Daytona Beach’s Homes of Splendor, Speed and Spirit – Florida

Daytona Beach, Florida, is known nationally as hosting the famed Daytona 500. It has been a hotspot for young hedonistic Spring Breakers to kick up their heels at "The World's Most Famous Beach", (actually) called that because from 1903-36, all land and speed records were set there. Yet this place is more than somewhere to go to get a nice tan, or to escape winter climates. The Daytona Beach area is full of wonderful and historic homes, tasty restaurants and bountiful culture. It is made up of seven of the surrounding communities that run next to each other, including Ormond Beach (connected to Daytona Beach), Port Orange and Ponce Inlet.

I'm going to write about some "homey" themes of this Florida coastal city area that will make visitors feel right at home!

An old Boy Scout uniform at The Casements' third floor, purported to be haunted!
An old Boy Scout uniform at The Casements' third
floor, purported to be haunted!

The Casements: A Floridian Haunt of Big Oil
John D. Rockefeller was upset when he found out that the Ormond Hotel overcharged him because he was super rich. That was circa 1918. He graced the Daytona Beach area during winters for his health. This revelation did not set well with him.

His solution was to buy the grand home across the street from the hotel, that had been owned by a well-off preacher. The three-story domicile (originally built in 1912, but expanded to 14 rooms and 14 bathrooms by Rockefeller), features casement-style windows, (where The Casements designation comes from). The home is full of many of the Rockefeller family furnishings, pictures and other artifacts, including a ledger used by the billionaire. The home is on a 70-acre site, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a cultural center for artists and arts lovers.

The Casements isn't only a shrine to Rockefeller. On the third floor are two museums. One honors the Boy Scouts of America, featuring numerous patches, flags and period uniforms, with a heavy focus on Floridian troops. The other museum showcases Hungarian folk art and costumes.

Is the former home of Rockefeller haunted? According to one tour guide, back in 2003, a sound of a crashing mirror or glass object rang through the house from the third floor. No one was upstairs. The object that made the apparent noise was never found. Rockefeller died at The Casements at 97 years of age on May 23, 1937.

The Casements: 25 Riverside Dr., Ormond Beach, FL 32176. 386-676-3216. Free Admission. You don't even need a Rockefeller dime to visit!

Eat Where A Former President Crafted Walking Canes!
The Cellar is the former winter stay of controversial President, Warren G. Harding. It was built as a Victorian home in 1907 by his father-in-law, who opposed his daughter marrying Harding. This Italian restaurant gets its name from the fact that it's located downstairs. President Harding used to make walking canes there. The rest of the rooms serve as private residencies.

Start out with a wide selection of antipasti dishes, many of them come with vinaigrette dressings. I chose the Brescola con Insalata di Palma, features lightly smoked-tasting flavored beef slices, and a light salad made up of heart of palm, fennel (root) and greens.

For your main course, The Cellar offers a generous selection of homemade pasta entrees (like ribbon pasta with roasted rabbit sauce called Fettuccine con Ragi di Coniglio), chicken and meat dishes. I tried the Pollo Alla Lombardia, a tasty and tender stuffed chicken breast full of ricotta cheese and spinach, roasted in a mushroom sauce. It came with vegetables that were agreeable to my palate. There is a $4.00 charge to share a plate.

The Cellar has homemade delights, including several varieties of imported Italian gelato. The chocolate desserts are not sweet, European in tradition, more focused on the bitter chocolate taste rather than the sweetness aspect. An example is the Cioccolatissimo, a baby chocolate cake with a molten chocolate center, a chocolate sauce and crème Anglaise. I tasted more of the flour than the sugar!

There is a good selection of red and white wines, beer, including a couple of non-alcohol, like Beck's.

The waiters are friendly, they do not rush you through dinner. Mealtime experience is done at a leisurely pace. When it's busy, there is quite a festive atmosphere because of the low ceilings.

Get Some Direction at the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse!
Lighthouses have helped many a ship navigate safely. This certainly applies to the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse, 12 miles south of Daytona Beach. It began in November 1887 as a guiding light for those ships navigating between St. Augustine and Cape Canaveral. The lighthouse reigns as Florida's tallest, rising 175 feet into the air. It is only one of ten current National Historic Landmark Lighthouses in the U.S. Once called the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse, the name of the inlet was changed to honor the first European to explore Florida back in the sixteenth century, and to attract tourists.

Florida's tallest lighthouse is at Ponce de Leon Inlet.
Florida's tallest lighthouse is at Ponce de
Leon Inlet.

