Just to start with, Daytona is a name that resounds with 20th century appeal. It was here that Sir Malcolm Campbell set his world land speed record of 276mph in 1935 in his famous Blue Bird car, and it remains the home of American motor-sport to this day. Its beaches are rightly world famous, the wildlife is ever-present, and its history goes all the way back to 1513, when explorer Juan Ponce De Leon pulled ashore with Spain’s conquistadores.
At just 90 minutes from Walt Disney World, this is in an easy drive straight along main motorway I-4 and there are some good stopping points to break up the journey.
You should definitely start with breakfast at De Leon Springs State Park. It costs $6 per car to enter the park, but it’s home to the wonderfully rustic Old Spanish Sugar Mill restaurant, a local favourite that specialises in pancakes you cook on special griddles set into every table. It is great family fun and an authentic experience inside this 100-year-old replica of a 19th century sugar mill. Be sure to wander around the Springs, too, for another taste of genuine Florida.
Continue to Daytona and start by doing what the locals do by driving ON the beach. That’s right, for a $20 all-day fee, you can cruise along the hard-packed sands with your windows down and take in a big chunk of the 23 miles of open, white beach promenade. Stop by the Main Street Pier, try the neat array of amusement rides and arcade games, go shopping at the Ocean Walk Shoppes, try your hand at fishing from the pier and chow down at locals’ hangout Joe’s Crab Shack.
Head south and you reach the little hideaway of Ponce Inlet, home of one of the tallest lighthouses in America, the Ponce De Leon Inlet Lighthouse & Museum, with a fascinating glimpse into 19th century Floridian history. It takes 203 steps to climb the 175ft tower, but it’s worth it for the immense view from the top.
Families will enjoy the Marine Science Center, with a great window onto the coast’s wildlife. Here you’ll find fish, sea turtles, stingrays and 300-year-old brain coral (!), as well as a wealth of fun educational and environmental exhibits, many of them with children in mind.
After all the land-based fun, you need the sea-going view, too, and that is provided by Ponce Inlet Watersports, who offer parasailing, fishing, paddle-boarding and kayaking along the Halifax River and Indian River estuaries, as well as fabulous eco-tours looking for dolphins and manatees, stopping at isolated beaches and collecting shells.
Just across the Inlet is equally welcoming New Smyrna Beach, another superb example of old world Floridian seaside charm. Unlike its bigger neighbour, New Smyrna is a more down-home, small-scale experience, albeit still with great shops, restaurants and miles of beach (which you can also drive on).
The super-cute town centre runs along Canal Street, which is full of one-off shops and cafes, as well as the New Smyrna Beach Brewing Company (try their Shark Attack for a flavourful IPA while Simon is a big fan of the Old Fort coffee stout). Art lovers should head for The Hub On Canal, a superb ‘artist colony’ of painters, sculptors and other artists who offer an original array of artwork, gifts and even classes.
Flagler Avenue holds the beachy heart of New Smyrna, packed with more cafes, bars and shops. Breakers Ocean Front Restaurant & Bar is a definite local institution, as is the Ocean Breeze Bar & Grill with its rooftop tiki bar, while Smyrna Dunes Park is an extensive area of pristine sand dunes, elevated walkways and picnic areas where the locals bring their dogs for a paddle.
Back in Daytona, but away from the beaches, that motor-sport icon we mentioned is the big attraction, in every sense. Dating back to 1959, Daytona International Speedway is a massive homage to high-octane racing of every kind, including the Rolex 24 each January, the Daytona 500 in February, Coke Zero 400 in July and many other races. It boasts a 101,500-seat grandstand that’s almost a mile long, capacity for 250,000 on race days and daily tours that provide a driver’s eye view of this mind-boggling racetrack, in addition to the Motorsports Hall of Fame. You’ll need at least two hours to see it all, but it’s well worth it, even for non-race fans.
For night-time fun, the neighbouring One Daytona is a new shopping, dining and entertainment complex featuring nine places to eat, almost 20 individual shops and boutiques, the Game Time arcade centre, two hotels and a state-of-the-art 12-screen cinema multiplex. There is live music at weekends and a pretty lively vibe throughout, and we rate the Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery a great choice by day or night.
Realistically, to take in everything we’ve outlined, you’ll need an overnight stay, but fear not, we have the perfect solution. The Hard Rock Daytona Beach is the area’s newest – and most eye-catching – hotel, and is the perfect beach-side base from which to enjoy all the amenities as well as providing a glorious rock-chic retreat at the end of the day, complete with superb pool-deck, coffee bar, spa, kids’ club and restaurant. The style alone is sleek and uber-cool, any hotel that asks you what kind of music you want when you check in is a winner with us!
Finally, on the drive back to Orlando, we heartily recommend stopping off in DeLand, about 25 miles back along I-4. As well as being the gateway to De Leon Springs, it boasts another ultra-cute town centre (voted Best Main Street in America in 2017), full of unique shops and restaurants, plus Persimmon Hollow Brewing Co and the 1883 campus of Stetson University, which makes for a great half-hour walk.
Also here is one of Florida’s little-known treasures. The Stetson Mansion was built in 1886 – with the help of Thomas Edison, no less – and is simply one of the grandest homes in the state, a registered Historic House and an astonishing story of renovation by its current owners. It has hosted King Edward VII and President Grover Cleveland, as well other dignitaries of the early 20th century. There are guided tours up to five times a day, and booking in advance is highly advisable as its ‘secret’ is rapidly leaking out. Even better, from November 15 to January 15 every year it is transformed into a Christmas treasure, with a stunning array of unique decoration that has to be seen to be believed. We’re not joking – if you’re in central Florida during this period, you should definitely visit the Mansion.
And that is our inside track on enjoying this particular corner of Florida. As ever, there is a LOT to take in, so you should start planning. Soon!
Want to know more about Daytona Beach and New Smyrna Beach? Come and ask your questions – or tell us your experiences – on the ATD forums!
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