By Chris McBeath

When you think of Daytona, three things usually come to mind: bikers, beaches and NASCAR racing. Sure, bikers still rule this beachside community for one week each Spring, but visit Daytona at any other time of the year and you’ll discover that it’s reinventing itself as an action-packed destination for the entire family. And the changes are evolving with the speed that is so synonymous with the Daytona name.

1. A Palpable Renaissance

The ‘old’ Daytona was laid back, weather worn, and filled with many a run-down, underinsured numerous mom and pop motel. The ‘new’ Daytona has cast these aside in favour of new and renovated properties that is redefining the Daytona shoreline. More than $300 million has been spent on expansions and upgrades in recent years, with new buildings going up on seemingly every oceanfront block. With more than two miles of oceanfront in its stable, Oceans Waters Development is a key player in Daytona’s transformation. Its flagship hotel, The Plaza Resort & Spa has just undergone a $70 million refurbishment, restoring it to its 1920’s grandeur, and plans are well underway to redefine the rest of the waterfront a holiday destination for families, business travelers and conventioneers.

2. Nascar’s Salute to Speed

Daytona USA is almost a kind of Disney world of auto racing, complete with trolley tours around the famed Daytona 480-acre arena with its 30-acre lake and five-storey high, 165,000 capacity bleachers, an IMAX presentation of the speed experience that’ll have you rumbling in your seat, as well as hands-on simulators to test your mettle on the fast track. The heritage gallery includes Sir Malcolm Campbell’s mechanical marvel: the legendary 29-foot long, 12,000 lb Bluebird V, and salutes all the early speedsters who flocked to the hard-packed sands just north of Daytona Beach as well as today’s celebrated champions.

3. Adrenaline-Stoked Velocity

The Richard Petty Driving Experience will zoom you through the famed 31-degree, high-banked turns and across the road course that offers sports car racing’s toughest 14-hour endurance test. Ride as a passenger with a professional driver and top speeds in excess of 150 mph, or go for the half-day and multiple day sessions that put you behind the wheel for an all hell bent for leather, white-knuckled, heart-pounding speed experience that’ll make you feel ready to take on Petty himself.

4. Ride the Air-Waves

Offering the very antithesis of road-racing, Thompson Aire catches the wind at a mere 4 mph in one of its eight-story tall, multi-colored hot air balloons. All rides are scheduled for the softer winds of sunrise so although it’s a dark and early start, there’s little to beat the magic of floating into the break of day over marshlands filled with wildlife, sparkling waterways, and even brushing the tops of trees close enough to snatch a pinecone or pick an orange. Bring a hat to protect your head from the blasts of firey heat that monitor the balloon’s flight and direction. Ballooning at dawn works up an appetite so head for the fifties-styled Daytona Diner for its monstrous breakfasts and never-go-empty coffee refills.

5. Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station

Completed in 1887, this century-old working lighthouse is a National Historic Landmark, visited by over 100,000 people each year ( Soaring to 175 feet, it is the tallest lighthouse in Florida, and the second tallest in the United States (only Cape Hatteras is taller). The surrounding buildings are an insight to daily life of the keepers, and include dwellings, a pump house, storage buildings, a tiny boat yard and a museum. Here’s where you can get up close and personal with a rare Fresnel lens. Invented in 1821 by a young Frenchman, Augustin-Jean Fresnel, his design of prisms and lenses was so sophisticated that it is still in use today, almost 200 years later. If you’ve the energy, climb the 203 steps of the lighthouse itself up to the gallery deck and terrific views of the Daytona Beach and New Smyrna Beach areas. Hang on to your hat, the winds are unpredictable when you’re that high off the ground.

6. Chocolate Heaven

Located in the historic downtown area of Daytona Beach across from Riverfront Park, Angell & Phelps (is thriving family-run chocolate factory that has been hand-crafting fresh, high quality chocolates for more than 80 years. Started by two women in their twenties Riddell Angell and Cora Phelps, these gutsy ladies not only made chocolates in Florida before the advent of air-conditioning, they created a successful business at a time when few women could entertain such a thought. Today, the factory is a delicious experience for the senses. Take a 20-minute tour and see how candy is made the old fashioned way, before tucking into everything from chewy caramels to crunchy nuts, rich creams and even sugar free assortments.

