By Susan & Simon Veness
When it comes to beaches, Florida is absolutely jam-packed with them. But they don’t come more iconic and outstanding than Daytona Beach. Before the Sunshine State was really ‘a thing,’ there was Daytona Beach, and there are plenty of reasons why it is so notable.
Just to start with, this stretch of Florida’s impressive coastline has been an attraction for 150 years. It was founded in 1870, the first hotel was built here in 1874, and it has attracted the good and great ever since, including philanthropist John D Rockefeller, Sir Malcolm Campbell (Britain’s pre-eminent land-speed record chaser), baseball legend Jackie Robinson and Bill France, the 1950s creator of the NASCAR motor-racing series.
In more recent times, it has become a diverse destination for families, couples and singles alike; those looking for high-energy excitement and those who prefer a more gentle, natural adventure. It has mass-market appeal and an exclusive, deluxe style all its own. So, with that in mind, we thought we’d highlight our Top 10 Things You Need To Know About Daytona Beach.
Well, duh! Of course this would be one of THE main reasons for visiting. But it’s worth pointing out that this blissful 23-mile stretch of golden sands is unique in Florida in that you can actually drive on it (for a small fee, and with strict speed restrictions – no more Malcolm Campbells!). Its wide, hard-packed expanse is what attracted the record-chasers in the first place, and races were held on the beach as early as 1902.
Daytona International Speedway
If the Beach is item 1A on the area’s list of attractions, the mind-boggling Speedway is 1B. This vast sporting arena was built in 1959 and its high-speed 2.5-mile tri-oval circuit quickly became the Mecca of American auto-sport. Today, if you’re not here for a race – which can attract in excess of 200,000 spectators – you can still tour the stadium and walk on the famous, banked track, as well as visit the impressive Motor Sports Hall of Fame of America.
If you’re looking for the ultra-modern side of the destination, head for this new centre of shops, restaurants and entertainment. Built opposite the Speedway in 2018, it’s a dazzling collection of the latest and brightest places to dine, catch a movie, play the latest arcade games, try a craft beer and indulge in some fancy retail therapy at places like Bass Pro Shops, It’Sugar, Pink Narcissus and Momentum. For dinner, don’t miss 4 Rivers BBQ, Midici Italian Kitchen, Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery and the fab Sir Malcom (at the One Daytona hotel).
Families are attracted in great numbers to this splendid water park and activity centre, just two blocks from the beach. The slides, flumes and wave pool are ideal for children and young teens, and the elaborate Castaway water playground is a highlight for 6-12-year-olds. On dry land you can also try out the laser tag, mini-golf, sky maze, arcade games, climbing wall and go-karts. Be aware there are height restrictions of 42, 48 and 54 inches on some slides.
Marine Science Center
Learn about the rich maritime aspect of Daytona Beach at this superb hands-on centre of marine life. Meet turtles, rays, reef fish, eels, sea stars and more through a series of exhibits and galleries designed to illuminate and educate. This is also a working rescue and rehabilitation resource, and children in particular will get a lot out of the many kid-orientated messages of environmental protection and eco-awareness.
Ponce Inlet Lighthouse & Museum
Step back in time – to the 1880s – when you visit Florida’s tallest lighthouse and learn about the fascinating coastal history on a self-guided or private tour of this nine-acre site, which includes the original lighthouse-keeper’s dwelling and out-buildings. At 175ft, it is the third highest in the US and a National Historic Landmark. Climb all 203 steps to the top and you will have an unrivalled view of the coast and the inlet discovered by 16th century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon.
Angel & Phelps Chocolate Factory
Those with a sweet tooth will definitely want to make a beeline for this chic little chocolate emporium in the heart of attractive South Beach Street, the ‘downtown’ part of Daytona Beach. Here you can take a free tour of the facility (not Sundays), peruse their ultra-tempting array of candy delights and try a few samples of their unique wares (chocolate-covered potato chips, anyone?).
Tanger Outlets Daytona
It’s hard to go anywhere in the Sunshine State and not encounter a major shopping centre, be it a mall, district or, in this case, a series of specialist outlet shops. The Tanger Outlets (right by main motorway I-95) boast a line-up of more than 70 stores all offering big-name savings on well-known brands such as Converse, Gap, Levi’s and Reebok, as well as a children’s splash play-area to keep the little ‘uns happy. From America Eagle to Zales Diamond Outlet, there are a wealth of bargains on offer and this open-air centre is a delight to explore on foot.
Boardwalk and Pier
Every great seaside destination has to have a Pier, right? Daytona Beach goes a step further by boasting a bustling, lively Boardwalk along its seafront, with the Pier at the centre. Enjoy the wide variety of shops, arcades and amusements, including go-karts and street performers, plus the eye-popping Slingshot ride that launches riders 365ft into the air at 100mph! Then head out onto the quarter-mile pier, watch the locals fishing (or try it yourself), and have lunch at Joe’s Crab Shack. In the summer, enjoy free concerts and other entertainment at the nearby Bandshell.
Oceanwalk Daytona Beach
Stroll just north of the Pier/Boardwalk areas and you reach Oceanwalk, another purpose built entertainment complex of shops, restaurants and multi-screen cinema. Choose from a select group of chic gift and souvenir stores, plus half a dozen food and beverage options, including Coldstone Creamery, Johnny Rockets classic diner, the Mai Tai Bar and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.
Those are the ‘obvious’ 10 highlights of Daytona Beach, but stay tuned for Part 2 of our grand tour, and some of the not-so-obvious attractions (plus the great dining and resort hotels!) next week.
Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million copies of their books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.