Weekenders: Daytona Beach’s Softer Side

Florida’s rip-roaring NASCAR capital has more to offer if you know where to look.

By Kathryn O’Shea-Evans

For more than 50 years the Daytona International Speedway has drawn visitors from far and wide to this oceanfront town 55 miles northeast of Orlando. Although the Speedway remains a top attraction, it’s Daytona Beach’s sweet Old Florida charms (including that hard-packed, easy-to-stroll-on sand) that have travelers returning year after year. Airlines are taking note: JetBlue began running nonstop flights from JFK to Daytona Beach earlier this year. Here, four reasons to book a vacation this second, besides NASCAR and the average-80-degree weather.

The History

As one of the earliest European settlements on the continent (Ponce de León touched down near here in 1513), it’s no surprise that Florida is steeped in antique curiosities. A historic site comes with a stellar view at Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse & Museum. There you can climb to the top of the 175-foot lighthouse, the tallest in the state. When first lit, in 1887, the light was visible some 20 miles from land. Today visitors can explore the property on their own year-round, but it’s worth attending one of the full-moon tours, during which you’ll see the Atlantic surf bathed in moonlight (book as early as possible; the 25 spots sell out fast).

Another must-see? The Halifax Historical Museum, housed in a 1910 Beaux-Arts Merchants Bank building complete with original teller windows and an opulent coffered ceiling. The collection of handmade vintage surfboards alone is worth the $5 admission. Just across the Halifax River, Italianate Victorian architecture is on permanent display at Lilian Place, a former residence built in 1884. The trust that maintains it is also repairing the adjacent 1905 Hotchkiss House, where historical reenactors serve Victorian tea on the third Tuesday of every month. For a little more action, baseball fans and history buffs can catch a game at Jackie Robinson Ballpark, the site of the first integrated pro baseball game, in 1947. There’s a statue of Hall of Famer Robinson near the park’s southern entrance.

The Culture

Art lovers will find plenty to do in Daytona Beach, starting with one of the largest photography museums in the country, the Southeast Museum of Photography. The permanent collection consists of some 4,500 works by everyone from Alfred Stieglitz, who helped define the art form at the turn of the 20th century, to Sally Mann, one of the most talked-about photographers today. And don’t leave without asking to see Andy Warhol’s 1983 portrait of Ingrid Bergman.

A two-mile drive away, the Smithsonian-affiliated Museum of Arts & Sciences is set on a lush 90-acre nature preserve. There you can check out a range of exhibits including a two-acre contemporary-sculpture garden and a Pink Floyd laser concert in the newly built planetarium. If you’re looking to take in a show, the Daytona Beach Symphony Society hosts orchestras from as far away as Munich and Jerusalem as part of its mission to bring some of the best musicians, dancers and operas from around the world to Florida. Recent performances have included Giselle by the Moscow Festival Ballet and Aida by Milan’s Teatro Lirico D’Europa.

The Nature

Manatees, dolphins and sea turtles are just a few examples of the diverse marine life that can be found in Daytona Beach. You can hop on a sunset tour of Inlet Harbor with Manatee River Cruise to eyeball the gentle giants (manatees can weigh up to 1,300 pounds). For an up-close view and a little exercise, consider booking a dolphin-and-manatee adventure tour on a stand-up paddleboard with Three Brothers Boards.

It’s well worth driving 10 miles south of Daytona Beach to Ponce Inlet for a visit to the Marine Science Center, where you can observe healing sea turtles in the rehabilitation rooms and pet cownose rays in a touch pool. Outdoorsy types can head to De Leon Springs State Park to see a 600-year-old cypress tree and look for otters, bald eagles and sandhill cranes on the 4.5-mile Wild Persimmon Trail. The park’s paddleboat trail also provides access to the 22,000-acre Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.

The Food

When you’re in Florida, seafood is always the order of the day. Aunt Catfish’s on the River’s dock and weekend live music might help draw in newcomers, but it’s the food that makes the family-owned spot a local institution: fried catfish, blackened tilapia and alligator tail in citrus sauce, to name a few favorites. Don’t miss the cinnamon rolls for dessert. They’ve been whipping them up for more than 45 years and selling an average of 1,500 a day.

