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Heron catching shrimp

Daytona, Daytona Beach & West Volusia Outdoor & History Tour

By Florida's Original NatureCoaster™ Posted on October 24, 2019

As a Nature Coaster, I love the outdoors and history, so a visit to the amazing beaches of Daytona, coupled with the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, an airboat ride on the St. John’s River, the DeLeon Springs State Park and a fun experience cooking our own pancakes at the Sugarmill Restaurant is how I roll in this well-known area.

This long weekend started with meeting my friend, Sally White, a fellow award-winning member of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association and publisher of FloridaforFamilies.com and AdventuresofMom.com at her home in Dunellon and driving across Florida to our beachfront resort.

The first stop was Blue Springs State Park to kayak up the river to the springhead and tube a bit. I highly recommend stopping at a Florida State Park when driving distances – to get wet and to enjoy the wildlife. This is part of what makes travel fun and educational.

Blue Springs did not disappoint. Blue Spring is the largest spring on the St. Johns River, and a designated Manatee Refuge.

We were greeted by a red-shouldered hawk posing on the swing set in the Park’s small playground. As we took pictures without scaring it away, the time was getting away from us.

Red Shouldered hawk flight in Blue Spring Park. Video by Diane Bedard

We walked over to the onsite kayak outfitter and scored an hour-long rental because the run to the springhead would be off-limits to kayakers in 45 minutes.

Paddling upriver afforded a view of a lovely manatee and her calf lazing in the river being guarded by a volunteer in a kayak. The volunteer protects the manatees from being harassed by humans… and was entertaining the calf, who kept poking its nose above water and swimming near the volunteer, rolling and returning to its momma.

manatee pushing kayak
The Blue Spring Manatee Watch volunteer was pushed in her kayak by the momma manatee when we visited the park. Image by Diane Bedard,

Later we witnessed the volunteer being pushed in her kayak by the manatee mom. It is heartwarming to witness the playfulness of these wonderful marine mammals.

The spring head has a public dock, with two stair entries for swimmers and tubers. The tubes can be rented onsite for only $5 an hour so we donned our swim clothes and ventured into the 72-degree water with many others. Blue Spring gets crowded, so it is a good idea to get there early. We rented our tubes from an onsite outfitter who had the cutest store and sundries shop.

Thurby House
The Thurby House was built in 1876 for Louis Thurby, who purchased Blue Spring in 1856. Image by Diane Bedard

A short visit to the historic Thursby House, built in 1872 for Louis Thurby, who purchased Blue Spring in 1856 and ran the large home as Thursby’s Blue Spring Landing, shipping goods and tourists to Jacksonville and beyond by steamboat. Mrs. Thursby was Orange City’s first Postmistress.

Great Cuban Food in Daytona? We found it at Chica’s Cuban Cafe

We ate too much but it was so worth it to enjoy the Flan cheesecake at the end.

We got to Daytona Beach, and before checking into El Caribe Resort, we needed sustenance, so we found a real gem in Chica’s Cuban Café. Café con Leche, a half Cuban sandwich and some amazing black beans with white rice filled us up, but we had to test the Flan Cheesecake – and it was worth the expansion of stomach – well worth it.

Wilbur by the Sea

Wilbur by the Sea features this beautiful historic boathouse, where we enjoyed a buffet, calypso music and the magnificence of the sunset over the Halifax river on which it sits. Image by Diane Bedard

We visited the Wilbur by the Sea Boathouse, a beautiful structure on the banks of the Halifax river that was part of an historic community started in 1912 by Jacob Wilbur, a Massachusetts real estate dealer. Wilbur by the Sea is adjacent to a national bird sanctuary, offering lovely sunsets with flocks of egrets and herons gliding by. You can read the story of Wilbur by the Sea’s community here.

