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Daytona Beach’s Wild Side

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Daytona Beach, Fla., has long been a favorite destination for RVers, especially snowbirds looking to escape harsh Northern winters. The area is famous for miles of pristine, white beach, NASCAR and the Daytona International Speedway, and big motorcycle events such as Bike Week. What many RVers don’t know is that Daytona Beach has a wonderful natural side, a wild side, that’ll have you leaving your camp chair behind.

We traveled to Daytona Beach in November, a “shoulder” season when the weather is comfortably warm, the crowds thin and the prices rock bottom. We started our wild side adventures at Tomoka State Park, a lagoon-filled park just north of Daytona Beach where we met Wynn Hamilton, a botanist, naturalist, environmentalist, and owner of Nature Adventures of Daytona, a guiding service offering canoe and kayak tours of the Tomoka River.

Driving through the canopy of live oaks into Tomoka State Park lets you know you’re in a world far removed from the glitz and glitter of beachside souvenir shops and restaurants. The area is a slice of “real Florida,” with waterways, wetlands, animals and plants, including the oldest stands of live oak in the state. And with 100 large, private, back-in camping sites and one pull-through site, all equipped with electricity and water, and a central dump station, the park is a great place for RVers, especially those interested in the park’s nature trails, canoe routes or boat ramp.

Our group of eight headed out in slender, one-person kayaks. I’d never kayaked before, but with Hamilton’s expert instruction, I was soon effortlessly negotiating the waterway where great blue herons, bald eagles, cormorants and belted kingfishers swooped overhead. While alligators live in these waters, we saw only a few aquatic turtles that dove from their sun perches
at our approach.

Ninety minutes later, we refueled at Tomoka Outpost camp store with hot coffee and delicious biscuits and gravy (at $1.99, a bargain). Newlywed store owners Dani and John even entertained us with a song accompanied by ukulele and guitar.

Since kayaking was so serene, we decided to kick it up a notch with some jet skiing. We headed to Ponce Inlet, a protected waterway that leads to the Atlantic Ocean just south of Daytona Beach. After some basic instruction, including avoiding running aground on shallow sandbars, we roared off. At first, the choppy, salty water and the big ski’s turn-on-a-dime steering befuddled me and I started and stopped frequently. Then, one of my companions who’d quickly gotten the hang of it sped by, his hair flying and his machine furiously spitting water. He looked like he was having tons of fun. I steeled myself against the saltwater spray and hit the throttle. Forty, 44, 50, 62, 74 miles per hour. I flew over the water, hitting the choppy waves with such force that the jet ski felt like riding a bucking bronco.

By the time our hour was up, my eyes stung from saltwater and my arms ached from the pounding waves, but I felt exhilarated and couldn’t stop laughing.

We headed back to Seaside Park Campground, the area’s only beachside RV park. This sunny, 45-site park can accommodate large motorhomes, offers full hookups, and it’s on one of the prettiest stretches of white-sand beaches in Florida. It has a shower house and, nextdoor at the Coral Sands Beach Resort, RV guests can use the pool and laundry facilities. While there was plenty of room at this and the many other RV parks in the area during our stay, events such as the Daytona 500 and Bike Week completely fill the parks and advance reservations are highly recommended.


Pancakes, Manatees, Alligators

The following day, we drove an hour to De Leon Springs State Park, a day-use area that offers ample parking for motor­homes. The park also features the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House, a unique breakfast experience where you cook your own pancakes on griddles embedded in the tables. Fifty years ago, gristmill worker Peter Schwarze came up with a delicious pancake batter and decided to let people cook their own pancakes. Today, daughter Patty carries on the tradition and it’s a hit, with guests often waiting three hours or more for the chance to flip their own.

After breakfast, we boarded a pontoon boat for a 50-minute aqua safari of Spring Garden Lake and Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge with Captain Frank and his first mate, Ruth. The Springs are reputed to be Juan Ponce de León’s famous Fountain of Youth. The fountain, of course, is a myth, but the sulfur-rich “healing waters” have long attracted bathers and swimmers.

