The quiet (mostly), natural (ditto) side of Daytona Beach, Florida

DAYTONA BEACH – I hadn’t heard a lot about this part of Florida prior to my trip. I knew the usual clichés, of course; the driving on the beach, the bikers, the Daytona (duh) 500 car race.
None of it got me all jazzed up, to be honest. But prior to this trip for Star Travel I read about some cool spots to enjoy nature. And I knew I’d love the beach and the small amusement park. Some folks turn up their noses but I’ve always taken delight in downscale, casual places that sell cotton candy and corn dogs and have arcades with Skee Ball machines and such.
The town of Daytona Beach is nicer than I expected. They’ve done a lot of work on Beach St., which is over on the mainland and not near the beach. They’ve installed beautiful, interlocking brick outside the shops and lined the tree with towering palm trees and planters, and it’s quite striking.
There are several old buildings and a fun coffee shop and a wild book store packed to the gills with books of every sort, and other treats. The parks across the street run along part of the Halifax River, and Beach St. is right across the water from Jackie Robinson park, where Robinson broke into the minor leagues and made history.IMG_1535
It’s not Yorkville or even Queen West by a long shot, but it’s pretty and there are some fun stores over a stretch of four or five blocks. Of course, you’ll also find downtown Daytona has a million or so motorcycle shops, including one that’s specifically for women called Roar.
This being the south and part of the U.S. and all, I wasn’t surprised to see gun shops. One, however, caught my eye as it was on the corner of International Speedway Blvd. and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. I somehow can’t get past the idea of a gun shop on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, but there doubtless are other ones across the U.S.
Also nearby I had to laugh at a sign outside a crematorium that advertised great prices and best quality. “Best quality?” Like, who’s going to know?
The Daytona Beach pier is spectacular, with a pretty boardwalk and parks and a beach that goes on forever. I rode the Ferris Wheel, a good deal for five bucks, and admired the views from high above the water. The surf here also is better than I expected, and there were a ton of surfers out on the weekend.
I was at a Holiday Inn north of the downtown area, and it was really very, very nice; a big room with nice greens and blues and a great view of the water and lovely sunrise views. I could’ve done without plastic drinking receptacles but the bed was great and the room and bathroom were quite large, which is far more important. Nice staff, and a pretty good breakfast buffet for $9, too.
I found the Chart House overpriced but pretty for dinner, with great macadamia crusted mahi mahi. It’s on the intracoastal waterway, and it’s a lovely spot next to a spiffy marina so probably worth a splurge on a special occasion.
A much better deal was at the crazy-crowded Ocean Deck, with 20 or so boiled sIMG_1491hrimp for $10 in a wild, youthful spot with good music right on the beach.
The night before I had a fabulous Penang Curry at Zen Bistro, a great Thai spot near Beach St. It’s probably one of the best I’ve had anywhere.
Best part of the trip for my money was down in Ponce Inlet, south of town about 20 minutes. I stopped for breakfast at the Cracked Egg Diner, one of those wonderful spots frequented by locals with great kielbasa and eggs. I don’t like the way they fold the eggs over omelet style as they get a bit greasy. But the kielbasa was good and the hash browns perfect and the atmosphere was great; 60’s music and fun, old-time signs saying things like “Drink Coffee and do stupid things faster with more energy.”
The diner is in the town of Daytona Beach Shores, which also is home to the marvellous Vittoria’s pastry shop. Vittoria Agostino makes unbelievably tasty Italian pastries, something she learned to do as a child in Italy and then perfected over a couple decades living and IMG_1635teaching in Ottawa. A definite must-see, especially for the sfogliatelle with flaky, perfect pastry, ricotta, orange zest and just the right amount of powdered sugar on top. Yum.
Further south is Ponce Inlet, with one of Florida’s best lighthouses and awesome views of the intracoastal waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. There’s also a goofy bar called Hidden Treasure, built as part of an old “fish camp” and offering open-air dining with funky signs and such. One of them read “This tree was pissed on by Ernest Hemmingway in 1956.” Might be true. Perhaps Ernest Hemingway also came here.
The lighthouse is not a bad climb; 203 steps. And the views of the beach and the intracoastal waterway are tremendous. There’s also a playground for kids and a short nature trail.IMG_1621
Just up the road is another fun bar/restaurant called Inlet Harbour (see photo below left), with more bright/garish colours and fun drinks along the intracoastal.
Florida in general is recovering nicely from the recession and housing mess in the U.S. Ditto for Daytona, where there’s a new Hard Rock Café hotel coming, plus a new Hyatt and a big hotel being built by a Russian company.
Lots of other developments are in the works for one of the most affordable beachfront areas in the state.
IMG_1630Oh, I almost forgot that I stopped in at Vince Carter’s restaurant, a sports bar/fine dining spot on LPGA Blvd. in the northwest part of town, just off I-95. It’s very pretty inside with lots of glass and dark wood and a ton of TV’s in the sports bar. One TV was showing Vince’s top 100 slam dunks, many of them in a Toronto Raptors uniform.
Among the menu items are spicy “slam dunk” crab bites and “in the zone” chicken wings.

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