Monday, March 17, 2008

Big Beach, Big Fun

It's America's beach: broad, welcoming and full of possibilities.

Daytona Beach stretches for 23 miles along Florida's emerald-green Atlantic coast. Along the way, simple pleasures abound. Wake up to warm ocean breezes and the smell of salt air. Stroll barefoot across cream-colored sand and stop to build fantasy castles by the sea. Chase the waves, scan the horizon for dolphins, sip coffee on an oceanfront deck.

Of course, once you've had your fill of quiet pleasures, the beach - and the surrounding area - offers a teeming catch of entertainment options. Whether you're looking for history, eco-tours, live stage shows, music, pampering, elegant dining or high-speed thrills, you'll find it in friendly, accessible Daytona Beach.

While Daytona Beach is world-famous for some of its billboard events - NASCAR's Daytona 500, Bike Week, Speedweeks, Biketoberfest, Florida International Festival - those festive occasions account for only a few weeks of the year. The rest of the time, Daytona's diverse attractions and surprisingly affordable accommodations make it a prime getaway spot for families and couples. What constitutes affordable? A spacious, oceanfront room with balcony in one of the beach's top hotels commands a mere $119 a night in the early fall.

With a beachside room as your base of operations, it's an easy stroll to the historic Daytona Beach Pier, with its high-flying gondolas and stilt-raised restaurant. Midway-style attractions, including a high-flying bungee ride, are a few yards from the pier. Or, cool off with movies, shopping and casual dining at the Ocean Walk Shoppes at the Art Deco-inspired Ocean Walk Village.

As seductive as Daytona's beach-scene can be, venture off the sand long enough to explore around town. A quick ride over the many bridges crossing the Halifax River brings visitors to the city's charming Riverfront Marketplace, an old-fashioned downtown with storefronts boasting antiques, jewelry, clothing, artworks and other collectibles. Don't miss the chocolate factory tour (with samples) at Angell & Phelps, a small candy shop that's a Daytona Beach landmark. Then walk a few a few paces south to the Halifax Historical Society Museum. Housed in a high-ceilinged turn-of-the-century bank building, the museum is part formal record, part community attic. It houses 20,000 photos and prints from Daytona's earliest times, as well as kitschy mementos from old department stores and other businesses. It also traces Daytona's beginnings as a racing mecca - going back to the days when stock cars raced on hard-packed beach -with photos as well as memorabilia from drivers and local residents.

The museum makes a good prelude to an afternoon at Daytona USA, the interactive showcase for all things NASCAR, located just next to the Daytona International Speedway. Aside from exhibits that tout the high-level engineering involved in racing, Daytona USA lets visitors man a pit stop and drive a 200-mph vehicle in a racing simulator.

Back at the beach, you can get a different sort of thrill, and a gulls-eye view of the town, by scheduling a parasail ride through one of the area's vendors. Or, if floating above the waves on a parachute isn't your thing, get a high-rise view of the ocean by climbing 203 steps to the top of the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, the tallest in Florida.

Catch your breath, and grab a cold drink and a platter of crunchy fried shrimp at the funky, beach-casual, nautical-themed Ocean Deck. Or, for a more exotic supper and a performance like nothing you've ever seen, make a reservation for the Hawaiian Luau Dinner Show at Teauila's Hawaii Dinner Theater.

Before leaving Daytona Beach, indulge yourself in a massage or relaxing body treatment at the 15,000-square-foot Ocean Waters Spa at The Plaza Resort & Spa. If you've been very good about using sun block, try one of the spa's stand up tanning beds. You'll be the envy of everyone back home.

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