The 72-degree spring water also attracts manatees – gentle aquatic giants that look like a cross between a seal and a whale, reputed to be the mermaids of ancient mariner legends. Our flat-bottomed boat was barely away from the dock when we spotted our first manatee, a cream-colored youngster. Then we saw another and another. To our right, a mother manatee and her baby swam side by side. These graceful creatures moved in slow motion – diving, surfacing, seemingly undisturbed by our presence. Their gentle nature and leisurely pace make them frequent victims of motor­boat propellers and they’re endangered. Seeing five of them swimming around our boat was a privilege.

Captain Frank motored the boat into the channel, where cypress trees stand up to their knees in the tannin-stained brown water, and giant live oaks dripping with Spanish moss line the banks. “This is old Florida, the real Florida,” he said. “This is what Florida looked like when the Spanish conquistadors came here 500 years ago. Today, only 15 percent is left.”

The water is shallow – no more than 1 to 3 feet deep – but it’s rich with life. Fishermen pull out bass, crappie, blue gill and mullet. Tri-colored herons stand stock-still as they hunt for tiny fish. Cormorants perch in the oak trees, their big wings outstretched drying in the sun.

Captain Frank, who spent 27 years as a sea captain, is a self-taught naturalist. He knows and loves these waters. He pointed to an 8-foot alligator sunning herself along the bank. “She can’t incubate her own eggs, so she’ll lay them in a pile of compost,” he told us. “The eggs closest to the heat source will be born male; those farthest from the heat become female. It works out at about 50 percent male, 50 percent female.”

All too soon, we motored back to the dock, being careful to avoid the manatees still lazing in the warm spring water.

We stayed at Nova Family Campground, one of the prettiest and most peaceful parks in the area. The 450-site RV park, filled with mature Spanish moss-draped oaks, is one of the few shady parks in central Florida. It offers full hookups, a store, a shower house and a nice pool area.

“You’ll see lots of local wildlife in this park,” reservationist Mary Steele told us. “We regularly see raccoons, armadillo, egrets, hawks and more.”


Up, Up and Away

For our last day in Daytona Beach, we took a horseback ride at Shenandoah Riding Stables, one of the few rental stables left in the area. It’s a ramshackle place, but the horses are in good condition and our wrangler, Buck, quickly matched each person’s riding ability with the right horse. We headed out single file across pastures filled with cattle. This, too, is old Florida and an aspect of life that’s quickly disappearing.

We passed through a gate and entered a thick forest of palmetto, palms, oaks and invasive species such as wild aster. The majority of plants in Florida today are introduced non-natives. We got to a spot on the trail the horses knew well and my horse, Cowboy, quivered with excitement. “OK, let’s go,” Buck called out, urging his roan into a fast gallop. Our horses followed suit, thundering down the sandy track.

Buck pulled up, waiting for the riders who preferred a slower pace. Two more times, we galloped through the forest before heading back to the stable. As I dismounted, muscles in my thighs protested loudly.

After lunch, we returned to Ponce Inlet for our final adventures. Ponce Inlet is home to Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum, an impressive red monolith that has guided seamen for 124 years. I clambered up the 203 steps of the circular stairway. It left me breathless and so did the view.

Then it was on to parasailing. We motor­ed out of the inlet into the ocean. Crew members sent a parachute with a giant yellow smiley face billowing behind the boat. Then they outfitted two of us in harnesses and life jackets and clipped us to a rather flimsy looking board. As they played out the rope, we lifted up effortlessly. At first, we hovered 20 feet or so above the water. Once the rope stopped, we climbed steadily – 50 feet, 100 feet, 200 feet, 400 feet. It was amazingly quiet and peaceful and I felt unafraid (amazing for someone fearful of heights). The views were spectacular:  broad expanses of beach, high-rise hotels, boats buzzing in the water below us.

The boat made a couple of large, lazy arcs as we floated effortlessly above. Soon the crew reeled in the rope and we began losing altitude. As easily as we rose, we floated down. Before we knew it, we stood on the deck, grinning and giving each other high-fives.

As we packed up the motorhome for home, we reflected on our adventures. We know we’ll be back to Daytona Beach soon – exploring even more of its wild side.


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