“Where are you headed?” asked my seatmate on the flight from Madrid
“Deerfield Beach,” I responded. “Near Boca,” I added, seeing her quizzical look, and finally: “About an hour north of Miami, south of Palm Beach.”
I do love Miami and the glitzier shores of Florida. But when I really want to relax, I head to Deerfield, where two generations of my family have spent their golden years in the Century Village retirement complexes.
It is not a fashionable vacation, but a nostalgic one. You can make a project of surveying the local bialys from kosher bakeries, or tracking down Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray, or seeing how much shuffleboard you can squeeze into a weekend. Well into our 30s, my sister and I are considered “kids” here. And to judge from the multitudes of actual children and their 30-and-40-something parents lounging around the pool, I’m in good company.
My grandfather had it right when he concluded that if he retired to Florida, the kids would come visit. Along with scads of other New York Jews, he bought a condo in the 1970s and welcomed us for school-vacation visits, taking us for airboat rides in the Everglades and early-bird coupon dinners. The year he died, my parents retired and promptly moved into Century Village. They don’t call it the echo generation for nothing.
Compared to my grandfather’s era, there are now more observant Jewish families, more French-Canadians playing pétanque and more kosher everything. But otherwise, change has been more gradual in Deerfield than in high-octane, boom-and-bust Miami. Golf, shopping, the swimming pool and changing for dinner at 6 p.m. are the leisurely rhythms of life along these manicured boulevards.
Down by the ocean on Route A1A, you can still feel the soul of pre-development Florida in the low-slung bungalows and 1940s budget motels. And you are still more likely to find fishermen than supermodels on the pier.
The wide, sandy beach at Deerfield, with its pristine turquoise waters, is one of the nicest in all of Florida — not least because it is open and accessible. Just south of Boca Raton, the wall of oceanfront high-rises gives way to an inviting pink promenade along a palm-shaded strip of green lawn.
Anyone can drive up to the waterfront, put a few coins in the meter and take a seat on a bench with a view of sand and sea. Throw in thatched-roof picnic huts, shower pavilions and glorious pink sunsets, and Deerfield Beach is popular all day long.
At the beach’s north end, near the surf shops and seafood restaurants, is the Wyndham, a newish resort where my sister checked in. The Wyndham bar is lively — too lively for my parents, who complained about the noise — but as South Florida scenes go, Deerfield’s waterfront bars are notably laid back.
By May, it’s easy to get a beachside table. But every year more families come for Passover and linger well into spring, and it’s no wonder: those balmy, 80-degree days you dream about in January are routine by the end of March.
Besides, recent winters are cold enough that you see furs and woolens parading around downtown Boca Raton. Boca is more posh, more pink and more urbanized than Deerfield. Huge, lavishly decorated restaurants fill by 6 p.m. with three-generation families, who drop the car with the valet and return two hours later bearing to-go bags. Nobody could finish those portions — and if they could, they’d be disappointed.
We go for a stroll around Mizner Park, one of the original faux-Italianate developments that have peppered these parts. Amid fountains and pink stucco, we window-shop the galleries, ogle the convertibles driving by and wander by the Museum of Art.
Friday evening rolls around, and what was once a small trickle of Deerfield temple-goers has blossomed into a veritable parade of hats, black suits and the occasional wheelchair. My parents report that all but one of the families in their four-story high-rise are now Jewish. On Shabbat, you can see Orthodox families walking along the side of swampy highways west toward the Everglades — areas that until recently were populated mostly by storks and alligators.
Now that Passover is over, it’s peaceful once again at the pool; we swim undisturbed in the mornings until an Aqua-cise class files in at 10. From then until dinner, we have no agenda more pressing than a possible excursion for Honeybell oranges.
“Florida is kind of boring,” remarked my husband, Oggi, as he settled onto the patio with a book. “But not boring in a bad way. Not at all.”