After shedding an unfortunate reputation for being a go-to destination for raucous spring breakers in the ‘90s and early 2000s, Daytona Beach has become a year-round destination for couples and families. And it's more than just sand and strip malls -- there's visiting the Museum of Arts and Sciences, working on your swing at the many mini golf courses, tackling a zipline course, and getting suited up like a professional racecar driver during the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Daytona International Speedway.
As guests of the Daytona Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, we recently got the chance to taste the destination's revival for ourselves. Here are the highlights of what we found:
Daytona Beach proclaims itself as the “Festival Capital of Florida,” and for good reason -- during our short few days there, locals and visitors were gathering on the famed boardwalk for an over-the-ocean air show featuring the US Air Force Thunderbirds, while just blocks away a blues festival benefitting Project WARM and the expansion of the Halifax Health NICU filled the ears of concertgoers. Days after our departure, Daytona Beach was also gearing up for one of its most popular events: Biketoberfest, an annual four-day event featuring motorcycle shows and rallies, attended by thousands of motorcyclists and enthusiasts. Other times of the year, annual events like the Daytona Beach Film Festival and the Halifax Art Festival also fill the region's events calendar.
Daytona Beach is a great gateway to delightful attractions in neighboring cities like DeLand and New Smyrna Beach. We suggest staying in the city by the sea as a base for a day trip or two. Choose from kitschy mom-and-pop properties or big name chains like Hyatt Place (November rates start around $119 for standard accommodations) or the Hilton (standard accommodations start around $99 in November).
DeLand is just about a 30-minute drive from Daytona. Hit up its main street, Woodland Boulevard, for a good dose of vintage small town charm. Sidewalks here are designed with hexagonal pavers, giving way to brick storefronts, curbside benches, and oversized flower pots. You won't find any chains here; instead, delight in boutiques like the Quilt Shop of DeLand and the Pinup Parlor Boutique and indie restaurants like Abbey and Bill & Frank’s Brickhouse Grill. Blocks away lies Artisan Alley, a quaint side street that's home to DeLand’s first brewery, Persimmon Hollow Brewing. The main thoroughfare is a fantastic destination for dog-lovers, too; some stores set out bowls to quench Fido’s thirst on those notoriously hot Florida days.
Over in New Smyrna Beach, also about a half-hour away from Daytona, Canal Street is devoid of any chain stores, too. One of the town’s most refreshing sights is Little Drug Co., a pharmacy that still operates a soda fountain and restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and malts. And step out of any of the boutiques on the second Saturday of every month and you just might find yourself in the midst of the Classic Car Show, in which drivers show off their antique vehicles and hot rods.
Arts & Culture
Throughout both DeLand and New Smyrna Beach, local artists have plenty of creative outlets. In DeLand, stop by the West Volusia Tourism Bureau to pick up maps for a self-guided walking tour of the murals, plaques, and sculptures located on and around Woodland Boulevard. We particularly love a mural by local artist Perego on Rich Avenue, depicting a group of snow birds waiting at the train depot during the late 1800s or early 1900s, and the alligator sculpture by artist Nancy Cutler on the same corner. Through December 28, we also recommend hitting up the Museum of Art – DeLand for its special John Mellencamp exhibit. Yes, the "Jack and Diane" singer is also a painter and has 40 oil and mixed media works on display. Museum admission is $5-$10.
For a step back in time, drive down Spring Garden Avenue to the 19th century Stetson Mansion, who's welcomed notable guests like the Astors and the Vanderbilts. The nearly 10,000-square-foot home -- built by John B. Stetson of Stetson cowboy fame and valued at around $5 million -- was surprisingly named Florida's top attraction by TripAdvisor, beating out Mickey Mouse himself. Among the gems you'll find inside are intricately laid parquet floors, a cleverly hidden en-suite bathroom, and even the master bedroom where the owners actually do reside. (Warning: The master bedroom’s carefully disguised closet and bathroom’s enormous walk-in shower may cause just a bit of envy.) Even better, though, is that you're encouraged to sit on the furniture since owners Thompson and Solari want to maintain its "lived-in feeling." 60- and 90-minute tours are open most days of the year ($20 and $30), and we recommend calling ahead to see if the comical Thompson himself will be at the helm. From November 15 to January 15, 2015, though, special Frozen-themed Christmas tours will be given instead of the regularly scheduled program.
Over in New Smyrna Beach, check out The Hub on Canal Street for an up-close view of how artists create masterpieces from various mediums -- including painting, photography, ceramics, glass, jewelry, fiber arts, and sculpture. You can see them at work, browse the galleries and exhibits, or even take workshops and classes for more hands-on fun. Some events may require a $5 admission fee.
Nature Beyond the Beach
For something more active than lying on the sand, DeLeon Springs, about five miles north of DeLand, is a nature lover’s dream. DeLeon Springs State Park features hiking trails and opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and boating. Birdwatchers might be able to spot herons, ospreys, and other feathered friends. And if you fancy a dip, the park’s biggest claim to fame is a spring that’s fed by an underwater cavern and artificially maintained so that it's fit for swimming. We suggest arriving early in the morning to start the day at the on-site Old Spanish Sugar Mill and Griddle House -- where the tables have built-in griddles that allow you to make your own pancakes, French toast, and eggs (the chefs in the kitchen take care of your sausage and bacon). All-you-can-eat pancakes go for $4.95 a person, while add-ins like chocolate chips, bananas, and blueberries cost an extra $1.85 per serving.
Update, December 2015: In January 2016, JetBlue will begin offering nonstop flights between Daytona Beach International Airport and New York City's JFK Airport. Daytona Beach's airport is currently served by Delta and American Airlines.