Stretching along Florida’s Atlantic coast, Daytona Beach is famous for its broad sweep of beach and its status as the home of the Daytona 500 NASCAR race, held at the Daytona International Speedway.
And there’s a theme that connects together the unusual, from homeless dogs to intriguing cowboy hats…
Opposite a row of boutiques, vintage stores and wine sellers, a smooth gravestone lies prone in Daytona Beach’s grassy Riverfront Park.
Marked by a topiary figure, it honours one of the Floridian beach town’s most beloved residents: Brownie.
His funeral drew huge crowds, the town mayor delivered the eulogy and his death made front page news.
Etched in the granite slab is the simple tribute: ‘A Good Dog’.
Brownie’s story begins in 1940, when he trotted into a cab office on Beach Street, then the town’s main hub. Moved by the easy charm of this large stray mutt, his coat the colour of the beach, the cabbies ‘adopted’ Brownie and built him a house outside. Other local businesses soon got involved.
Each day Brownie made the rounds from store to store, collecting money for his food, vet bills and the occasional ice cream in a little box around his neck. Word spread and donations poured in from around the country, which Brownie’s benefactors invested in a bank account in his name.
Such was the reputation of Brownie that when Eddie James and Alvin Almodovar opened a pet boutique along this stretch in July 2016, they named it after the legendary canine.
Fayn LeVille, director of the Halifax Historical Museum (housed in the old Florida Bank & Trust building where Brownie held his bank account), describes Brownie as a unique animal who seemed to ‘see into your soul’.
When you sat with him, troubles melted away.
And although Brownie died in 1954, sightings are regularly reported, with ghost-like reports of a tan coloured dog spotted wandering by the riverfront.
Back in Brownie’s day, racing cars tore up the broad, 23-mile beach: Daytona Beach is one of few places in the world where you can enjoy the crunch of sand and pop of seaweed beneath your tyres.
The tradition began in 1902, when drivers attempted to set new land-speed records and spectators watched from the grass-tufted dunes.
In 1935, a speed of nearly 273mph set a record.
Today, I’m restricted to a more sedate 10mph.
The sound of waves roars through my windows as I cruise past sunbathers, picnickers and couples padding barefoot on the smooth, taupe sand.
Not surprisingly given its name, most activities revolve around the beach.
When it comes to food, restaurants like Ocean Deck have been serving serve flaky mahi mahi tacos and local craft beer on a moonlit terrace for more than 50 years.
On Sunglow Pier, Crabby Joe’s dishes up the best breakfast in town. I order shrimp and grits (a creamy maize porridge) with smoky-sweet andouille sausage.
Salty air fills my nostrils and the soothing soundtrack of the sea drifts through the windows. Further down the pier, fishermen and women cast their rods as surfers and the occasional playful dolphin go by.
Half an hour west of Daytona Beach, the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House is set within De Leon Springs Park, where Spanish moss drapes from oak trees and a freshwater spring invites you to jump in.
The griddle house has hot plates in the centre of each table, and diners are brought ceramic jugs of batter to cook and flip their own pancakes, adding extra toppings like pecans and pumpkin puree.
After a post-pancake dip in the springs, I head to Artisan Alley in DeLand, a discreet enclave with food trucks, craft brew pubs and street art.
After posing for a photo at angelic DeLand Wings, I drive on to discover another grand example of a story being lovingly preserved and polished, at the Stetson Mansion.
When JT Thompson’s dad gave him a Stetson for his tenth birthday, it was just a ‘nice hat’ to him. Now that gift is loaded with significance, as is the fact he went to school a few blocks from where John B. Stetson grew up, in New Jersey.
“I’m supposed to be here,” says JT, as I tour through the restored former home of the famed hat maker and his wife Elizabeth.
Mining for gold in Colorado in 1860, Stetson fashioned himself a hat with a wide brim to keep the rain out of his eyes. A man offered to buy it, and an idea was born – growing into the iconic cowboy hat.
After Stetson’s death in 1906, his Florida home passed through six families, its historical significance all but lost. Then JT and partner Michael Solari stumbled across it in 2005, looking for a project.
Their sensitive restoration has brought the little-known history of Stetson to life. Original, intricate parquet floors and leaded glass windows whisper of the past.
Thomas Edison, a friend of the family, oversaw the installation of electricity. Henry Flagler, the engineer behind the Florida Keys’ Overseas Railroad, had a private track built so that architectural materials could be delivered direct to the home.
These stories are told as part the mansion’s popular behind-the-scenes tours, which navigate the maze of rooms dotted with vintage hats.
JT and Michael point out an uncanny shadow which, when viewed from a certain angle at the foot of the wooden staircase, looks like a cowboy, the brim of his hat jutting against the windowpane.
Whether or not you believe that the ghosts of a hat maker and friendly tan dog roam across this beach town, their stories remain very much alive.
Disclosure: Ella’s trip was part of the #DriveUS1 Captivate campaign with Daytona Beach Area CVB. Both she and Inside the Travel Lab kept editorial control, as ever as always. Check out the exciting disclosure policy in the small print :-)