Award winning travel writer, Jeannine Williamson, experiences an eventful break in Florida.
With the sea breeze blowing towards me, and the bicycle tyres digging into the wet shoreline left by the receding tide, there was certainly no danger of exceeding the 10mph speed limit. In fact some of the early morning walkers seemed to be going faster than me, but at least I had plenty of time to take in the expansive Atlantic seascape as I pedalled slowly onwards.
Driving and cycling along a five-mile stretch of compacted sand on New Smyrna’s 13-mile stretch of pristine beach is a popular pastime and not the sole preserve of its famous seaside cousin Daytona Beach, as I’d initially thought. Picking up a hire bike from one of the rental shops turned out to be among the novel and often unique attractions waiting to be discovered in this lesser-known corner of Florida.
The thrill of Orlando’s theme parks is the main attraction for many of the one million-plus UK visitors that flock to Florida annually. Even though Mickey and his friends were only an hour or so away it felt as if I was in a completely different world, and one dominated by natural rather than man-made attractions. A holiday destination in its own right, or the total antidote after time spent at busy theme parks and large cities, New Smyrna Beach holds the distinction of being Florida’s second oldest city, although some historians believe it pre-dates St Augustine.
Originally inhabited by Timucuan Native Americans, Scottish physician and entrepreneur Dr Andrew Turnbull settled New Smyrna in 1768 and named it after his wife’s birthplace Smyrna, Asia Minor, what is now Izmir, Turkey.
A 60-minute drive from Orlando International Airport brought us to our hotel on Flagler Avenue, the hub of the downtown area situated on the west side of the Indian River and its network of lagoons.
The comfortable Hilton New Smyrna Beach, sympathetically built to blend in with the historic surroundings, is the perfect base for exploring and shops, galleries, restaurants and, of course, the beach, are within easy walking distance (for UK visitors used to American cities where the car is king, this is a place that’s really geared up for walkers and cyclists with proper pavements and wide cycle lanes). After seeing us poring over maps and leaflets at breakfast the helpful receptionist came up with some personal recommendations for things to see and do, and was delighted when we reported back after a successful day’s sightseeing.
The first morning we walked across Coronado Beach Bridge to the coastal barrier island forming the other half of New Smyrna Beach. Here the focal point is Canal Street, another delightful road filled with small businesses. For anyone who’s had their fill of America’s ubiquitous fast food outlets, the majority of restaurants are family-owned and individually run. We stopped for coffee at the Little Drug Company, which was like stepping back in time. Opened in 1920, and now housed in an old theatre building, it includes a soda fountain where customers perch on retro chrome stools or sit in booths to tuck into inexpensive US favourites such as biscuits and gravy, or chocolate-topped sundaes, peanut fudge ice cream and root beer floats.
Indian River, also known as the Intracoastal Waterway, is North America’s most biologically diverse estuary with more than 4,000 species of plants and animals including sea turtles, manatees, bottle nose dolphins and a wide variety of sea birds. There are several ways to explore this wildlife wonderland, including the Marine Discover Center’s two-hour boat tour. Within minutes of setting out we pass small islands overflowing with pelicans perched in trees. Shortly afterwards we the first of several dolphins carve a graceful line past dense mangroves, some with calves alongside mimicking the mother’s movements. The captain explains how they have adapted to living in the shallow river system, with a constant supply of fish delivered by the tides, rather than head out to sea.
Next day we paddle our own canoe, or to be technically correct kayak, with Paddleboard NSB run by friendly and experienced couple Erik and Laurel Lumbert who offer self-led or guided tours. Although they have an impressive success rate for introducing complete beginners to stand-up paddleboarding we went for the more relaxing option, following in the gentle wake of Laurel’s paddleboard. Soon we were rewarded by the close-up sight of more dolphins.
That night we had another memorable meal at Norwood’s Eatery, topped off quite literally by a nightcap in its amazing wooden treehouse bar.
When it’s time to explore further afield there is Dune Park where two miles of elevated boardwalks look across to 175ft Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, the tallest in Florida. We drove there the next day, pausing to meet Nelly, the latest in the line of black and white cats that have lived there for more than 100 years, before scaling 203 steps to the top.
At the southernmost end of New Smyrna Beach is 58,000-acre Canaveral National Seashore, the longest expanse of undeveloped shore on Florida’s east coast. A fantastic way to see the coastline and combine it with an out-of-this-world experience is to visit Kennedy Space Center, an hour’s drive from New Smyrna. More compact and less tiring than big theme parks, it’s easy to spend a day amongst awe-inspiring attractions including rockets, a new Heroes & Legends exhibit, talks by astronauts, the exhilarating Atlantis shuttle virtual ride and bus tours past launch pads and towering NASA buildings situated in the wilderness landscape.
New Smyrna Beach really is a breath of fresh air, even for travellers who are seasoned visitors to the US.
My America Holiday offers a seven-night fly drive holiday from £899pp, based on two sharing. The price includes B&B accommodation at the Hampton by Hilton New Smyrna Beach, return flights from Gatwick with Virgin Atlantic and compact car hire from Alamo with fully inclusive rental insurance. For further information call 020 8290 9751 or visit www.myamericaholiday.co.uk
For more information on New Smyrna Beach visit www.nsbfla.com
This first appeared in the February etc Magazine, pick up your copy now,