So You Want to Live in ... New Smyrna Beach, Florida

This Florida city's split personality makes it twice as nice.
By Carlos Harrison

If you want glitz, go someplace else," says Judy Burrows. She moved from Williamsburg, Virginia, to New Smyrna Beach five years ago, after her husband discovered the more than 40 golf courses within 20 minutes of this Florida city. She says, "He figured he'd found paradise."

So did Dena Clancy, who arrived in 1928 as a teenager. "We'd go skinny-dipping or ride the turtles down to the ocean, which is a no-no today," she says. Loggerhead turtles still crawl up on the beach to lay eggs, but now volunteers protect their nests. And, at 91, Dena remains here, too, as slender and enduring as the dune grass. "This is like living in heaven," she says.

Straddling the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, New Smyrna Beach is really two towns in one. It's part island and part inland, oceanfront and riverfront, complete with two downtowns. Luxury condos tower over "Beachside." But "Mainland" is a historic small Southern town. Gnarled oaks draped with Spanish moss line the quiet streets. Folks relax on the wide verandas of 100-year-old clapboard foursquare homes and admire sailboats anchored on the estuary.

Best of all, locals say, you drive to New Smyrna, not through it. Interstate 95 between Daytona Beach to the north and Cape Canaveral to the south goes around the town. Civilization stops abruptly at both ends of Beachside. "The beach is finite," says Judy. "You've got the [Canaveral] National Seashore on one side and Ponce Inlet on the other."

That's what led Bill Roe to leave Ohio for these warm shores in 1980. He keeps a sign by his front door: "If you're lucky enough to be at the beach, you're lucky enough."

Bill found what Gene Sheldon already knew. As a teen in the '50s, Gene rode plywood boards in the surf and drove on the packed sand in homemade "skeeters"―cars stripped to their frames, with wood floors and seats. "The original dune buggy," he says. Today, people still drive on the beach, and surfers crowd the inlet when the waves are up. Real estate agent and surfboard builder "Inlet Charley" Baldwin heads for those waves whenever he can. "When it's flat every place else," he says, "it's usually rideable here."

Though young families and teens make up much of the beach crowd, New Smyrna remains proudly connected to its past. Aqua lettering on the Little Drug Company building reminds everyone that it once housed Victoria Theater, where Gene watched Hopalong Cassidy movies for 9 cents. It now holds a soda fountain that seems straight out of "Happy Days."

That's fitting for a town that still offers simpler, sweeter times.

(published 2003)