From surfers to bee sting cakes on an Old Florida beach holiday
NEW SMYRNA BEACH - During my childhood in central Florida, New Smyrna Beach was like the girl next door: so quiet we seldom noticed it, lagging our hometown of Daytona in development and renown. Today at the summit of North Bridge, one of two spans connecting the mainland and beach sides of town, I marvel at what seems a miracle of scale.
The bridge, painted Panama Rose, still raises and lowers for passing sailboats. The former bridge tender's circa 1885 house stands on the east shore, a fine inn. Ahead, Flagler Avenue unfolds in cheerful storefronts no taller than the sidewalk cabbage palms before tapering to a vanishing point of sky and sea. In this sweep of vision is all I could want in a beach holiday. A word wells up to explain the happiness I feel crossing the bridge: small.
Small was not what Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a Scottish physician, intended in 1768 when he brought Britain's largest New World contingent to found the colony named for his Greek wife's birthplace. His ambitions for a thriving seaport were eventually dashed when the indentured colonists he had recruited from Italy, Greece, and Minorca were liberated in 1777 by the governor of Florida.
I'm glad it turned out that way. The daily rhythm of rising with the sun and riding a rented fat-tire bike through sleepy North Beach has a simplifying effect. The streets with names like Due East and Surf offer 1930s bungalows and 1950s concrete-block "periwinkles" as self-catering rentals. On Flagler Avenue, the Riverview Hotel & Spa brings a complimentary breakfast to the handsomely restored guest rooms, each with a private porch overlooking the river or bougainvillea-fringed pool.
At the end of North Beach where the Indian River and Atlantic Ocean meet, Smyrna Dunes Park waits like a peaceable kingdom. Strollers, birders, fishing folk, and geocachers share the park's 232 acres overseen by manager Joe Haas, whose blue eyes sparkle as he identifies seashells and critters for visitors like me. While I swim near the river's mouth a few yards from feeding porpoises, families cast mullet nets from the jetty and surfers break right and left on the silky green waves, said to be Florida's best. Surfing is a family sport and way of life in New Smyrna, and lessons or board rentals are readily available at the Flagler Avenue surf shops.
In the park's interior, I recognize the rambling dune walkovers as the same ones running through the paintings of Boston artist Sterling Mulbry, a Turnbull descendant. Passers-by say, "Good morning," and mean it.
As if 13 miles of beach were not enough, it continues another 24 miles as Canaveral National Seashore, accessible at the end of Atlantic Avenue. Along the way, don't miss J.B.'s Fish Camp, a dockside restaurant-cum-kayak-outfitter with mouth-watering grouper and mahi mahi sandwiches. Canaveral is a Spanish name meaning place of canes, and its beaches remain much as Europeans found them 400 years ago, down to a prehistoric Surruque Indian shell mound. We have the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to thank for preserving the seashore and neighboring Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, where I count 47 alligators baking like tire treads on Biolab Road. Both lands were set aside in the Sputnik era to protect the privacy of space program engineers.
Families can easily make a day trip of Kennedy Space Center on State Road 405; however, the best place to watch a shuttle launch is on New Smyrna's own beach, where the view is unobstructed - and free. I'm in luck because a night launch is planned during my visit and the weather is bell-clear. A scant dozen of us are on the main beach at the appointed hour when the ship thunders into the sky with an explosion of light. So powerful is the propulsion that an orange gleam spreads like sunrise over the ocean. The surveillance planes turn south in unison, as if to say, "Everything A-OK, over and out," but the shuttle's glow can still be seen a half-hour later, brighter than many a star.
An exhibit of Thomas Struth's photographs finally lures me from the beach. Down an unprepossessing road off US 1, the Atlantic Center for the Arts hosts artists of all disciplines to work in the solitude of its 67-acre woods. Jim Zock, who gives me a tour of the studios - themselves works of art designed by Thompson and Rose Architects of Cambridge - remembers when the "entrance road was so rutted that locals were afraid to drive down it. I think Doc preferred it that way." "Doc," as New Smyrnans knew her, was the late painter-sculptor Doris Leeper who with money and friends such as playwright Edward Albee brought the renowned artists' community to life 30 years ago. The road is paved now, and masters like Struth share the fruits of their labors with the public at venues throughout town.
On Saturday, a farmers market brings me to the oldest part of New Smyrna Beach nestled along the river's west shore. A historic district of galleries, parks, and Old Florida homes fans out from Canal Street where Armand Bryl, a Swiss baker, sells out his inventory of bee sting cakes and purple grain, whole-wheat bread in less than an hour. Jim Pleterski, a native son, grows organic vegetables; his ancestors were among many Slovenians who migrated from the Pennsylvania mines to farmlands surrounding New Smyrna Beach. I learn that this is the area to buy oranges straight from the source, for Florida's citrus industry was seeded from oranges planted by the Spanish southwest of here.
Opposite the farmers market in a former movie theater, a soda fountain at Little Drug Co. dishes out banana splits and hand-dipped ice cream. Farther west on Canal, Neal Coates continues a family tradition at Lil' Neal's BBQ, hand-cutting his meat and smoking it "slow and low" over oak.
In a restored gingerbread church on nearby Duss Street, Mary and Jim Harrell have created a small but eloquent Black Heritage Museum, where hand tools invented by laborers, a mullet smoker, and sugar grinder evoke rural lives past. Many of the artifacts and photographs are from the Harrells' families. But once, says Mary Harrell, a woman gave her two paintings and asked her to hold onto them for her. "She didn't leave a name and she never came back." Harrell believes the paintings came from highwaymen, traveling black artists of the Depression era who sold their work along the road.
At the New Smyrna Museum of History, which grew into larger quarters on Sam Street in 2003, a husband and wife passing through the area on their sailboat tour the exhibits alongside me.
"Our goal was to be the best little museum in the state of Florida," says volunteer Harlan Hutchins, and three of us, at least, think it could be. The displays unfold first chronologically and then by period, each deeply researched and beautifully interpreted to engage even a vacationing mind. We pause before a panel describing early Colonial life in a 6-by-9-foot house roofed with palm fronds and floored with native sand: "I enjoy as sweet a sleep as can fall to the lot of a human being," writes the unknown narrator. "The morning finds me rested and strong, and I hail the rising sun with a glad heart."
On vacation in New Smyrna Beach, so do we.
Patricia Borns, a freelance writer on Amelia Island, Fla., can be reached at email@example.com.