Gorgeous coastlines are just one reason to visit St. Pete Beach, Pensacola Beach and New Smyrna Beach, where funky vibes and friendly locals are par for the course; gathering spots for fresh sea- food and cool cocktails sit on the edge of the sand, while shopping and pool- side lounging await just blocks from the water.
NEW SMYRNA BEACH
I’m walking on the hard-packed sand, with a gusty salt breeze in my face. Tiny terns race the shore- line, and the surfer dudes maneuvering through
the windy swell and foam are mesmerizing. This
is New Smyrna Beach, where the surf scene is world-famous; quality surf is a given just about
265 days of the year here. Spanning a little over 30 square miles, the quiet coastal barrier island tucked between Daytona Beach and the Kennedy Space Center is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Intracoastal Waterway, the Indian River as well as the Mosquito Lagoon (where anglers catch giant redfish). It’s the nation’s second-oldest city (St. Augustine, about one hour north, is No. 1), and it’s got some surprising history, with ties to smugglers and big-time Chicago gangster Al Capone, whose brick house still stands.
I pick up my beach pace as I turn the key in the ocean-side gate at my rental condo. Located on South Atlantic Avenue, it’s a primo spot of real estate along New Smyrna’s 13-mile stretch of sandy shore. My trusty map guides me to Flagler Avenue, the main entertainment drag, where I find bars, restau- rants and a smattering of art galleries and boutiques, including Friki Tiki, where tropical sarongs tempt. Flagler Avenue has a relaxed Key West mood, sans crowds. I’m astonished to find a beach access ramp for cars at the end of Flagler Avenue. It’s an “urban” beach zone, and driving and parking are permitted 15 feet seaward of the dunes or sea wall.
I hear that sunset at the Grille at Riverview is a must. It’s situated just below the tip of the Flagler Avenue North Causeway lift bridge. I get out of my car and am caught off guard by a woman leaving the Riverview Spa with cotton between her freshly painted toes. She tells me she just had a pedicure with a warm-stone foot massage and rambles on about the spa’s waterfall pool. I stop to grab a brochure.
The sky’s taking on the orangy hues of the setting sun when I reach the Reef bar at the Grille at River- view. I find a seat that’s seen better days at the blue-tiled bar; no stools are available by the open- air windows facing the Intracoastal. No matter; awesome views are within sight. Pelicans fly past in V configurations — nature’s sign that the water is rich with fish. As a guitarist croons James Taylor’s “Handyman,” I spot a Kevin Sorbo look-alike (the actor who played Hercules in the cult TV show). “Sorbo” is the captain of a megayacht in one of the slips. He chuckles when I ask for the name of his vessel. “Off the Grid!” he exclaims. “That’s much better than the last boat I captained, which was called I Love My Wife.”
With only a faint glow of last light, I depart for the new Gnarly Surf Bar & Grill. Chef Danny Veltri is a winner from the 2009 Fox culinary reality show Hell’s Kitchen. The Gnarly’s interior is surfer cool, with a bright Caribbean palette; surfoards cover the ceiling, and an island vibe predominates with tribal masks and wall lizards. A stocky fellow by the name of Donny in a Tommy Bahama-style shirt joins me at the bar. He’s retired and lives nearby on a golf course. After ordering a Florida Lager, Donny admits he’s usually at Tayton O’Brians, the Irish bar, on Friday nights. “What’s going on here?” he asks, looking around at the decor. I conclude he’s not a surfer. When my dish arrives, I turn my attention to the sautéed white shrimp in a dark rum cream sauce with fresh vanilla, coconut milk and pineapples.
Saturday, I meet up with Erik Lumbert of Paddle Board New Smyrna Beach. He tells me about the paddle trip to the disappearing island — an island that only appears during low tide as the water recedes where Ponce Inlet and New Smyrna almost meet. Then he shows me Canaveral National Seashore. For $2.50 per person, we’re in. It is the most pristine beach I’ve ever seen. There’s a dichotomy to it, with the wave-filled Atlantic on one side and the placid lagoon on the other. As an armadillo crosses the road, I’m lost in the wild beauty of the surroundings. Our last stop is JB’s Fish Camp, where dolphin and manatee sightings are near daily occurrences and fishermen arrive at 7:30 a.m. to snag redfish. Now all I need is a pole. — Susan Friedman
- Where — New Smyrna Beach is located 50 miles east of Orlando.
- Stay — Ocean Properties rentals include condos, condo hotels, beach houses and more.
- Do — Paddle Board New Smyrna Beach, Canaveral National Seashore
- Drink — Reef bar at the Grille at Riverview
- Eat — JB’s Fish Camp, Flip Flops Grill & Chill, Gnarly Surf Bar & Grill
- Shop — Flagler Avenue
- Resources — New Smyrna Beach Visitor’s Bureau