7. Cut a Rug

If chocolate doesn’t lure you inside Angell & Phelps, then right next door you’ll find their unpretentious restaurant. It’s a warm and inviting place with excellent food, attentive service and a terrific selection of specialty martinis. The big surprise is its live music played by some of the area’s best musicians, including a trio of seemingly old codgers who can turn their hand – superbly, to anything from Jazz, pop, blues and classics from the big band era. The dance floor is tiny so patrons aren’t adverse to cutting a rug in and around the tables. The desserts are worthy adventures, especially (as might be expected) for chocoholics.

8. Gamble Place at Spruce Creek

Built in 1907, Gamble Place is the former hunting and fishing retreat of James Gamble of Proctor and Gamble fame. He named it Egwanulti, a Native-American term meaning, ‘by the water’ and among those who visited Gamble Place were President Taft, John D. Rockefeller and a young Thomas Edison. Today, this 175-acre park has trails through five different eco-systems and features several restored historic buildings including Gamble’s cracker-style bungalow, a caretaker’s cottage, a citrus packing shed and a charming replica of Disney’s Snow white and the Seven Dwarves cottage, complete with dwarves mine shaft and a witch’s ‘tree-stump’ home. The latter was built for Judge Nippert as his own personal retreat.

9. Discovering Spruce Creek

Located adjacent to Gamble Place in the middle of the nature preserve, Cracker Creek Canoeing is one of a handful of public access points to Spruce Creek, one of the few remaining natural blackwater streams in Florida. Over 2000 acres along Spruce Creek are protected and whether by kayak or canoe, a trip down these slow-moving pristine waters takes you through dense hardwood forests, cypress swamps and coastal marshes with plenty of wildlife to see. There’s also a 40-ft safari-styled boat that offers narrated eco-tours.

10. Museum of Arts & Sciences

If the 13-foot-tall, 130,000-year-old Giant Ground Sloth doesn’t do it for you, then there’s always the restored Apothecary to see, the thousand-plus Teddy Bears, or the largest collection of Coca Cola memorabilia in Florida. As the State’s largest (and best) museum, its affiliation with the Smithsonian Institute, translates to a host of intriguing traveling exhibits such as The Glories of Ancient Egypt; the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as multi-cultural exhibitions covering Cuban art, African artifacts, and more. Price of admission includes admission to the Planetarium, as well as access to an interpretive boardwalk system through the Tuscawilla Preserve rather like a natural ‘environmental classroom’.

11. The Beach

With 23 miles of sandy beach meandering along the shoreline, it’s little wonder that beach-based activities are numerous and diverse. There’s a seaside promenade to enjoy; a chair-lift ride out along a pier, parasailing, jetski and banana boat rentals, and the opportunity to swim with the dolphins at Marineland. Surfing may not rival Hawaii’s big rollers, but for family fun, the shallow Atlantic waves fit the bill. If you don’t know how to surf, Sufari on Ormond Beach have experienced life-guards to show you how, with wetsuit and surfboard provided. Be sure to drop by The Ocean Deck ( Located near the Daytona Beach pier, this multi-deck beach front hang-out has been a Daytona beach tradition for more than 40 years. By day, it’s a great place to park sand-covered bodies for burgers, deep fried shrimp and a cold one. By night, the crowd (and music) gets loud and lively.

12. Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp

For some, the hour’s drive to Casedega might be a bit off the wall, but any community that has a shopping mall for Spiritualists, a Medium Mart and an actively used Meditation Garden is a voyage of discovery in more ways than one. Envisioned during a séance, Casedega was established as a Spiritualist community in 1894 and, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, today comprises 55 residences, full or architectural character. Incidentally, although camp appears in its name, there are no camping facilities at Casedega – camp is an antiquated term for annual gatherings of religious groups. There is, however, a turn-of-he-century hotel that has plenty of creaky floorboards and quite probably, things that go ‘bump in the night’.


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