John Mann is a tour guide who knows his lighthouses. A retired school administrator from New Jersey, his wife (a retired teacher) helped him get hooked on lighthouses. She "dragged" him on some lighthouse tours around New Jersey for school field trips. Since the late 1980's, Mr. Mann has visited close to 300 lighthouses in the U.S. and Canada! He wears a 1930's all-year white uniform as he gives tours of the grounds, which includes the three restored homes of lighthouse keepers, as well as six other lighthouse complex buildings. The Principal Lighthouse Keeper's house is a comprehensive museum with numerous displays, artifacts, even interactive exhibits where you can hear various sounds of the sea like tugboat horns and crashing waves. A special exhibit on the history and workings of lighthouse beacons and Fresnel lighthouse lenses is housed in another building on the grounds.

The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is one of the best restored and maintained lighthouse complexes in the nation. The walkways are made up of the 15 million bricks that were shipped from Maryland and New York to construct the buildings. Mann easily walks the 203 steps to the top of the lighthouse viewing area. Today, only during special events can people climb another ten steps to get a look-see of the lighhouse's 1933 Fresnel Lens, which shines out 18 miles into the Atlantic.

Lighthouse keeping was a lonely and a good living for those who took part. Back in 1896, a keeper made as much as $760.00 per year, with free housing. Outside the complex, visitors can partake in a coastal woodland nature walk and view a cat cemetery that honors the lighthouse kitties who gave companionship to the keepers! I asked Mann if the complex was haunted. He answered with a resounding "No"! The only real tragedy took place earlier in the twentieth century when a lighthouse keeper had a fatal heart attack while climbing the stairs to the top of the lighthouse. His ghost has never been reported to scare people!

Roy A. Barnes at the Daytona International Speedway
Roy A. Barnes at the Daytona International Speedway

Daytona is home to NASCAR
No visit to Daytona Beach is complete without a stop to Daytona USA. It's on the same grounds as the 480-acre Daytona International Speedway. It features an interactive museum full of race car-themed history exhibits and simulated racing attractions. One attraction is a roller-coaster-like ride called "Dream Laps", where you can experience what it's like to race in the Daytona 500. The admission price includes a tour of the race track. If you happen to visit during practice runs or time trials, the sounds of the speeding race cars is piercing, especially outside the stands. It can hold close to 168,000 fans, not including the infield crowds, another 80,000 during The 500!

Along with your visit to Daytona USA, stop near the former home of Daytona's great racing track on the beach for some excellent racing atmosphere and great food – Racing's North Turn Beach Bar & Grille.

This super fan of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. sits at the eating shrine of the racing star at Racing's North Turn.
This super fan of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. sits at the eating
shrine of the racing star at Racing's North Turn.

I'm not a big race car fan, but Racing's North Turn is very atmospheric, north of the old Daytona racing course's North Turn, where many car and motorcycle races took place before the International Speedway began hosting the Daytona 500 in 1959. There is something special about coming into a place that's full of Daytona racing memorabilia, made up of a lot of autographed pictures of past and present racing stars, in both motorcycle and auto racing. Did you know that fans of such icons as Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett can come in and sit at booths that honor these stars of NASCAR? The racers themselves have eaten in these same booths!

The food comes in all star-sized portions! Start out with one of th appetizers, under the "Ignite Your Engines" section. It includes such treats as chili-topped Ultimate Nachos. I ate spicy Home Style Chili from a large bowl, left a mild aftertaste. The chili came with tasty garlic bread topped with mozzarella cheese – a winner! They even had a non-alcoholic beer from Holland, called Buckler. It had a smooth, light citrus taste. There was also a good selection of fresh seafood and Back Stretch Sandwiches. Desserts came under "The Finish Line", included cakes and pie.

Roy's Travel Tips:

The former home of a great advocate for equal rights, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, is being renovated and won't be open again to the public until early 2008. You can still visit her gravesite at the college she founded (Bethune-Cookman), outside the house at 640 Mary McLeod Bethune Blvd., Daytona Beach, Florida.

My temporary home was at The Cove on Ormond Beach.This resort features 112 villas emanating from a two-tower structure – living rooms, dining areas, full kitchens, washer/dryer, a private balcony. You can get some excellent rates during off-peak times. Each room contains a flat television and comfortable beds. WIFI access is available 24 hours (and longer) blocks for a charge. The exercise area is free to use, near the main lobby.

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