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Casual Resorts for Visitors Even Giant Turtles to Relax in Florida

Florida Resorts

Florida Resorts

It is a casual resort that lets visitors relax on its pristine public beaches, check out a rash of restaurants, visit some of the state’s prettiest gardens and drive to Delray or Palm Beach for more action, if one has the craving.

When Ludwig, a giant sea turtle, lived at Sea World in Orlando, he exhibited severe anger management issues. First this 99-pound, 60-year-old rare Kemp’s ridley turtle bullied his tank mates. Then he began snipping at his handlers.

It went from bad to worse until five years ago when Sea World lent Ludwig to Gumbo Limbo, a nature center here that had taken care of another temperamental turtle.

The once tense Ludwig is now mellower and easier on his caretakers. For Ludwig — and it seems for a good many of its 80,000 year-round human residents — it is better in Boca.

Who knows why? Maybe Ludwig is more mature and does better with his own space, or maybe it is the laid-back atmosphere in Boca Raton, the resort area north of Fort Lauderdale and south of Delray Beach and Palm Beach.

But for visitors Boca can be an acquired taste. If Miami is the livelier tourist destination (think of tight white Capri pants), and Palm Beach is the snobbier destination (think of white silk pants and pink silk tops), Boca is khaki shorts and flats.

It is a casual resort that lets visitors relax on its pristine public beaches, check out a rash of restaurants, visit some of the state’s prettiest gardens and drive to Delray or Palm Beach for more action, if one has the craving.

Boca benefited from the influence of Addison Mizner, the legendary architect who created Palm Beach and brought the Spanish-style estate to southern Florida with a vengeance. In 1925, eager to make an even bigger splash and fortune than Palm Beach had provided, Mr. Mizner turned his sights on this sleepy town with an agenda of building an entire vacation community from scratch.

He didn’t get far. Almost immediately after creating the 100-room Ritz Carlton Cloister Inn, he suffered financial reversals. In 1927 Clarence Geist, one of his major investors, bought the hotel at auction.

In World War II the hotel was turned into Army barracks. After the war the Schine family bought it, painted it pink to match its movie theater chain and expanded it. Today it is the Boca Raton Resort and Club, with 1,047 rooms on 356 acres.

But even if the giant hotel is a force in Boca, the town itself never had a center in part because the hard-charging magnate Henry Morrison Flagler, who used part of his Standard Oil Fortune to develop the first railroad along the eastern coast of southern Florida, did not create a passenger stop in Boca Raton.

“The station that Mr. Flagler had built for Boca Raton close to 1900 was not comparable to those in adjacent towns,” said Derek Vander Ploeg, an architect in Boca Raton who has studied local history. “The station was more of a freight station for produce than a passenger station. It was not until the late 1920s that Mr. Geist had a station with a regular passenger service built.”

Other towns grew up around the stations, but Boca got slowed up again because of the boom and bust cycles, Mr. Vander Ploeg maintains.

Today Boca remains something of a sprawl. The town and West Boca have a total of 200,000 residents, often lodged in gated communities. Peek behind a hedge and find a community or a golf course.

John Grogan, the author of “Marley & Me” who moved his wife, his two kids and their Labrador, Marley, down to Boca from West Palm Beach in 1994, and stayed for five years, is not a big fan of the architecture. “This is ersatz Mediterranean, and the homes are surrounded by Home Depot-style instant landscaping with palm trees, shrubbery and carpets of sand,” Mr. Grogan said. “There are native Floridians here, but they are hidden away.”

Boca has fought to emerge from suburban sprawl. In the late 1980s the Community Redevelopment Agency bought a small mall, had it razed, and redeveloped it in the Mizner style with terra cotta roofs; awnings and balconies are typical.

The redevelopment agency helped arrange for the expanded Boca Museum of Art and an amphitheatre to have a home there. Last year the museum attracted 230,000 visitors, in part because of an annual arts festival, which was held this month..

For those for whom shopping malls do not hold great allure, hidden treasures in the area include the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, just a short drive away in Delray Beach.

The garden grew out of an effort at the beginning of the 20th century by Mr. Flagler and Jo Sakai, a Japanese businessman, to bring over people from Japan to develop agriculture in South Florida. In general the effort failed, and many eventually returned home. George Morikami stayed, and was singularly successful as a farmer. Sixty years later he donated his land to Palm Beach County to be preserved as a park. Today the 200-acre garden features paths for strolling around its two lakes so that the views of the plants, trees and cascades change continually. The gardens have been rated the eighth best Japanese garden outside Japan according to Journal of Japanese Gardening.

And just across the road a 4000-square-foot greenhouse that belongs to the American Orchid Society Visitors Center and Botanical Garden holds an array of orchids and a gift shop that makes one wish to live in Florida because the prices of plants are so much lower than in the North.

Those who prefer animals can hang out at Gumbo Limbo, which is dedicated to the study of turtles and other marine life. Recently it has been swamped with turtles “stopped cold by the cold weather spell,” as Kirt Rusenko, marine conservationist at Gumbo Limbo, put it. “Their body temperature dropped so low that they were in danger of dying.”

Over the last months Gumbo Limbo has served as a hospital for 170 freezing turtles, some of which have a form of cancer that can be fatal unless treated.

Just across the way are Boca’s public beaches, which have been maintained by the local government and seem relatively pristine.

That is not to say that Boca does not have a busy local society. Just ask Mr. Grogan. It was he who called the nouveau-riche women of Boca the “Bocahontases” in his popular Sun-Sentinel column while he was still living in West Palm Beach.

But then he moved to Boca because of the school system, the parks and a good local government. “I had to swallow my pride,” he recalled.

It took the Grogans a while to fit in. Even Marley had trouble. Once, tied up at a restaurant, Marley pulled free, dragging the tablecloth and everything on it with him as an army of teeny dogs, tucked into the buttery leather handbags of their Bocahontas owners, looked on, Mr. Grogan said. Still, the Grogans adjusted. “It is a sleepy town,” he said. Most people come to visit family members who have retired here. “But I grew to like it.”

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