Life in Daytona is all about the beach. For years, the resort city has advertised itself as the “most famous beach in the world” and whether this is true or not, its 23 mile stretch of golden sand is the main reason people visit in droves – up to eight million tourists per year! Long known as the ultimate place to celebrate spring break, Daytona has tried in recent years to shed its party image and become a family-friendly destination, but still thousands of spring break revelers descend on the city each year in search of a wild time. Much of the beachfront is like a flashback to the ’50s, from the gondola rides along the now over 100-year-old pier, to the good old-fashioned family fun to be found along the boardwalk.
If it’s not all about the beach in Daytona, then it’s all about the cars. And most of the time it’s about both. In fact, even the city’s long-standing relationship with automobiles has its roots in the sand, since such illustrious patrons like Louis Chevrolet and Henry Ford used to race their cars on the beach back in the early 20th century. Today this is one of few beaches in Florida where cars are allowed and you can still drive some of the original track – albeit at a top speed of 10mph. Of course the major race action now happens at the Daytona International Speedway, where the Daytona 500 takes place each February, and other races are held throughout the year. If you visit when races aren’t in progress, you can still tour the racetrack and pits on an all-access tour. For the full auto adventure, the Richard Petty Driving Experience allows you to take a few laps of the track either as a passenger alongside an experienced driver or, if you have plenty of courage (and cash), behind the wheel yourself for up to 30 laps. Daytona is so car-crazy that you can even go to church in your car – a drive-in chapel where you tune your radio to listen to the sermon.
Aside from cars and sand, Daytona has superlative golf courses and a few good museums, including the excellent Museum of Arts and Sciences where the prize exhibit is the 13 feet high skeleton of a Giant Ground Sloth. Further south, the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is Florida’s tallest. Climb the 203 steps to the top for awesome Atlantic vistas then visit the Marine Science Center, with its stingray touch pool and the turtle rehabilitation center, one of just a handful across the country.
Where to stay
Tropical Manor (2237 S. Atlantic Ave, tel. (386) 252-4920) is a cheery motel with a range of rooms, some offering ocean views and all with free wireless internet. It’s right on the beach, but there are plenty of places for some secluded sunbathing inside the grounds as well. Doubles start at $100.
A fabulous family sleeping option is the nearby Sun Viking Lodge (2411 S. Atlantic Ave., tel. (800) 815-2846). As well as direct beach access, there are indoor and outdoor pools and a 60-foot waterslide that will keep kids entertained. Rooms – most with a full kitchen – start at $70 (sleeping up to six) and the pricier rooms have their own whirlpool bath.
For a plusher place to stay, try The Shores Resort (2637 S. Atlantic Ave., tel. (386) 767-7350) with its spa and fine dining oceanfront restaurant. Doubles start at $270 and all have beach views.
If you prefer something more rustic and don’t mind being away from the beach, try the Tomoka State Park, nine miles north of downtown Daytona. It’s a wonderful spot for fishing, bird-watching or canoeing and has plenty of space for you to pitch a tent ($24 per night).
Where to eat
BoonDocks (3948 S Peninsula Drive, tel. (386) 760-9001) is a casual, well-priced, family-friendly eatery serving seafood and bar snacks overlooking the Halifax River.
Another cheery spot is the Starlite Diner (401 N Atlantic Ave, tel. (386) 255-9555), a throwback to the 1950s with its checkered floors, vinyl seats and revered breakfast menu. Maria Bonita (1784 S. Ridgewood Avenue, tel. (386) 767-9512) is a quaint red-roofed restaurant away from the sea. They specialize in Mexican cuisine, but the Cuban dishes are also divine and the cocktails – margaritas and mojitos at least – are on a permanent two-for-one offer.
In general though, Daytona’s culinary scene is all about seafood and one of the best-loved places to tuck in is the charmingly named Aunt Catfish’s on the River (4009 Halifax Drive, tel. (386) 767-4768). The extensive menu is almost daunting, but the lobster and crab dishes come highly recommend and Aunt Catfish’s is also famous for their cinnamon rolls.
Where to enjoy
If you’re in the mood for dancing, head to Seabreeze Boulevard, where a cluster of dance clubs sit together. Razzles (611 Seabreeze Blvd, tel. (386) 257-6236) is the largest and one of the oldest, open seven nights a week.
Ocean Deck (127 S Ocean Ave., tel. (386) 253-5224) specialises in live music, particularly reggae, though jazz, calypso and rock also make it onto the playlist. It’s a family-friendly place serving seafood dishes on the sand and their laidback dress code – ‘no shoes, no shirt, no problem!’ reflects Daytona’s relaxed vibe.
If you don’t want to drink, dine or dance, the Oceanfront Bandshell (Earl Street, tel. (386) 671-8250) is a beachside amphitheater essentially made of crushed shells and offering a range of theatre, music and dance productions. And if all else fails, you could just join the locals playing volleyball by the boardwalk.
Originally published in March/April 2012