A Perfect Daytona Beach Weekend: No Spring Breakers, No NASCAR

Yes, the beach is great, and yes the race cars are cool — you can’t ignore those. But there are many other reasons to visit Daytona Beach. (Photo: iStock)

By Charles McCool / McCool Travel

While visions of NASCAR dance in your head, I must tell you there are tons of things to do in Daytona Beach all year round. During my early October visit, when the weather is not too muggy and is getting cooler, I experienced adventure, culture, nature, shopping, and such fantastic food.

Daytona Beach is home of the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) so you know there are plenty of golfing opportunities — for guys, too! Daytona Beach calls itself the “Festival Capital of Florida” so be assured some event will coincide with your visit.

I was among a group of travel writers recently hosted for three days and nights in Daytona Beach, Florida, by the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau — but this list of eight great things to do in Daytona Beach is my curated view based on multiple visits.

1. The Beach

About half of the beach is open to vehicles at low tide. (Photo: Charles McCool)

C’mon, “beach” is an important part of “Daytona Beach” and I must start there. In fact, Daytona calls itself the “World’s Most Famous Beach” and “the original American Beach.” The super wide shoreline makes Daytona ideal for walking, running, playing, or whatever beach activity floats your boat. Eleven of the 23 miles of Daytona beaches are vehicle friendly — but only at low tide.

In fact, Daytona’s beaches are famous as the birthplace of auto racing. Speaking of which…

2. Speed

The race is on! (Photo: Daytona International Speedway)

The origin of stock car racing dates back before Prohibition in the 1930s when moonshine bootleggers tried to outrun law enforcement. Naturally, drivers challenged each other for ultimate supremacy, and races were held on the firm sand of Daytona Beach — the actual beach. Bill France watched tens of thousands of people attend these races and founded (and sanctioned) NASCAR in 1948. Daytona International Speedway was built in 1959 and is currently undergoing a massive $400 million renovation (a project called DAYTONA Rising) to modernize the customer experience. During our tour, I learned that DAYTONA Rising used one percent of the annual steel produced in USA.

Do you feel the need for speed? Daytona International Speedway offers some cool behind-the-scenes tours. (Photo: Charles McCool)

October is a great time to visit the speedway because cars are practicing (for Rolex 24 and other races), tours are not crowded, and gift shop merchandise is discounted; I saw one leather jacket marked discounted from $1,200 to $749.

Related: A Crazy New Kind of Amazing Race: International Car Rallies

3. Skydive

Get your adrenaline fix in the air. (Photo: Charles McCool)

If terrestrial racing is too pedestrian for you, consider taking to the sky. Skydive DeLand is perhaps the world’s foremost authority on skydiving. It was founded in 1982 but people have been skydiving at this site (about 30 minutes from Daytona Beach) since 1958. Mike Johnston, General Manager of Skydive DeLand, told us that “this is probably the busiest skydive facility on the world.” Not only is DeLand skydiving central but it spurred a host of nearby related industries, including parachute research, development, and skydiving safety. “1/3 to ½ of all parachutes are made here in DeLand,” Mike said. Because of research, testing, and training, “injuries are rare and fatalities are virtually unheard of.” Skydive DeLand averages 85,000 jumps a year and Mike said that skydiving is “safer than driving here.”

During my visit, I saw the Russian national skydiving team practicing their moves on-ground. (Photo: Charles McCool)

4. Key Lime Goodies

You don’t have to trek all the way to Key West for the best key lime desserts. (Photo: Charles McCool)

Now wait a cotton-picking moment, you must be saying to yourself. Key lime stuff is found in Key West. Has McCool’s internal compass gone cuckoo? Well, if you were planning to drive all the way down A1A to stock up on key lime goodies, I have really great news — I just saved you 15 hours of driving. Kermit’s Key Lime Shoppe, in DeLand, makes all of the company’s non-pie products; sauces, jellies, cookies, etc., are made here and shipped to the Key West stores.

The best kind of emergency response unit. (Photo: Charles McCool)

This location also makes plenty of pie products for carryout and mail order. Their Belgian-dark-chocolate-covered key lime pie slice might be the world’s best dessert. Pardon me while I wipe the drool from my keyboard. McCool Travel tip: prices here are 20 percent less than at Key West locations, and they only charge actual shipping rates (no markup).

