Daytona Beach: Sand & Water, Speed & Thunder; Plus So Much More - Check It Out
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
When most people think of Daytona Beach, Florida, they’ll likely admit knowing the place for its miles of sandy beaches, auto racing heritage and reputation as being ground zero for The Sunshine State’s biker-related events.
The first beach auto race was on the hard-packed sands of Ormond Beach, just north of Daytona, in 1902. By 1903, Daytona Beach was also in racing mode. As auto racing's popularity grew, mega-tracks, including the iconic Daytona International Speedway, which opened in 1959. The Daytona 500 is in February but
visitors can see the speedway year-round. Several guided tours are offered, including a 90-minute All Access Tour ($25/$19 children 6-12) or a 30-minute Speedway Tour ($18/$12). Privately-guided VIP Tours are also available on select dates monthly.The All-Access Tour includes the NASCAR Sprint Cup garages, drivers meeting room, Victory Lane, a trip around the Speedway and along the infield and pit road, and more. The sheer size of the complex is formidable and the 31-degree banked turns seem much steeper when observed in person.The Speedway hosts multiple events over the year, including several races, auto shows and concerts. If you want to eat in a memorabilia-filled, NASCAR-themed, beachfront restaurant and bar, cruise to Racing’s North Turn. The restaurant is located precisely where drivers turned on the sandy course and has a great deck for enjoying food and drinks.
Daytona is also the The Sunshine State’s hub for biker activity. Motorcycle aficionados make pilgrimages in Bike Week in March or Biketoberfest in October. The Daytona 200 motorcycle race first began in January 1937 with races on the beach. Today, it’s held at the speedway during Bike Week, a 10-day festival, loaded with concerts, bike shows and rallies. Historic Main Street is a hub, a constant parade of hogs rumbling with guttural two-piston pops. Hoist brews with kindred souls at the popular Boot Hill Saloon , located across from the graveyard. Biketoberfest is a four-day event attracting nearly 100,000 people.
In between working on the tan, boogie-boarding or just relaxing, visit the Museum of Arts & Sciences. The museum is beautifully designed with multiple wings housing 11 impressive permanent collections. There’s the “Armory,” with antique pistols, rifles, crossbows, armor and more.
The “Prehistory of Florida” takes you back to the days before humans. A 13-foot-tall skeleton of a giant ground sloth, said to be the best representative of this species in existence, is the centerpiece. The “Cuban Collection” has more than 200 pieces of fine artwork and folk art donated to the city by former Cuba President Fulgencio Batista. Batista once had a home in Daytona. A planetarium offers recurring shows and special features, including laser shows. The “Early American Art and Furniture Gallery” has some stunning antiques. The “Root Family Museum” wing holds a vast collection of Coca-Cola artifacts. The Root Glass Company designed the beverage’s distinctive bottle. This collection includes memorabilia, vending machines, delivery vehicles, an entire pharmaceutical shop and two mid-20th Century rail cars the family used for travel. Nearby, the affiliated Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art has an incredible collection of Florida-themed paintings, some more than 200 years old and others valued in the millions of dollars. The beautiful paintings are organized by theme, such as Florida Weather or Florida Communities.
Just a few miles south of Daytona Beach, Ponce Inlet offers visitors a wealth of adventures and educational discoveries. The centerpiece of this compact area is the Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station and Museum.
Climb the 203 steps to the gallery deck of the 175-foot lighthouse for an unbeatable view. This National Historic Landmark is the tallest lighthouse in Florida. Placed in service in 1887, the sturdy structure’s first light beacon was a fixed Fresnel lens, illuminated by five wick kerosene lanterns. Amazingly, it was visible 20 miles out to sea! Tour exhibits next to the lighthouse, including the building displaying a variety of historic lighthouse lenses, the Principal and Second Assistant Keepers’ Dwellings, a unique collection of homemade rafts made by Cuban refugees fleeing their island, and an undeveloped coastal hardwood hammock, which contains the small “lighthouse cats’ cemetery.” It’s possible to see a gopher tortoise and other wildlife in the hammock, but note that the area can be thick with mosquitos during warm weather.
The nearby Marine Science Center has an aquarium, and sea turtle and coastal bird rehabilitation centers. The sea turtle exhibit is especially informative, outlining the dangers these ancient creatures face and how rehabilitators work to nurse them to health when they’re sick or injured. There’s also a supervised stingray and shark “touch pool” with small rays and sharks cruising around. Visitors can also stroll outside on a nature trail with a boardwalk. Move over to the waterfront and jump into more active pursuits, such as heading out on a dolphin and manatee eco tour, inshore and offshore fishing, parasailing, stand-up paddle boarding and kayaking and more (www.ponceinletwatersports.com). Take a three-hour catamaran cruise on a 50-foot sailboat (www.sailingdaytona.com).
When it’s time to grab a meal and relax at Ponce Inlet, a best bet is the Hidden Treasure Rum Bar & Grille. It’s within walking distance of the lighthouse and science center. Live music is offered Thursday through Sunday. A great blues combo was playing the afternoon I visited. In fact, the restaurant has a “Brunch & Blues” program every Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon, featuring Bloody Mary and Mimosa drink specials. Try some fried alligator tail, fresh fish fried or grilled sandwiches, or one of the weekday all-you-can-eat specials. The seared ahi tuna was awesome!
Rounding out your meal plans, have breakfast (served all day) at The Daytona Diner, with its checkerboard floor, Betty Boop theme and excellent menu. Yes, you can get an Elvis peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwich. I’ve eaten grilled mahi sandwiches all along the East Coast. Without reservation, the finest I’ve had to date is at the Ocean Deck Restaurant. For dinner and drinks, head to Joe’s Crab Shack at the boardwalk. Daily specials, Bar happy hour prices. If the weather is good, eat on the roof in the open air while listening to live music. The steamed mussels were excellent! Time your trip right and you might be able to catch a concert at the bandshell on the beach and fireworks over the water.
During my two recent trips to Daytona Beach, The Fountain Beach Resort on South Atlantic Avenue was an excellent, affordable place to stay. It’s right on the beach, has a tiki bar, and offers military discounts. A caveat, though, any lodging on that Atlantic Avenue strip can get loud, especially when rallies and other events are in town. If you want somewhere with quieter properties, an off-strip location may be a wiser bet. For a full rundown of all to see and do in the Florida playground, click on www.daytonabeach.com.