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.
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.
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.