Related: The Best Beaches in America

5. Museums

See the original Coca-Cola bottle design at the Root family wing of the Museum of Arts and Sciences. (Photo: Charles McCool)

You might think, like I did, “ho hum, a museum in a beach area. Who will visit that?” Let me tell you, I was blown away by the museums I visited in Daytona Beach. The Museum of Arts and Sciences is a Smithsonian Institution affiliate. Its Root family wing has the largest collection of Coca-Cola items outside of Georgia (the Root family made its fortune after winning the patent for the original Coca-Cola bottle). The museum’s visible storage room is fascinating. It has a hands-on children’s museum, a planetarium, and a magnificent onsite 90-acre preserve.

The Florida weather collection at the Brown Museum of Art is fascinating. (Photo: Charles McCool)

The nearby Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art recently opened and contains a massive collection of Florida art, and you can save money by buying a combo ticket to this museum and MOAS. I absolutely loved the Florida weather collection. Looking at so much art increases the appetite, and conveniently the Brown Art Museum has a Honey Baked Ham cafe, where the Cuban sandwich is really good. Save money by buying a combo ticket for MOAS and the Brown Art Museum.

For more local art, head to the Hub, in New Smyrna Beach. It’s a gathering spot for creative people, where you can view (and buy) original local artwork of all types, attend classes, listen to lectures, and do yoga.

6. History

Jackie Robinson integrated pro baseball right here in Daytona Beach. (Photo: Charles McCool)

Jackie Robinson first played integrated professional baseball here, and the stadium was aptly renamed Jackie Robinson Park (currently home to Daytona Tortugas minor league baseball team and the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats). I loved the nearby vintage Daytona Beach boardwalk, even though I did not play games, ride rides, or have ice cream (gasp!).

The original Daytona Beach pier was constructed of palm logs, and parts of it still feels like it’s from a different time, like the Jantzen diving girl sign. (Photo: Charles McCool)

The boardwalk has sidewalk tiles outlining speed-history milestones, leading to the historic Coquina Clock Tower and the Daytona 200 motorcycle monument. Two of the few surviving wooden piers along the U.S. East Coast are on the pier, which dates from 1925 and reopened two and a half years ago after an extensive renovation. Sunglow Pier is a community gathering place, for breakfast at Crabby Joes and fishing further out the pier. Downtown DeLand restored many historic buildings and retains an Old Florida charm. DeLand is the oldest preserved MainStreet community in Florida.

Related: 10 Beaches That Should Be On Your Bucket List

7. Dining and Drinking

Main course during my oceanfront meal: a double rainbow! (Photo: Charles McCool)

Naturally, fresh seafood is featured at Daytona Beach area restaurants. I enjoy dining next to water, whether oceanfront or on the Intracoastal Waterway. Our first dinner, at Azure, began with a double rainbow but the food tasted equally gorgeous. The grilled black grouper was the best thing I ate on my trip, even better than the DIY s’mores dessert. Another oceanfront dinner was at Racing’s North Turn, known for the historic, ahem, north turn of the original racing track. I recommend their rum drinks and fish tacos. Happy hour drink specials are prevalent but I was impressed with the $5 daily specials at The Shores Resort—Tuesday’s special, for instance, was margarita or tequila sunrise. The Grille at Riverview (nice crab cake) in New Smyrna Beach and Aunt Catfish’s (great salad bar) in Port Orange are two fun places on the Intracoastal.

8. Nature

Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve, in Port Orange, has hiking, biking, and boating. (Photo: Charles McCool)

There are three multi-use trails in and near Daytona Beach: Spring to Spring, East Central Regional, and Bike the Beach (remember, 23 miles) — along with miles of nature walks and hiking, biking, and horse trails. Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve is well worth a pit stop from US1 south of Daytona Beach. Canoeing, kayaking, SUPing, and other boating activities are readily accessible here and along miles of surrounding waterways.

Dang it, I did not even get to shopping, five colleges, deep-sea fishing, and so much more.

Have you been to Daytona Beach? What suggestions do you have?

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