Whether it’s your first visit to Orlando or you know the place well, it’s important to take time out of your hectic theme-parking and enjoy the relaxed pace of Florida’s other attractions. Among the most popular choices for time away are the superb beaches at Clearwater on the Gulf coast and Daytona on the Atlantic side. We recently spent an overnight in Daytona with the express purpose of getting away from it all, but with minimal time on the beach. Here’s what we recommend for 2 days along the coast:
Start with a leisurely breakfast in Orlando, then hop in your hire car and head north-east. 1 hour and 45 minutes later you’ll be looking at the ocean, and the best way to bring the pace down—way down!—is with a visit to Ponce Inlet on the barrier island, just 11 miles south of Daytona Beach.
If you’re not ready to chill-out completely yet, climb the 203 steps up to the top of the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse for a fantastic view over the inlet and the ocean. Or hire a jet ski and ride the waves for an hour. Parasailing, wakeboarding, and kayaking are available here, too.
Less strenuous endeavours can be found at the Marine Science Center, with its focus on coastal marine life. Kids (and adults) can enjoy the stingray touch pool, check out the turtle rehabilitation facility, and meet injured birds undergoing treatment or deemed unfit for release back to the wild.
Then, for the chance to see manatees in the wild, we highly recommend a gentle Manatee Scenic Cruise in the protected waters of the inlet, and while the animals are in the area any time of the year, they show up in greater numbers when the weather cools down, so if this is a beach-free break due to the weather, you’re in luck here.
Next, head north for a mile along South Atlantic Avenue for lunch at the famous Racing’s North Turn oceanside beach bar and grill. The restaurant is a Daytona institution and a historic landmark, and is named for the car races that took place on the beach, starting in 1936. The races began just beyond Racing’s North Turn along what is now S. Atlantic Avenue, screamed along for 2 miles, then turned onto the beach and headed back to the north turn to complete the lap. If you’d like to drive your own car on the hard-packed sands of Daytona Beach, be sure to purchase a special $10 windscreen sticker, access the beach at a designated beach-driving point, and be ultra-careful about sunbathers and children!
After lunch (or your beach drive), motor 30 minutes south on Highway 1 to the artist community at The Hub on Canal Street in New Smyrna Beach, imbibe in a craft beer at nearby New Smyrna Beach Brewing Company, and (if you have a designated driver) go for a second or third brew along the Daytona Beach Ale Trail.
Continue across the causeway to the historic shopping district of Flagler Avenue in New Smyrna Beach, then head back to your base in Daytona Beach and end the day with dinner at River Grille on the Tomoka, built into the landscaping along the river like a tropical treehouse. If the evening is balmy, grab an outdoor table and dig in to fresh-caught fish, a sizzling ribeye steak, a Southern Crab Boil with snow crab, shrimp, clams, andouille sausage, plus hush puppies and coleslaw, or lighten up with a salad, soup, a Handheld sandwich or a deliciously sloppy Po’ Boy (Louisiana-style sandwich). Craft beers, wine, and cocktails are available.
There are plenty of good hotel choices in the Daytona Beach area, and this time we chose the Hampton Inn Daytona Beach Oceanfront as our base, with its comfy Hampton bed and a balcony overlooking the ocean. A hot and cold breakfast buffet is included, so sleep well and start the next day off right.
On Day 2 you’ll discover why Daytona is internationally renowned as the World Center of Racing, with a tour of Daytona International Speedway. Their 30 minute Speedway Tour is enjoyable and informative, but if you’re a racing fan or would like a more comprehensive tour, go for the 90 minute All Access Tour, which takes you all over the complex, including the stands, pit row, and Victory Lane. If viewing the place isn’t enough, definitely splash out a bit and opt for a Richard Petty Driving Experience Ride-Along, for 3 laps around the track at up to 160mph. Die-hard racing fan? Take the 3 hour, small-group VIP Tour and see it all, including exclusive access to racing artefacts.
Genuine Bistro is a good choice for lunch on the way to your final stop. It’s half an hour south-west of Daytona International Speedway, 10 minutes short of your next adventure, and about half-way back to Orlando. It’s super cute, slightly quirky, and with familiar menu items that have a nice twist to make them a bit special.
Possibly the best way to end your ‘vacation from your vacation’ is with an eco-tour, and we’re fans of St Johns River Eco-Tour boat cruise in DeBary. The St John’s River is tranquil and protected, and it’s possible you’ll see manatees, likely you’ll see gators, and certain you’ll see some of Florida’s spectacular shore birds and raptors.
Return to the thrills of the world-class theme parks in Orlando refreshed, revived, and re-acquainted with reality, having seen a bit of nature, a bit of history, and a bit of hair-raising, high-speed adventure.
Extend your holiday to 3 days with a half-day deep sea, backwater or offshore fishing excursion out of Ponce Inlet; spend the day at Kennedy Space Center; or splurge on a true beach day, and keep it healthy at lunchtime with the soups, sandwiches, wraps and more at funky Dancing Avocado Kitchen in Daytona Beach’s historic downtown.
Whether you fit 3 days, 2 days, or just a day on the coast into your holiday, treat yourself to a beach break – even without the beach!
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