Airboat Adventure with Captain Joshua

Captain Joshua took us on a fantastic airboat ride on the St. John’s river from De Leon Springs State Park. He knows his Florida wildlife and offers gator tours and bow fishing. Image by Diane Bedard

Arising early the next morning, we journeyed to DeLeon Springs State Park for an exciting airboat ride up the Saint John’s River with Captain Joshua of Airboat & Gator Charters. Eagles soared overhead, the weather started cloudy and cleared up during our tour, affording us a sighting of a pale rainbow over miles of Florida’s aquatic wilderness. The boat was much quieter than other airboats I have toured on and Captain Joshua was a real sportsman who hunts gator and bowfishes!

De Leon Springs State Park

Back to the DeLeon State Park, whose sign reads, “Make a Date with History: Ponce de Leon Springs: Nature’s Cameraland.” The headspring is cemented in like a public swimming pool with ladders to get in and out easily, but the water is 72-degrees year-round and crystal clear like other Florida first-magnitude springs.

Got to try the Pancakes – Just sayin’

The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House is our next experience – and one of my favorites from the trip! This historic sugar mill building, with ruins out back from plantation and slavery days when sugar cane was grown and processed using mills to squeeze the juice from the cane plants.

Each table inside has a griddle or two in the center and we order all-you-can-eat pancakes for each of us. Pitchers of homemade pancake batters (both a stone-ground mixture of five different flours and an unbleached white flour) are brought to us and we pour them on and flip them over right at our table.

Sally White adds the toppings to our freshly poured pancake creations! Image by Diane Bedard.

Then we order separate toppings – everything from pecans to berries to chocolate chips – and we begin cooking our own breakfast. What fun! The restaurant has a history to it also, being owned by the Schwarze family since 1961.

Every one of us ate too much and had a blast doing it! The restaurant has a warm, homey feel about it and some nice souvenirs, books, handcrafted artwork, and jewelry available for purchase.

Ponce Inlet Lighthouse: 175-feet of Brick Awesome

The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse was next on the agenda. This National Historic Landmark came alive through the guide, Dave, who I understood to be the head of the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association. What a knowledge powerhouse! I highly recommend scheduling the time for a guided tour, based on this one.

The impressive ingenuity of the rolling bench on the porch where we assimilated for our tour caught my eye. We learned that over 1,600,000 bricks were brought to the Ponce Inlet by boat in the 1880s to construct the lighthouse, the two lighthouse keeper homes and assorted buildings for housing supplies. They were brought by boat because 1887 was before railroad service was locally available to this remote location.

“The lighthouse is one of the brick giants of the era, and the tallest lighthouse in Florida at 175 feet above sea level. The first 25 feet of the tower were built of brick from New York because southern brick holds too much moisture,” Dave explained.

It’s quite a climb to the top of the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, but we just stopped as needed on the way up the tallest lighthouse in Florida. Image by Diane Bedard

“Ships delivering the bricks often ran aground on the sandbars common to the inlet. This caused the first contractor to go broke, with thousands of bricks strewn throughout the inlet. Construction was taken over by a Maryland firm, so the bricks above 25 feet are Maryland brick,” he continued.

One of the magnificent view from atop the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse. Image by Diane Bedard

The stories are many and I found them fascinating. Climbing to the top of this engineering marvel allowed us to enjoy some gorgeous views.

Next was the Lighthouse Museum which houses Fresnel Lenses of many sizes. These simple glass lenses magnify and direct light beams, so they are seen for long distances. I find Fresnel lenses to be beautiful and was impressed to learn that the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association assists other lighthouses in restoring their Fresnel lenses. There is quite a collection here.

Fresnel lenses of many sizes and configurations are housed in the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse Museum. Image by Diane Bedard

For more information on the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, click here.

Nothing like a Daytona Beach sunrise. Image by Diane Bedard.

We returned to our beachfront hotel, which had lovely views of the sunrise and majestic waves rolling in. It wasn’t the fanciest hotel in the area, but the staff was really nice and accommodating and the rates were far better than some. The whole area of Ponce Inlet begs to be explored more, with a Marine Science Center I have yet to explore.

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