Although the signature attraction is 13 miles of white-sand beaches, a visitor can be captivated in New Smyrna Beach without putting toes in the water.
Art galleries, museums, antiques shops, history and an array of laid-back bars and eateries compete for attention with the waves that have made this cozy destination a surfing mecca in southern Volusia County. Compared with the more publicized spring-break magnets of Daytona Beach to the north and Cocoa Beach to the south, New Smyrna Beach remains an unspoiled gem as quiet as the morning sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean.
Flagler Avenue fun
Off the sand, the road to uncovering New Smyrna Beach's charms runs along the city's Waterfront Loop. A 6-mile rectangular route that encompasses historic business districts on Flagler Avenue and Canal Street, the Loop bends east again on State Road 44, over the South Causeway to the beachside.
On pedestrian-friendly Flagler Avenue, the diversions range from touristy souvenir shops to homegrown businesses that cater to the whimsical and the practical.
Inside the cramped confines of Nichols Surf Shop, a beachside fixture since 1969, the rows of fiberglass boards meld with the aroma of suntan lotion and surf wax to make the hidden surfer's soul emerge from even the most inept landlubber. How else would a middle-age journalist unable to keep his balance on a skateboard find himself considering the purchase of a $200 foam-topped longboard?
Not that such commitment is required.
Nichols rents surfboards, body boards, wet suits, kayaks, small sailboats, bikes and other sporting equipment and offers free delivery in the New Smyrna Beach area. Surfing lessons also are available.
No instruction is needed to lounge on the deck next door at Nichols Surf Cafe. Housed in a 1910 bungalow built from a Sears mail-order kit, the cafe is touted by the owners as "the best porch for people-watching" on Flagler Avenue. If all that observation sparks an appetite, the menu ranges from breakfast bagels to sandwiches, and there's also an espresso bar.
An array of independent galleries caters to those with an eye for art.
Fernandez Gallery, a block north of Flagler on Cooper Street, features the photography of Gabriel Fernandez, whose vibrant color images chronicle people and places from Costa Rica to the dunes of nearby Canaveral National Seashore. The tiny shop, where one of the owner's chocolate Labs helped with customer service, also features jewelry made of seeds, coconuts, bamboo, gourds, coffee beans, orange peels and butterfly wings.
A few blocks west on Flagler, the aptly named Jonah's Cat's Art Gallery showcases the fanciful work of painter Samuel Ruder. His colorful, almost Seussian drawings, often depict his life at home with his wife and nearly two dozen felines.
Head west on Flagler Avenue on the North Causeway over the Intracoastal Waterway to find the Canal Street Historic District, another pedestrian-friendly business district featuring historic architecture, tree-lined sidewalks and an assortment of less-beachy antiques shops, galleries and attractions, including the New Smyrna Museum of History.
The four-block business district serves as the backdrop for a busy schedule of events that includes a weekly farmers market, monthly Art Stroll/Gallery Walk and Car Show, and annual celebrations such as the seasonal Christmas on Canal Street and the Art Fiesta, an outdoor festival that has been a fixture for more than 50 years.
The New Smyrna Beach Antique Mall (newsmyrnaantiques.com) features roughly a dozen rooms laden with vintage toys, sports memorabilia, antique furniture, musical instruments and other treasures. Temptations range from a 1960s catcher's mitt, reasonably priced at $25, to an intricately hand-carved chess set from Chile, at more than 10 times that much.
The mainland also is home to the Atlantic Center for the Arts, a nonprofit, multidisciplinary artist residency center nestled in a 69-acre ecological preserve off U.S. Highway 1. The center presents a yearlong slate of performances, discussions and art exhibits by its visiting Master Artists, a roster that includes writers, poets, musicians, filmmakers and visual artists. Most of the events are free.
When the Loop turns toward the beachside again, the South Causeway leads to the scenic vistas and salty air of South Atlantic Avenue (State Road A1A). It's only 7 miles until the road dead-ends at the gates to Canaveral National Seashore and its unspoiled stretches of sand and surf at the southern tip of New Smyrna Beach.
The park has more than 1,000 plant species and 310 bird species, including Southern bald eagle and Florida scrub-jay. Loggerhead, green and leatherback sea turtles also have been spotted.
On the city's north end, there's yet another unspoiled stretch of beach at Smyrna Dunes Park, a pet-friendly, 73-acre park that features a 2-mile boardwalk with views of the Indian River, Ponce Inlet — and its historic lighthouse — and the Atlantic Ocean. Admission at both parks is $5.
Distinctive dining and drinking
When it's time for a break from all that exploration, New Smyrna Beach offers impressive options for dinner and drinks.
Less than a mile from the Canaveral Seashore entrance on South Atlantic Avenue, J.B.'s Fish Camp is a quintessential Old Florida spot for steamed oysters, fried grouper sandwiches and beer on an outdoor deck where dolphin sightings aren't uncommon.
Another good spot to watch dolphins and the occasional passing sailboat is The Grille at Riverview, where dinner entrees such as yellowfin tuna are served at tables with a sunset view of the Indian River.
There are plenty of memorable casual spots, too.
At the Taco Shack, a blink-and-you-miss-it lunch spot on North Dixie Freeway, dishes such as the Beachin' Burrito and Gnarly Nachos are delivered to shaded wooden tables in the whimsically decorated surfers' hangout.
More adventurous visitors might enjoy the unvarnished vibe of The Last Resort, just north on U.S. 1 in Port Orange. The bar is infamous for its connection with serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was arrested there in 1991. Her mug shot watches over the bar, still a favorite during annual Bike Week celebrations.
If you'd rather look at the ocean, there's an earthy waterfront vibe at Toni & Joe's Patio, just south of the beachfront boardwalk on Flagler Avenue. It's only a short walk from the bar to The Breakers, where award-winning burgers always go well with a beer.
Call it a cheeseburger in paradise.
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New Smyrna Beach
What: A beach destination nestled along the Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean in southern Volusia County, New Smyrna Beach offers a quieter alternative to the more party-oriented vibe of Daytona Beach to the north and Cocoa Beach to the south. By car, Orlando is about 60 miles to the southwest.
Getting there: By car, take the State Road 44 exit off Interstate 4 or I-95 and head east. For air passengers, the city is close to Daytona International Airport (a 25-minute drive), Orlando International Airport (1-hour drive) and Orlando-Sanford International Airport (40-minute drive).
Accommodations and activities: New Smyrna Beach offers 13 miles of white-sand beach, and driving is allowed on much of it. Traffic-free zones are north of the jetty of Smyrna Dunes Park and from 27th Avenue South to the Volusia County line. Accommodations include most chain hotels, condominiums and independently owned inns.