Travel: See a different side of Florida
With golden-hued sands, wild dolphins and independent art galleries, New Smyrna Beach is a world away from Florida’s theme parks
As our boat nudges through the still water reflecting the bright Florida sunshine, the surface is suddenly broken by a sleek, grey shape. It’s closely mirrored by another. A few feet away is a wild dolphin with a calf following her every move.
The guide explains how dolphins have adapted to living in the shallow lagoons of the Indian River off New Smyrna Beach, choosing never to join their counterparts at sea.
With a daily supply of fish washed in by the tide, and tranquil waterways flanked by mangroves, I don’t blame them. I’m already feeling very at home in this delightful part of a state better-known for the thrill of its theme parks than its natural attractions.
Founded in 1768 by Scottish physician Dr Andrew Turnbull – and Florida’s second-oldest city – life moves at a gentle pace in New Smyrna Beach. White-knuckle rides are replaced by boat trips, water sports and activities that complement the beautiful surroundings and 13-mile beach. Any creatures you spot will be the real deal, not cartoon characters.
Although just a 60-minute drive from Orlando International Airport, the region is a world away from the conventional view of the Sunshine State, American fast-food joints and giant shopping malls. On the first morning, we felt like time travellers when we stopped for coffee in Canal Street’s Little Drug Co, a classic 50s-style soda fountain inside an old theatre building.
The area around Canal
Street is linked by a bridge to Flagler Avenue, the heart of the downtown area in New Smyrna Beach. It was here we checked into the Hampton by Hilton hotel, a comfortable, central base surrounded by shops, restaurants and bars, and only a short walk from the beach.
Fortified by the buffet breakfast, and with a sheaf of sightseeing suggestions provided by the friendly receptionist, we head out the next day to try a ‘must do’
New Smyrna Beach pursuit. A five-mile stretch of compacted sand is open to cars and cyclists; complete with ‘road
signs’ and a 10mph speed limit. Leaving the hire car behind we decided to try pedal power, and hired bikes from a rental shop. It’s great fun, and for anyone who loves cycling the city is very bike-friendly. Aside from the beach, the quiet roads have wide cycle lanes.
After the memorable dolphin discovery trip on Indian River, which is North America’s most biologically diverse estuary with more than 4,000 species of plants, animals and marine life, we return to see it from a different perspective; this time on a guided tour with Paddleboard NSB. Charming owners Erik and
Laurel reckon anyone can get to grips with stand-up paddleboarding, but wanting to concentrate on the surroundings rather than staying upright we opted to paddle a kayak instead. Again, we were soon rewarded with close-up views of dolphins.
All that exercise works up an appetite, but you don’t need to look far for somewhere good to eat. It’s really refreshing to find the majority of restaurants are run by local chefs and families who pride themselves in using fresh, seasonal and local ingredients. The surroundings are often equally novel, with Norwood’s Eatery boasting a fantastic treehouse bar. On the outskirts of the town is an iconic Dairy Queen, opened in 1953 and selling the chain’s trademark soft ice cream and 99 cent hot dogs. The retro food outlet was among several New Smyrna Beach locations featured in the George Clooney film Tomorrowland. Another institution, around 20 minutes out of town, is Aunt Catfish’s in Port Orange, famous for cinnamon rolls served on the side with savoury dishes.
Similarly, the majority of shops in New Smyrna
Beach are individually owned, and include many galleries showcasing the work of talented local artists. Celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Atlantic Center for the Arts was founded in 1977 by local artist, sculptor and visionary Doris Leeper. The main centre, providing residencies for visiting artists is set in a lush 11-acre forest a short drive out of town. The free gallery is open to the public and features a stunning permanent portrait exhibition by Jack Mitchell. The ACA also has galleries and studios in central New Smyrna Beach with a changing programme of visual and performance art by visiting artists.
Our last day is spent at Dunes Park, where a two-mile elevated boardwalk circles 250 acres of sand dunes and beach at the northern tip of New Smyrna Beach. As we walk to the shore we’re lucky enough to spot a large gopher tortoise – the only tortoise native to North America. On the way back, all that remains are its tracks in the soft sand. Which just goes to show; you don’t necessarily need Mickey Mouse and his friends to enjoy a magical experience in Florida.
Dolphins in the Indian River Browse the many shops in Flagler Avenue Nature lovers will love New Smyrna Beach
Part of Dunes Park’s two-mile boardwalk You’re never far away from the beach