Garlic fiends flock to both locations of The Crab Stop for its garlic crab and shrimp served with garlic bread plus a full cup of melted butter for drizzling. Three things separate Tia Cori’s Tacos from the pack: $5 margaritas and piña coladas, a live mariachi band every night and on-point Mexican food (you know it’s authentic when a beef-tongue quesadilla is on the menu).

For a night out on the town, consider nearby Ormond Beach. At Ormond Brewing Company, you can follow up yoga in the beer garden with a pint of the Dude, the White Russian of beers. At Tomoka Brewing Company, you can order a pint of beloved seasonal offering “The King” Imperial Elvis Peanut Butter Banana Sandwich brown ale and raise a glass to Daytona Beach’s many charms.

EXPLORE
Daytona Beach Symphony Society
Peabody Auditorium, 600 Auditorium Blvd.; 386-671-3460; new.dbss.org; ticket prices vary
Halifax Historical Museum
252 S. Beach St.; 386-255-6976; halifaxhistorical.org; adults, $5; kids 12 and under, $1
Jackie Robinson Ballpark
105 E. Orange Ave.; milb.com; 386-257-3172
Lilian Place
111 Silver Beach Ave.; 386-299-4974; heritagepreservationtrust.org; admission, $5
Museum of Arts & Sciences
352 S. Nova Rd.; 386-255-0285; moas.org; adults, $13; kids 17 and under, $
Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse & Museum
4931 S. Peninsula Dr., Ponce Inlet; 386-761-1821; ponceinlet.org; adults, $7; kids 11 and under, $2
Southeast Museum of Photography
1200 W. International Speedway Blvd.; 386-506-4475; smponline.org
PLAY
De Leon Springs State Park
601 Ponce de Leon Blvd., De Leon Springs; 386-985-4212; floridastateparks.org; admission, $6 a vehicle
Manatee River Cruise
133 Inlet Harbor Rd., Ponce Inlet; 386-761-2027; manateecruise.com; adults, $25; kids 12 and under, $16
Marine Science Center
100 Lighthouse Dr., Ponce Inlet; 386-304-5545; marinesciencecenter.com; adults, $5; kids 12 and under, $2
Three Brothers Boards
212 S. Beach St., Suite 100; 386-310-4927; threebrothersboards.com; tours, $50 a person
EAT
Aunt Catfish’s on the River
4009 Halifax Dr., Port Orange; 386-767-4768; auntcatfishontheriver.com; dinner for two, $82*
The Crab Stop
933 W. International Speedway Blvd.; 386-253-4616; crabstopdaytona.com; dinner for two, $56
Ormond Brewing Company
301 Division Ave., Ormond Beach; ormondbrewing.com; 386-256-3904
Tia Cori’s Tacos
214 N. Beach St.; 386-947-4333; tiacoristacos.com; dinner for two, $26
Tomoka Brewing Company
4647 S. Clyde Morris Blvd., Port Orange; tomokabrewingco.com; 386-256-4979; brewery tours, from $10
STAY
RCI® affiliated resorts in and near Daytona include:
Outrigger Beach Club 0651
Take in the views while soaking in the resort’s ocean-facing pool. 215 S. Atlantic Ave., Ormond Beach
Member Review: “Top-quality furnishings.”
Plantation Island 1104
A full-time activity director can help guests make the most of their stay; golf, tennis and horseback riding are within just five miles. 187 S. Atlantic Ave., Ormond Beach
Member Review: “The beach and pools were amazing.”
Silver Beach Club Resort Condo 5048
Fronts a pristine stretch of Atlantic Ocean beach. 1025 S. Atlantic Ave., Daytona Beach
Member Review: “The location is wonderful.”
Americano Beach Resort C056
Impressive high-rise accommodations plus fitness classes, volleyball and ocean views. 1260 N. Atlantic Ave., Daytona Beach
Member Review: “Our room was spacious and well-equipped.”
For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts:
The Plaza Resort & Spa
A grande dame with 600 feet of pristine and private beach out front. 600 N. Atlantic Ave.; 844-284-2685; plazaresortandspa.com; doubles from $89 a night
The Shores Resort & Spa
You’ll find four-poster beds, Italian-marble showers and s’mores on the beach at this Daytona mainstay. 2637 S. Atlantic Ave.; 866-934-7467; shoresresort.com; doubles from $124 a night
  • *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Summer 2016