Daytona Day Trip Worth the Drive

Just an hour from Orlando, Daytona Beach is a surprising getaway.

I'll be the first to admit I thought Daytona Beach was just about the cars. After all, the colossal International Speedway is the first thing you see when you drive into town. But I was on a mission to see a different side of Daytona, one without the speed and noise of a racetrack. Without my husband and my two, car-obsessed sons with me, I remained in cruise control.

I turned instead onto Beach Street, a quaint, palm-tree lined street which runs along the riverfront downtown. The 1920s storefronts house everything from clothing boutiques and antique stores to an independent coffee shop, community theater and a generations-old citrus stand. While my girly side steered me away from the speedway, it led me straight for Angell and Phelps, a local chocolatier that's been making gourmet treats since 1925. Not only do they offer samples of decadent fudge and colorful candy, they give free tours, allowing you to peek inside the kitchen at the chefs and drool over their dream jobs. After refueling on chocolate goodness, I was ready to hit the beach. I bypassed the busy boardwalk and pier and made a right turn at the AIA instead. Miles went by, and soon the large, oceanfront condominiums made way for smaller, beachfront cottages, tucked into sand dunes and hidden under oaks. I had arrived at Ponce Inlet.

The chocolate having burned off already, I pulled into the Hidden Treasure Bar & Grill, where I sat outside on the deck. As I ate a massive po'boy with a generous helping of fried oysters, I watched the sailboats leave the Halifax River on their way to the Atlantic. After lunch, I walked across the parking lot to the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse. The lighthouse, built in 1887, is 176-feet tall and named for the famed Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon. Not only is it Florida's tallest lighthouse, it's one of the few open to small children. (If they can do it, I can do it.) With plenty of fried-seafood calories to burn, I started my ascent, winding my way up some 200 steps to the stop. Outside in the warm, ocean air, I stayed for a while admiring my reward: a 360-degree view of the river, the town and the infinite blue of the Atlantic Ocean. I even forgot to look for the speedway.

Back in the car and on my way home down the AIA, I was pleased with my discovery of this different side of Daytona—quiet and quaint. But then, I saw it: vehicular access to the beach. Before I knew it, I had taken a detour, handing the man in the booth $5 and turning onto the sand. I had never driven on the beach before. There I was—windows down, arm out the window, sun on my skin—just cruising along the beach on a beautiful day in May, and I thought ... Maybe Daytona is all about the cars.