Andy Mossack waxes his board and dons his shades to visit Florida’s home of surfing in this guide to New Smyrna Beach.
Florida’s central east coast would probably not be on anyone’s list as one of America’s top surfing centres. Or would it? Little did I know Surfer magazine voted New Smyrna Beach, just south of Daytona, 90 minutes drive from Kissimmee and 60 minutes from Orlando, as one of the “Best Surf Towns in America” and National Geographic magazine included it in its “World’s Top 20 Surf Towns.”
High praise indeed for this laid-back beach town that makes no apologies for being what it is; a small friendly community of surfer dudes, artisans and sun lovers which just happens to enjoy seventeen miles of white sandy beachfront and world-class surf. In this guide to New Smyrna Beach we’ll find out what makes it special.
But perhaps even more surprisingly, New Smyrna Beach has a distinguished history as Florida’s second-oldest settlement dating back to 1768 and the largest single attempt at British colonization in the New World. This was all down to Scottish physician Andrew Turnbull who together with his wife Maria and 1,300 Menorcan and Greek volunteer settlers arrived to work at his plantation to grow hemp, sugarcane, and indigo.
He named the settlement New Smyrna after Maria’s birthplace in Smyrna, Turkey. Sadly, it didn’t work out as disease and native American raids put an end to the project and the 600 or so survivors ended up walking seventy miles north to St Augustine where their descendants remain.
I heard an interesting factoid it was Menorcan descendants who launched the area’s burgeoning shrimp industry through their knowledge of building traditional Menorcan shallow-drafted fishing boats. Who knew?
Fortunately for surfers, artists and sun lovers, New Smyrna eventually flourished, despite three further changes of ownership, into something of the hidden gem it is today.
I managed to absorb much of NSBs colourful past on a visit to the town’s small Museum of History, wherein lies many artefacts and clues to the few remaining remnants of times gone by. Turnbull’s abandoned colony is just one aspect, there are exhibits on the railroad and the sugar mills and also a separate section on the area’s surfing history.
Kayaking at New Smyrna Beach
Even older than its settled past, is the stunning Indian River Lagoon system on the doorstep, one of the most biodiverse estuaries in the Northern Hemisphere and home to more than 4,300 species of plants and animals including manatee, dolphin turtle and my own personal favourites pelican, osprey, and heron. The local Marine Discovery Centre offers self-paddle kayaks on two-hour tours led by certified Florida Master Naturalists, and I jumped at the chance to explore this serene backwater close up.
With Bob Hazleton leading and Jim Engelbrecht (He’s the guy from the 18th century in the pic above) taking up the rear, we paddled out along the river, past lush mangroves, while Bob chatted about the area and how the Marine Discovery Centre is working hard at conservation to improve habitats, water quality and marine life.
Just as he was talking about rescuing injured animals, we spotted a distressed turtle who was seemingly unable to dive. “Probably bubble bottom,” said Bob “air gets under the shell into the back of their body, and they can’t dive,” Jim jumped out and managed to get it into his boat and took it to the local animal hospital.
Further on we encountered two bottle-nose dolphins who hung out near us for a while and then found an ibis trapped on a discarded fishing line. This time it was Bob who clambered out and managed to free it and send it on its way.
What a ride that turned out to be. While I can’t guarantee that every trip will be that dramatic, kayaking is a glorious opportunity to see nature and wildlife almost within touching distance.
New Smyrna Beach has two distinct historical downtowns on either side of the Intracoastal waterway connected by what they call the waterfront loop. On one side, there is Canal Street lined with restaurants, boutiques, artisan coffee and art galleries, while over on the other, Flagler Avenue is a five-block boulevard that runs straight down to the beach. Plenty of shopping, fresh seafood and steaks, art and history here. Surprisingly too, you can drive your car straight onto the beach.
Speaking of art and galleries, The Hub on Canal is well worth popping into while exploring Canal Street. It’s a non-profit organisation that on one hand offers local artists a communal space to showcase their work, while on the other, providing outreach services for members of the community to experience and learn about music, art and culture.
Hiking at New Smyrna Beach
I couldn’t leave this guide to New Smyrna Beach without including some salty sea air down at Smyrna Dunes Park. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour circular boardwalk hike over the gorgeous dunes with side trails leading to the beach if you want to stop off. Fantastic ocean views lead to the Canaveral National Seashore to the south and Daytona to the north.
New Smyrna Beach is a lovely way to decompress after all that theme park excitement in Orlando, and it’s just an hour away from the Kennedy Space Centre.
Then again, if you’re a surfer dude, you’ll fit right in here anyway.
All images (C) NSB except kayaking, historic museum and Night Swan exterior (C) Andy Mossack
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For more information on this guide to New Smyrna Beach, Florida, please go to Visit NSB.
Where to eat in New Smyrna Beach
Something of an institution on Flagler Avenue just steps from the beachfront. Open all day from 11 am to 2 am offering fresh seafood and plenty of other beach dining options. Live music, outside deck, great atmosphere and terrific service.
Also on Flagler, a coffee shop by day, dining venue by night, Third Wave is definitely one of the hottest spots in town. Lovely garden setting and an open kitchen so you can see all the chef action. The menu is a fusion of Mediterranean influences and the southern charm of Florida. The owners are serious about sustainability and work with local seafood suppliers and regional farms. Plenty of sharing options and an extensive wine list. Reservations recommended.
Perched right on Smyrna Marina, you can’t get any closer to the sea without getting your feet wet. Daily seafood specials and excellent steaks. Not dressy, and it feels a bit like a sports bar, with perhaps a few lively party tables, but the food offering is very good. Live music in the evenings too.
Where to stay in New Smyrna Beach
A perfect place to stay in this guide to New Smyrna Beach. Outside of downtown, the beachfront is lined with condos and hotels, however, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at the Night Swan. Owned and run by Nathalie and David, it’s an historic Inn made up of three authentic houses dating back to 1910, right on the Intracoastal waterway and just a few minutes’ walk from Canal Street. Fantastic views of the Intracoastal and the Inn has its own dock if you fancy sitting and watching the boats or spotting for manatees and dolphins.
There’s a lovely porch area with rocking chairs and a very comfortable public lounge. Breakfast is in the main house and there’s a cooked special every day. I have to confess Nathalie’s just-baked blueberry scones are well worth the nightly rate on their own.
I stayed at the Cygnet House property in the Manatee Suite, which had a large king bedroom and a separate enclosed porch looking out to the water. There’s also a shared lobby area for complimentary tea and coffee and ice cream and cornets!
Rooms at Night Swan Intracoastal Bed and Breakfast start from $160 per room, per night, including breakfast.
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