Every year Daytona is flooded by rowdy tourists for Bike Week and spring break, giving the city — best known as the home of NASCAR and the Daytona International Speedway — a tough, no-holds-barred atmosphere. Fortunately for those looking for a more soothing vacation spot, this beachside community boasts calmer cultural delights and an array of cuisines that would please even the most sophisticated palate. And don’t forget the convivial spirit; this is the home of the Jackie Robinson Ballpark, where the trailblazer played his first major league baseball game in 1946.
But back to sophistication. Take the August Seven Inn; this stately 19th-century home stands on the corner of South Peninsula Drive and Silver Beach Avenue, greeting beach-bound travellers heading eastward. Host Joseph Dirsa welcomes guests at the door of his three-storey clapboard mansion. His impressive stature — he virtually fills the doorway — may be intimidating at first, but that feeling is soon dispelled by his warm smile and friendly disposition.
The lure of any small inn is often its charming interior, where guests spend most of their time. However, it is impossible to ignore the August Seven’s impressive wraparound veranda, with seating for lounging and dining. “I can spend hours watching the world go by,” Dirsa says, noticing me gazing at the deck.
The inn features several tastefully appointed parlours, a dining room and a well-stocked pantry. Formal yet cozy, each room on the main floor makes an inviting impression. I’m especially drawn to what Dirsa calls the Tranquility Room, where two massage recliners overlook the front lawn.
Each guest room is named after a date of significance to Dirsa, from his mom’s birthday to the day he took ownership of the inn. The décor of my room, 1221, in the carriage house next door to the main house, is a mix of nautical and Hawaiian surf. The whirlpool tub in the centre of the suite provides much-needed relief after the rigours of exploring the city.
Zip-lining through the tree-top obstacle courses of urban Tuscawilla Park with Zoom Air is a full-body workout that easily fills an afternoon. Harnessed adventurers can test their aerial prowess soaring above palm trees and lush marshes with three different courses of varying difficulty.
Unlike the average Floridian beach, Dayona’s hard-packed sand makes running a breeze. It also makes Daytona the state’s only county to offer beach driving. The feature gets mixed reactions; for beach-goers looking to escape civilization, car traffic on the beach isn’t always appetizing.
Back at the August Seven Inn after a day of activity, I peruse a veritable foodie bible: an album of Daytona restaurant menus. The dog-eared state of some and the crispness of others give a sense of the local food industry’s growth and the discerning palates of Daytonians. As I flip through, I contemplate where to adjust my calorie deficit.
“Our Daytona Beach-area restaurants are in close proximity to the freshest catch, sometimes literally a minute away from the markets that serve them,” says Tonya West, of Daytona Beach’s destination marketing organization. “Ocean-inspired cuisine and the creativity of our area chefs have helped the area’s burgeoning food scene that exists alongside landmark institutions. The area is solidly becoming a memorable destination to dine.”
Dirsa doesn’t hesitate when asked where he’d go for a fine-dining experience with his partner. “The Cellar,” he says. “I’ve never had a complaint about it. Not one.” (He likes to follow it up with drinks at the Streamline, the local gay bar.) It’s no wonder. The Cellar is an elegant Italian restaurant tucked beneath the summer home of early-1920s president Warren Harding. Though the 29th American leader served a scandalous term, both in his affairs in the Oval Office and the White House bedroom, there’s no trace of impurity at The Cellar. Visitors should expect “great food matched by great service,” owner Lina Maggio says.
In a formal yet comfortable atmosphere, diners enjoy traditional Italian pasta dishes, fresh fish entrees and decadent desserts. The Cellar is the city’s only restaurant with a dress code, which means that beach-goers must head back to the inn for a costume change before dining.
As an alternative, Dancing Avocado, with its 1960s décor, is a casual space where folks can devour a delicious sandwich, burrito or salad. The restaurant uses fresh ingredients and has a variety of healthy options and vegetarian dishes. “We wanted a place where vegetarians can come but still bring their meat-eating friends,” says manager Bill Maher. The Dancer Avocado Melt is the restaurant’s bestseller. “It’s a glorified grilled cheese,” Maher says. It consists of stacked cheese, slices of avocado and homegrown sprouts. The secret ingredient is Dancer Dust, a savoury combination of 17 spices that had me thinking about licking my plate.
Not all the best spots to eat are in the city. Just north of Daytona, in Ormond Beach, Fusion 43 features a menu that never goes stale, changing every three months. “It’s like opening a new business every season,” owner Anthony Trevena says. “Currently, we’re featuring California-Caribbean, and prior to this menu it was Brazilian-Greek because I’ve spent time in Brazil and loved it. Before that, the menu was Asian-Australian, so we had wagyu beef on the menu and even kangaroo.”
Trevena says the restaurant is a reflection of himself. “I have a short attention span and am culturally diverse in my travels, so it made sense to open a fusion restaurant with a changing menu.” The restaurant is situated in a former boarding house and is surrounded by a cluster of popular restaurants, including a tiki bar and a gastropub.
With appetites satisfied, those thirsting for a smidge of culture should pay a visit to the Peabody Auditorium. Home to the Daytona Beach Symphony Society and Civic Ballet of Volusia County, it hosts a range of touring concerts and shows.