prices.) The clubhouse is home to a contemporary, airy restaurant, where you can eat inside in air-conditioned comfort, on basket-weave seats with beachy, navy-blue cushions, or on breezier, less sultry days, on a wonderful terrace – the indoor and outdoor options both overlooking the ocean. As for the food, it’s fresh and abundant – generous salads, seafood risotto, shrimp any which way – plus a great weekend brunch.

There’s a family pool right beside the clubhouse (the adult pool at the hotel is the place for laps and seclusion), and the beautiful beach itself, with comfortable chaise longues and umbrellas, is staffed by a veritable army of attendants. None of these kind people, all of whom are thoroughly patient and helpful, and many of whom seem to be called Logan – perhaps it’s some kind of Seagate tradition – is ever more than a raised pinkie away.

The Seagate Country Club nearby, to which hotel guests also have access, boasts a Joe Lee-designed, 18-hole championship golf course, and hotel guests, as well of course as club members, can also eat here.

Back at the main hotel, other amenities include a gift shop, an upscale boutique and the Etc. café, where you might fancy a light breakfast or afternoon tea with cakes and pastries, all made in-house, or simply pick up something to go. And just across the marble vestibule is the hotel’s more formal restaurant, Atlantic Grille. Not, of course, that anything in Delray is what you’d exactly call formal (except, perhaps, for the Japanese garden in front of the lakeside Morikami Museum.) With excellent fish and shellfish from chef Adam Gottlieb’s well-run kitchen, a great cocktail list and live music every night, the Atlantic is the most convivial of restaurants, especially on weekends. The Saturday night we visited, guests broke into a spontaneous conga. I can’t imagine congas, spontaneous or otherwise, are what you’d get over at Mar-a-Lago.

As for downtown Delray, it has one of the most exciting restaurant scenes in South Florida, with French, Greek, Italian, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Lebanese and, of course, all manner of American restaurants clamoring for your attention. You can also take in many of these cuisines under one roof, at the exciting new Delray Beach Market, with its individual restaurant and grocery stalls, where you can plunder the world’s larders in a single whistle-stop tour.

And there’s culture in Delray, lots of it. No less than seven museums and more than 40 galleries seem to jockey for position along Atlantic Avenue and in the Pineapple Grove Arts District, just off the main drag. There is something for everyone. At the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum, for instance, you can learn about Delray’s absorbing African American history. (The first nonindigenous group to settle in what is now known as the Delray area was a party of African Americans, who began farming here in the late 19th century.) At the Cornell Museum, by contrast, you’ll find high-quality, contemporary art, a great deal of which is by artists with some connection to Delray or the area. The museum has a great shop, too, full of original merchandise.

Returning to The Seagate after a broiling day at the beach, or an afternoon shopping or museum-hopping in town, you’ll find the hotel (the buzzy lobby notwithstanding) is an oasis of calm. And when evening rolls around, the hotel’s genial and well-connected concierge, Jack Canon, who knows every restaurant manager in Delray, can secure dinner reservations at the hottest spots in 20 seconds flat – even, I’m told, in high-season. He’s also the only man I know who can go sockless with a formal dark suit and get away with it, which perhaps says as much about the Seagate’s laidback charm and style as it does about anything.

A few days after getting home, my well-traveled friend called and asked me what we had made of Delray. “It’s no Palm Beach, right?” he quizzed.

“On the money,” I replied, a little bashfully, omitting to tell him just how happy that entirely correct comment made me. 

For more, visit seagatedelray.com

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