A serene hideaway in the Sunshine State
We sit down in a booth and peruse the laminated menu which includes milk shakes, sundaes, root beer floats and ice cream with flavours such as peanut butter fudge, butter pecan, rainbow sherbet and the intriguing moose tracks. Other customers perch on chrome-trimmed bar stools around the counter as waitresses bustle past taking orders.
The retro scene at the Little Drug Company’s soda fountain resembles a film set, and given that we’re in Florida it could easily be a theme park restaurant with ‘cast members’ serving up a slice of nostalgic Americana. However, this is the real deal and Volusia County’s oldest independent pharmacy, which dates back to the 1920s and is housed in a former theatre, encapsulates the character of New Smyrna Beach.
Situated on a 13-mile sweep of unspoilt Atlantic coast, Florida’s second oldest city after St Augustine is only an hour’s drive from Orlando International Airport and 75 miles from Mickey Mouse and his chums, yet it’s a world apart. Thrills come courtesy of its natural attractions and any creatures you encounter in the rich wildlife habitat won’t be cartoon characters.
This little-known hideaway, settled by Scottish physician and entrepreneur Dr Andrew Turnbull in 1768, oozes small town charm and is a holiday destination in its own right, or the perfect place to take a well-earned breather after a family trip to the theme parks. Although we’d decided to spend the whole week in one place, we did spend a day at Kennedy Space Center on the way. Not as overwhelming as the big theme parks, it’s an amazing attraction with rockets, immersive and interactive exhibits, the chance to meet astronauts and an included coach tour taking in NASA buildings, launch pads and wild, uninhabited coastline that’s part of the expansive Canaveral National Seashore.
We check into the Hampton Inn New Smyrna Beach, located in the heart of historic Flagler Avenue, the downtown area on the west side of Indian River. The low-rise hotel is sympathetically designed to complement surrounding pastel coloured and clapboard buildings. Enticing small shops, restaurants and bars are on the doorstep and the beach is a short stroll at the end of the street.
Coronado Beach Bridge leads to the coastal barrier island and other side of New Smyrna Beach, where the hub is Canal Street. It’s around a half hour walk if you prefer to leave the hire car behind, and one of the great things about New Smyrna Beach is that it’s easy to get around on foot or bike, the latter available from one of the many rental stores in town. Unlike many American cities, where driving is a necessity, there are pavements and wide cycle lanes.
In fact, you need to get on your bike to enjoy one of the ‘must do’ activities. Like better-known Daytona Beach, further along the coast, New Smyrna Beach also has a stretch of compacted sand where you can drive or cycle. Peddling on sand still wet from the receding tide proved to be challenging, and there was no danger of getting near, let alone exceeding, the 10mph speed limit that’s primarily for cars. But the enforced breaks provided plenty of time to take in the pristine shoreline and seascape, and afterwards we decided to take the easy option and pedal back along the quiet road parallel to the beach.
Another unmissable attraction, and in this case a very relaxing one, is a boat trip through the lagoons of Indian River. With more than 4,000 species of plants, animals and marine life, including dolphins, manatees, sea turtles and birds, it is North America’s most biologically diverse estuary. The Marine Discovery Center offers a variety of boat trips and opted for a two-hour tour. We passed small islands with trees teeming with pelicans, often amusingly divided between the older birds on one side and youngsters on the other. Minutes later we were rewarded with the memorable sight of a dolphin, the first of many, with a youngster at her side.
If you’re feeling energetic you can explore this natural paradise on an escorted tour or self-rental Paddleboard NSB. Although our delightful guide Laurel assured us that anyone can get the hang of paddleboarding, we erred on the side of caution and followed in her gentle wake in a kayak. It meant we could concentrate on the surroundings, rather than staying upright, and once again we marvelled at the spectacle of dolphins surfacing just a few feet away.
Back on dry land, New Smyrna Beach has a host of cultural attraction and is particularly arty. In Canal Street is the Hub on Canal, an airy labyrinth of studios with paintings, sculpture, photography, jewellery and clothes. And it’s well worth the short drive out of town to the Atlantic Center for the Arts, founded by visionary local artist Doris Leeper and celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Nestled in secluded woodland, it hosts residencies for mid-career artists led by some of the world’s most distinguished contemporary names in music, visual, literary and performing arts. Visitors might be lucky to catch a show or performance during their stay, and they are always welcome to visit the free permanent exhibition of extraordinarily perceptive portraits by photographer Jack Mitchell.
When it’s time to eat, most restaurants are privately owned and offer another refreshing change from big name chains. One day we tucked into gourmet sandwiches at Canal Street’s Yellow Dog Eats and another time watched dolphins play in the river beside Outriggers Tiki Bar and Grille, where the menu includes fish bought from local fishermen, adult ice cream made with stout and ‘extra strength’ cocktails limited to two per customer. If you drive out to take in the heritage and view from the landmark 175ft Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, the tallest in Florida, call in at Aunt Catfish’s in Port Orange. It’s a popular spot, so you might have to wait a bit to enjoy the trademark sweet cinnamon rolls served on the side of savoury dishes.
On the last day we stop by at the vintage Dairy Queen drive-in dating back to 1953 and more recently featured in the George Clooney film Tomorrowland. The advertising slogan reads: “the curl on our soft serve is like a secret smile”. We are grinning much more openly as we leave this little corner of the Sunshine State – a side of Florida not many Brits know about.
American Sky offers a seven-night fly drive holiday from £919 per person, based on two sharing a room at the Hampton by Hilton New Smyrna Beach. The price includes B&B accommodation, flights and economy car hire. To book or for more information call 01342 889340.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends American Sky