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Five Adventures in Daytona Beach

Travel: Daytona Beach In 5…

By Debi Lander

Published February 07, 2011

| FoxNews.com

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Daytona may be known as the “Birthplace of Speed,” but today the city beats with intensity for thrill-seeking fanatics, adventure junkies, bikers, sun worshippers as well as racecar enthusiasts. During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Daytona Beach earned a reputation as the Spring Break oasis of the south. These days the busty and bawdy scene has toned down, as many college coeds-gone-wild flee to Bermuda or the Caribbean islands.

5…Hit town for the Daytona 500

Every February NASCAR fans flock to the Daytona International Speedway (1801 West International Speedway Drive) for the 57th annual Daytona 500. The day’s event pits 43 of the best stock car drivers in the world against each other in NASCAR’s biggest, richest, and most prestigious race.

Auto and motorcycle racing began on the Atlantic shores of Daytona’s hard-packed sandy beach and turned the corner onto legendary Route A-1A. The Daytona Beach Road Course holds the honor as the site of fifteen world land-speed records. In 1959, the Speedway was constructed allowing cars to move to the safer asphalt surface. The historic venue’s $20 million track repaving was completed just in time for the announcer to call the “gentlemen” to start their engines. And yes, since 1977, ladies too were called, since that was the year Janet Guthrie became the first woman to earn a starting spot.

Encompassing 180 acres and including a 29-acre lake, the speedway attracts about 250,000 spectators — their masses divided between the 165,000-seat grandstand and the infield track. On non-racing days the track offers three separate open-air tram tours through the hallowed grounds enabling a driver’s point of view of the steeply-banked course.


Richard Petty Experience

4…Feel the need for speed the Richard Petty way

Attending a race at the International Speedway is a definite bucket list item for race fans: those must-see places and events to accomplish before you die. But imagine instead, testing your own driving skills on the 2.5 mile course in a real NASCAR that roars with 600 horsepower. The Richard Petty Driving Experience puts you in the driver’s seat for the ultimate pedal to the metal thrill. Sit with a professional driver as he coaches you through a few speed controlled practice spins. Then, with hair raising goose bumps, your heart pounding and deep concentration, let it rip and zip around the 31-degree banked turns.

For those wanting a slightly tamer ride, choose the Ride-Along option and sit shotgun while the expert racer makes a 3-lap run. The high performance activity isn’t cheap (driving starts at $595) but the bragging rites remain priceless. To qualify you must be at least 18 years old, have a valid driver’s license, be proficient with a manual transmission, be able to climb through a 15″ high by 30″ wide window that sits 36″ from the ground and fit into a driving suit.

3…Get down and dirty during Bike Week and Biketoberfest

Every March, the leather and chains look hogs the limelight as the world famous Bike Week rolls into Daytona. This festival of vintage and custom bikes is a cultural blend of ages and income levels. Riders living the tattoo lifestyle buzz with hive-like activity hovering around the Harley-Davidson dealership, the Boot Hill Saloon local watering hole (310 Main Street, 386 258-9506) and, of course, the track. Concurrently, the Speedway hosts two weeks of intense motorcycle racing, supercross and dirt track competitions.

The va-vroom of exhaust pipes heralds another noisy week for Daytona during Biketoberfest (www.biketoberfest.org). This extravaganza tends to attract “rubs,” or rich urban bikers, executives, medical and legal professionals. They usually ride in small groups, visit fine restaurants and choose upscale lodging. But make no mistake, the event still garners “Easy Rider”-types and traditional leather-clad bikers.

For anyone wanting to get down and dirty, join in the action by renting a chopper and ride the 22-mile Bike Week Loop. The Chamber of Commerce sponsors this opportunity for novice bikers and show-offs to connect with Florida’s natural beauty.

2…Skydive toward DeLand


For those looking for a supreme adrenaline rush, check into Skydive Deland (1600 Flightline Blvd, DeLand, 386 738-3539, a world-class premier skydive training center located just 20 minutes from downtown. Here you soar with safety minded professionals and ‘chute yourself full of memories.

The gutsy start with ground and safety instruction, being reassured that this is going turn out fine. Then, you ascend to an altitude of approximately two miles for your tandem parachute jump. You, and the instructor strapped on your back, leap from the plane, briefly free-falling at speeds up to 120 miles per hour. The butterflies in the stomach quickly disappear as you revel in the beauty of flight. After about a minute of freefall, your instructor opens the parachute, and together you make a soft landing. To push beyond your weak knees and white knuckles and fears grants one of life’s most empowering experiences and guarantees you’ll have stories to tell the grandchildren. Be sure to hire a videographer to jump with you and record your audacious dive.

