Taking the Right Turn to New Smyrna Beach
A friend recently moved to this beach town in central east Florida so it was a perfect excuse for a weekend visit. I’d stopped here briefly a while back on a road trip tracking Henry Flagler’s train route, but it was unimpressive until I realized I’d made a turn leading to a generic stretch of condominiums and missed the charming town altogether. This time, after an easy four-hour drive up I-95, I headed east on State Road 44 to the beach and turned left on Peninsula. After a few lushly shaded cottage-lined blocks north, I arrived at Flagler Ave., on the beach side of the town, a cluster of restaurants, galleries and shops.
One of Florida’s oldest cities, New Smyrna Beach was founded in 1768 by a Scottish physician and entrepreneur, Dr. Andrew Turnbull, who set up a colony along the west bank of the Indian River. Disease and dissension drove the colonists to St. Augustine, and the land was reclaimed by the Spanish in 1784, eventually entering the United States as the territory of Florida in 1821. Sugar plantations were set up in the first half of the 19th century, but few survived the Second Seminole War. The arrival of Flagler’s railroad in 1892 boosted the town’s economy, and tourist, citrus and fishing industries.
Back on the Beach
This is drive-on-the-beach territory, which has always seemed a little unnerving to me. But they also have protected turtle nests and require low lighting and no vehicles after 7pm for turtle protection, so perhaps there’s room for both. The beachfront Breakers restaurant, one of the original buildings on historic Flagler Ave., is the local hangout for burgers, blackened fish sandwiches and beers, perfect for a lazy beach afternoon.
I arrived in time for the monthly Wine Walks, held the fourth Saturday. A $25 ticket gets you tastes of 100 different wines at many of the bars, restaurants and shops. Dinner was grilled prawns in seagrape sauce, listed on the chalkboard outside Garden Fusion Restaurant, and those seagrapes were superlocal – the waiter says they picked them in the parking lot next to their herb garden. Another choice is the veg-friendly Cafe Verde. Among the accommodations is the Riverview Hotel & Spa, which began as a hunting and fishing lodge in 1885 and was converted into a hotel for the tourism boom. Today, the three-story wood building has been lovingly renovated and the rooms are airy and comfortable. Their Bloody Mary Bar on Sundays is a local favorite. Pick up the H2O Water Taxi, which runs on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Touring NSB and Ponce Inlet
Get a bike to explore the Saturday farmers market on the west side of the river, tour the historic district and stop at the charming NSB Museum of History. We took the Water Taxi Express for a leisurely ride on the Indian River, where river dolphins danced in front of the pontoon boat. The boat does a slow loop from Ponce Inlet to New Smyrna Beach, allowing for time to get off for lunch and explore before reboarding two hours later. At the lighthouse at Ponce Inlet you can walk up 203 steps, worth it for the incredible view. A short stroll through downtown Ponce past a spooky cemetery and a couple of Florida Cracker-style houses from the 1880s brings you to Down the Hatch Restaurant for the catch of the day – triggerfish and cobia when we were there. The return trip goes past the Smyrna Dunes Park (accessible from NSB), where the dog beach on the west side was filled with happy dogs. There are boardwalks and gopher tortoises, sea pickles (purslane) and dunes, which have slowly been disappearing with each storm – and rattlesnakes, so pay attention. (By the way, New Smyrna Beach is the shark bite capital of the world.)
Safely back at The Riverview Hotel, take advantage of their free bikes and explore Canal Avenue, an easy ride from Flagler Ave. The Canal Street Craft Beer Walk is the first Saturday of every month, along with a gallery walk. Get your growler filled with Shark Attack IPA at New Smyrna Beach Brewing Company or the Half Wall Beer House. Opening soon is the farm-to-table restaurant Riverpark Terrace, across from the Brannon Civic Center.
The next morning I revisited that wrong turn and drove south on A1A toward Canaveral National Seashore, part of the Atlantic Flyway. In November and April festivals celebrate birds, while June and July are loggerhead turtle months. This is a very natural park, with dunes, nature trails, alligators and no beach vendors, so after a tranquil few hours here, a stop at JB’s Fish Camp hits the spot for a cold beer and fresh oysters and rock shrimp. I ran out of time to visit Kennedy Center, so that’s a good reason to go back soon.
A Year of Events in New Smyrna Beach
Plan your trip around one of the many food and drink events. For a full list, visit flaglerave.com.
January – Annual Chowder Contest
February – Gumbo Festival and Cook Off
March – Great Potato Feast
April – New Smyrna Beach Food Festival
August – New Smyrna Beach Shrimp & Seafood Festival
October – Chili Cook-Off and Craft Beer Walk
Florida Men Write Books About Sunshine State
Make your Florida road trips more meaningful (and amusing). Craig Pittman’s Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country explores how the state’s many contradictions fit together to make this the most interesting – and a highly influential – state. Hometown hero Dave Barry talks about Cassadaga, Key West and much more in his new Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland. Both are appearing at the Miami Book Fair Sat., Nov. 19. Visit miamibookfair.com.