Travel: Postcard from Daytona Beach

Driving on the 23 miles of white-sand beach in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Driving on the 23 miles of white-sand beach in Daytona Beach, Florida. | Dennis Lennox

Forget Daytona Beach’s stereotypes of race cars and spring break.

During my recent visit in the lull between the two periods of spring break — college students and then everyone else — I discovered a destination full of surprises.

There’s no question that Daytona Beach enjoys near-universal name recognition, thanks to the legendary car race that occurs every February at the massive track adjacent to the recently renovated airport. The track is basically a cathedral for racing enthusiasts.

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At the same time, the place felt slightly off-the-beaten path if only because there are a noticeable lack of major chain hotels and big oceanfront resorts compared with more developed and crowded parts of Florida. Along Atlantic Avenue, the strip that parallels the ocean, quite a few old-school motels with tropical or otherwise whimsical names can be found. One such property is the art deco-style Streamline Hotel, where the predecessor of NASCAR was formed in 1947.

When most people say or think of Daytona Beach, they mean the beach itself and not the city of the same name.

Running for 23 miles along the Atlantic coast, the white-sand beach actually passes through three separate cities and one town in Volusia County: Ponce Inlet, Daytona Beach Shores, Daytona Beach and Ormond Beach. Public access includes marked lanes for motorists willing to fork over $20 for the novelty of driving on a beach.

Beach Street is Daytona Beach’s main street in all but name.
Beach Street is Daytona Beach’s main street in all but name. | Dennis Lennox

While it’s easy to never leave the sun and sand, the real draw is found in the city proper.

Most visible is a $25 million redevelopment of the esplanade facing the Halifax River opposite Beach Street, Daytona Beach’s main street in all but name. Once finished it will complement the quaint downtown, which is a welcome departure from the strip malls and endless sprawl found elsewhere in Florida.

The carpenter Gothic architecture of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
The carpenter Gothic architecture of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. | Dennis Lennox

On nearby Orange Avenue is St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. Dating to at least 1883, the handsome carpenter Gothic church with its fine collection of stained-glass windows is purportedly the oldest continuously used church anywhere in the Sunshine State.

A short drive away is the Museum of Arts & Sciences, which includes the standalone Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art. Unlike art museums elsewhere, the collection here is entirely Florida art. Works range from early depictions of centuries-old St. Augustine to impressionist paintings of landscape. In short, the museum punches well above its weight.

If you go

Also worth visiting are the Halifax Historical Museum, Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse & Museum and The Casements, the former winter home of John D. Rockefeller.

I stayed in mostly quiet Daytona Beach Shores at the Delta, a Marriott branded hotel and one of the few major chain outposts. Not only do many of the rooms have private oceanfront balconies, but the family-friendly hotel features direct access to the beach and, notably, no resort fees.

Eat at The Cellar, an Italian restaurant in the one-time home of President Warren Harding; Top of Daytona on the 29th floor of an oceanfront tower; or the casual Down the Hatch Seafood Company with waterfront views of the Ponce de Leon Inlet.

Most visitors fly into Daytona Beach’s airport, which has daily service from American Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Orlando, located about an hour away by car, has considerably more flight options.

Dennis Lennox writes a travel column for The Christian Post.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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