When you hear the words "Daytona Beach," you may think of die-hard car-racing fans and party-hearty spring breakers—and you’d be partly right. But this Florida getaway also offers family-friendly beaches, history and even culture.
CIVIL RIGHTS STRONGHOLD
The Daytona Beach area led the way in Florida’s Civil Rights movement, and you'll find tributes to the pioneers all over town. Back in 1904, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls—quite an accomplishment for the fifteenth child of former slaves. The desks were wooden crates, and the pen ink was made from elderberry juice. The former home of Bethune, a dear friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, is now a museum: the Mary McLeod Bethune Home. The 1914 house sits where her five-student school was once located—on the campus of what has become Bethune-Cookman University.
One of Bethune's houseguests was baseball great Jackie Robinson, the first black athlete to play in the major league. Barred from lodging at the team hotel in Daytona Beach during his first spring training, he stayed across town with the hospitable Bethune. In his honor, the field was named the Jackie Robinson Ballpark; a bronze statue recalls its namesake. Other sites include the Howard Thurman Home, birthplace of the Civil Rights pioneer; the Black Heritage Museum in New Smyrna Beach, with replicas of items invented by African-Americans; and the African American Museum of the Arts in DeLand, 23 miles inland from Daytona Beach.
AMERICANA, GIANT SLOTHS & MORE
You'll find a mishmash of collections in the Museum of Arts and Sciences, which is why the indoor/outdoor space is so much fun. Its storerooms are stuffed with so many items unrelated to its current exhibitions that MOAS, as it's known, built a new wing in 2011 to show them. The Helene B. Roberson Visible Storage Building—clever name, no?—displays, among other things, European furniture and artifacts from the Napoleon Collection. In the meantime, you can see artworks owned by former Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista, who lived here luxuriously in the 1940s; antique Coca-Cola machines; and an American furniture collection. Did I mention the artworks from China and Africa? The planetarium? The skeleton of a ridiculously large prehistoric sloth? The surrounding 90-acre nature preserve? Set aside a whole day.
Unless you're looking for something really exotic—say, black or red sand—you can pretty much find whatever surf-and-sun experience you want in the greater Daytona Beach area. First, consider the car question: Do you want to be able to drive right onto the beach so you don't have to carry your chairs, towels and coolers more than a few feet? You can do that on a total of 17 miles of hard-packed sand, including stretches near Daytona’s International Speedway Boulevard. (Due to several recent incidents, local lawmakers are reconsidering beach driving; because of the long tradition, it’s a heated topic.) If you’d feel more relaxed in an auto-free zone, check out the other side of International Speedway Boulevard (just turn left at the entrance, instead of right) or the Standish entrance in Ormond-by-the-Sea.
Once you've made that decision, ask more questions: Bustling beach or quiet strand? Beachside restaurant, or something away from the crowds? If you choose the former, try Chases on the Beach, which serves a great burger, no shoes required. For the latter, the community of Wilbur-by-the-Sea is a great choice. If you find a spot to stay right on the beach, you’ll be close to boat tours, parasailing, fishing excursions, kayaking adventures and just about any other water-based activity you'd like to try.
Mary McLeod Bethune Home: 640 Mary McLeod Bethune Blvd.; 386-255-1401 ext. 372
Howard Thurman Home: 614 Whitehall St.; 386-258-7514
Black Heritage Museum in New Smyrna Beach: 314 N. Duss St.; 386-478-1934
African American Museum of the Arts: 325 S. Clara Ave.; 386-736-4004
Museum of Arts and Sciences: 352 S. Nova Rd.; 386-255-0285
Chases on the Beach: 3401 S. Atlantic Ave., New Smyrna; 386-423-8787