1…Yes, there’s a beach here, too

Daytona’s piece de resistance remains its 23 miles of extra wide shoreline. The “World’s Most Famous Beach” consists of sand firm enough to permit driving along designated sections. Find the original North Turn marker off Highway A1A and have lunch at Racing’s North Turn restaurant (4511 South Atlantic Avenue, Ponce Inlet, 386 322-3258 ). While waiting for your order you can peruse old beach-racing photos and memorabilia.

Bicycling enthusiasts will find the beach’s extended straightaway close to nirvana. The lack of shells affords sunbathers comfort and makes Daytona perfectly suited for beach volleyball.

Early morning walkers and runners like to bask in the sunrise as foam rolls onto the shore. But any time of day is good for a walk along the historic pier and boardwalk where you can ride the Ferris wheel and play amusement games, too. Grab a hot dog or some cotton candy and continue to stroll past the Sir Malcolm Campbell Clock tower and the 1937 Band shell which looks like a giant sandcastle. The beach scene hasn’t changed much but remains a must-do in Daytona.

The Famous Daytona Beach

Returning to Daytona Beach

Daytona Beach as seen from my room in the Hilton.

Daytona Beach lies just 90 miles south of my home, yet my only previous visit dates back to 1960. That’s a long time ago, but childhood memories remain vivid. I can picture the one-story motel on the edge of a seemingly endless beach. My brothers and I frolicked on the firmly packed sand and splashed through the rolling surf. Thanks to Mom’s careful budgeting, our Florida vacation became a reality and demonstrates the profound and lasting impact of travel.

Back in 1960, coastal Highway Route # 1 brimmed with Mom and Pop motels, most of which we’d now consider tacky. Their cinder block construction stood maybe two stories high, with room entrances on the exterior. The advertised swimming pool measured about the size of a hot tub. But, Daytona boasted the widest beach we’d ever seen.  We were thrilled.

Recently, I rediscovered Daytona and can happily report the expansive world famous beach still struts her stuff.  It’s flat and broad with waves surging strong enough to attract surfers. She’s perfect for walking,  biking and even driving. The famous auto race began on the hard sand  in the 1940’s. In addition, I uncovered a vibrant downtown, one’s that’s opposite the  ocean side of the causeway, but strangely named Beach Street. The promenade edges a brick paved road lined with palms, upscale shopping, ethnic restaurants and a luscious chocolate factory.

Downtown Daytona -- Beach Street
Downtown Daytona -- Beach Street

For lodging, I chose the elegant high-rise Hilton Oceanfront Resort.  When I opened the room’s sliding glass door, a symphony of repetitive waves calmed my senses, yet the view of the boardwalk and breeze carried  hints of excitement. In the morning, I strolled along the salty shore, studying a lacy edge of foam rolling in. I bent over to pick up shells as exercisers jogged past.

Hurricanes Charlie, Frances and Jeanne rampaged the area in 2004, crumpling most of the old motels.  Many were abandoned while the newer, more substantial ones were rebuilt. Still, six years later, numerous empty lots dot the seaside. However, the county coffers prosper, thanks to the money spent by  hordes of visiting bikers and race fans. With generous tax revenues, Daytona County was able to purchase a few beachfront properties thus providing and protecting  public access and ocean views.

I also learned of  Daytona’s slower side during a kayak outing on  Cracker Creek. The stream barely flows, her water resembles day old cola, dark brown and  flat. Dip your paddle in and watch the wave motion gently travel to caress the languid lip. The Spruce Creek preserve is home to white ibis, egrets and sun worshiping turtles. Giant cypress trees, hundreds of years old, stretch their Spanish moss laden branches overhead, creating a shady canopy that humbles all. The cypress  knees (roots) protrude above water creating idyllic camouflage for critters.  And, there I spotted a gator hiding, not a big scary one, but not a baby either. I quietly paddled on the far side of the creek blessed to be in this thriving,  peaceful habitat.

Kayaking Cracker Creek
Kayaking Cracker Creek

Seeing the alligator once more flooded me with youthful flash backs. My brothers and I each selected stuffed taxidermy gators from a roadside stand, at the time our prized mementos from the trip. Today the highway is generally void of those kitschy Old Florida tourist stops. Currently travelers find yogurt emporiums and gift shops flaunting designer beach bags, over-sized towels and, of course, souvenir tees. Sorry, no more free Florida orange juice stands.

Returning to a cherished place after so many years is often fraught with anxiety and fear of  disappointment. But, I wasn’t disenchanted. Mother Nature continues to bless Daytona Beach with the gift of sunshine and sand. And the city today offers visitors much more variety: historic homes, a lighthouse,  museums and golf,  just to name a few. I found returning to my past lead to unexpected surprise and I will surely revisit again.  Next time, I won’t wait fifty years.

The World Famous Daytona Beach
The World Famous Daytona Beach
Beach at Sunrise
Beach at Sunrise