Head to Daytona Beach to not experience the beach like I did

I recently visited Daytona Beach for the first time. Though I stayed at a beachfront hotel — Hard Rock Hotel Daytona Beach — I only stepped onto the sands next to the hotel three times. Not because it was too cold. In fact, it was unseasonably warm in late February and people were surfing and swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. I had a balcony room overlooking the beach so I saw it a lot, smelled the ocean air, and heard the waves crashing constantly when I was in my room.

The main reason I didn't spend more time on the beach at my beachfront hotel was that there was so much non-beach stuff to experience in this place that has "Beach" in its name. There's even a Beach Street downtown, which runs along a riverfront, not a beach.

My expectation was that Daytona Beach would be like Panama City Beach (where I grew up vacationing) but with a racetrack. Sure, there are the condo highrises, a heavily-trafficked main drag, and that famous speedway, but this part of Flordia has more history. You won't find any architectural relics from the Gilded Age or the Art Deco era in PCB. The paradox of Daytona Beach is that you must go away from the beach to encounter some of the best of it. To me, the Halifax River, Ponce Inlet, and the nearby state parks of Tomoka, Bulow Creek, and Blue Spring are nice spots to take in the coastal vibe that this part of the Sunshine State has to offer beyond the sand and surf.

Here are some “best of” pics from my camera roll. 

My first stop after checking in to the Hard Rock was checking out the sunset and having a seafood dinner at Our Deck Down Under. Located on the eastern shore of the wide Halifax River, the "down under" in the name refers to its location underneath the Dunlawton Bridge. Spots along the river are the best places to take in the sunset views in eastward-facing Daytona Beach. You're more likely to see dolphins on the tidal waterways than in the ocean because they spend more time there. And, yes, dolphins were spotted during dinner (not pictured here). 


The view from my balcony at the Hard Rock. 


The view inside my room at the Hard Rock. They offered me a guitar menu for the room and I chose the classic standard Fender Telecaster, one of the greatest guitars in the world. Perhaps this was a reason I didn't spend more time on the beach. 


One of the three times in three days I walked onto to the beach at the Hard Rock. 


This is the memorial to Brownie, the town dog of Daytona Beach in the 1940s and ‘50s. He had his own bank account at the bank across the street (Beach Street) that’s now a history museum. Even today, Brownie has a website. That must've been one damn good dog. The historic Jackie Robinson Ballpark is in the background, one of the oldest professional ballparks still in use, and where Jackie Robinson first stepped onto a field as a professional ball player in an integrated Major League spring training game. 


North of Brownie's grave and the International Speedway Boulevard Bridge (seen here in the background), this is the view from the Riverfront Esplanade, a pedestrian greenway and botanical garden running for over a mile across from Beach Street. The esplanade even has its own island. Notice the baby carriage at the right. Momma and her baby are in a sitting area just out of frame. 


Blue Spring State Park is where manatees come during winter to hang out around the 72-degree spring. Since the weather was so warm, I only saw one manatee (not pictured here). Even when there aren't any manatees it's worth a visit for views like this from multiple overlooks and to learn the history of Old Florida. In the days of steamship riverboats, this was a major stop along the St. Johns River. 


If I had to pick a favorite spot in the Daytona Beach area it would be Ponce Inlet with its historic lighthouse and the adjacent Lighthouse Point Park. The lighthouse is the second tallest in the U.S. and you can climb to the top for great views like this … 


If you look closely at the blue building at the right in the above pic you'll see a mini fake lighthouse. That is a bar and grill called Hidden Treasures. When I walked out of the front door I took a side-by-side perspective shot of the two towers that makes the fake tiny one look a little bit taller … 


Behind the lighthouse complex, there's a nature trail through a coastal hammock. It contains a graveyard of all the lighthouse cats through the years who served as pest control and companions to the lighthouse keepers.


After touring the lighthouse, I took an eco-cruise with Ponce Inlet Watersports. Many dolphins were spotted in the tidal waterways and the cruise ended with a short stop on the island seen in the background of the above pic from the top of the lighthouse. I took this pic of the lighthouse from the island, looking back at where I had been standing a couple of hours before.


This is Ponce Inlet proper with its tiny stretch of quiet beach. On the other side of the jetty is the much wider Atlantic beach, a hotspot for surfing in the region due to the huge breaks found there. That tower is a lifeguard stand. Here's a link to a Facebook video I took up on the jetty that shows the waves and the surfers: www.facebook.com/blake.guthrie/videos/747816046889586.


The centuries-old Fairchild Oak in Bulow Creek State Park. This is only half the tree. It spreads out much wider than it is high with some of its limbs dipping down into the earth and back up. It's been standing much longer than the United States has existed. This was the last thing I saw before heading to the Daytona Beach International Airport (such a breeze compared to Hartsfield — even the TSA agents seemed happy). I was so early for my flight that I got to ponder over every piece of public artwork on display.

One of the last things I saw before heading through security was a painting of one of the last things I had seen in real life: Fairchild Oak by Harriet Blum …


— Blake Guthrie