Daytona Beach is a destination in Florida that's never dull. Home of the Daytona 500 as well as the gone-wild escapades of Daytona spring break festivities, the city is wild about cars. Recent attempts to protect endangered sea turtles by restricting the long-held tradition of driving on the packed-sand beaches nearly erupted in a new civil war. The tradition was upheld – except for fragile nesting areas – and if you enjoy leaving tire tracks in the surf, this is the place for you.
Daytona International Speedway
Arguably the most popular reason to travel to Daytona Beach is the Daytona International Speedway, which has been home to the Daytona 500 since 1959, along with year-round major racing and testing events for stock cars, sports cars, motorcycles, and go-karts. The 480-acre complex holds more than 150,000 fans, and events sell out as much as a year in advance. On non-race days, you can walk out on the track and visit the pit areas at NASCAR’s World Center of Racing.
The immensely popular DAYTONA USA is like a NASCAR fan’s Disney World, with thrilling virtual-experience interactive rides. The Daytona Dream Laps ride lets you experience a few laps on the track during a simulated Daytona 500 race. In the video-sound-and-action simulation Acceleration Alley, you rev up to 200 mph in your own individual NASCAR-style vehicle. You can also experience winning the 500 in an IMAX film, see actual winning cars, participate in a pit stop, and interact with race stars via video. Every die-hard needs to try taking a stock car a few laps around the track at over 100 mph at the Richard Petty Driving Experience.
The Speedway is happily packed with motorheads during big NASCAR competitions, as well as hordes of sun-loving bikers during Bike Week in March and Biketoberfest in October.
You’ll find plenty of NASCAR and Harley-Davidson t-shirts along Main Street Pier, which is being redeveloped into Ocean Walk Village, a more upscale area of shops, entertainment, and resort facilities. You can also shop beneath the palms on Beach Street, Daytona's original riverfront commercial district on the mainland side overlooking the Halifax River. This wide charming boulevard features decorative wrought iron and brickwork.
Museum of Arts and Sciences
A world away from the motor gladiators of the speedway, you can savor the fine art the the Museum of Arts and Sciences, home to the private art collection of former Cuban dictator Batista. Included is what is said to be the only exiting portrait of Eva ("Evita") Perón completed while she was alive. Other unique exhibits include the largest collection of African Ashante gold ornaments in the U.S.; two private railroad cars; the mold for the original Coca-Cola bottle; and the skeleton of a 130,000-year-old, 13-foot-tall giant sloth.
Halifax Historical Museum
This 1912 neoclassical former bank building’s architectural features include murals and a stained glass ceiling. The museum’s collection includes historical artifacts from colonial days under the Spanish and British, as well as U.S. presidential possessions. It is perhaps most famous for its model car collection, and an annual exhibit coincides with Race Week in January.
Ponce de León Inlet Lighthouse & Museum
Built in the 1880s, this 175-foot National Historic Landmark is the second tallest lighthouse in the United States. The site features Victorian buildings, an old tugboat, and films of early auto races on the beach. The surrounding 52-acre Lighthouse Point Park features swimming, picnicking, hiking trails, and fishing, and is home to raccoons, possums, skunks, armadillos, shore birds and birds of prey.
From May through October, Daytona beaches host an unusual Daytona Beach vacation visitor - the sea turtle. For thousands of years, these magnificent animals have gathered here annually, coming up from the surf at night to lay their eggs in nests dug into the dry sand, then returning to the sea. Then, two months later, about a hundred turtles hatchlings emerge from each of these nests and crawl back to the ocean. The government has taken steps to protect these gentle creatures and the fragile dune nesting area. Because bright lights can confuse the tiny hatchlings and cause them to stray onto busy highways, beachfront lighting at night is restricted.
Top image: chenines (flickr)