A Saturday on A1A: Curiosities along the Ormond Loop and Daytona Beach

Scratch my back with a lightning bolt
Thunder rolls like a bass drum note
The sound of the weather is Heaven’s ragtime band

-Barefoot Children, Jimmy Buffett

In 1970, Florida was officially named “The Sunshine State.” It should be noted, however, that a vacation in Florida without wet weather, thunder, and lightning would make for an incomplete experience.

A stormy morning along A1A in Flagler Beach

A recent Saturday exploration along A1A was one of those days. Knowing that rain was upon us, we still ventured out early in the morning from our home base, Jacksonville, hoping to catch a Flagler Beach sunrise and to enjoy breakfast at Java Joint Beachside Grill (their Mahi Omelet was on the brain).

We rushed down I-95 to SR 100 (Exit 284). Less than five miles eastward is a welcoming, entry point to A1A; you are greeted by two palm trees, one leaning north; the other leaning south.

Larcy, my other half, and I brought along Oliver, our canine companion extraordinaire, for a dog-friendly adventure. Java Joint has a wonderful, dog-friendly porch deck providing a wonderful view of the beach—as long as the weather cooperates.

It didn’t.

As we turned off I-95, a deluge ensued. The skimpy coverings over each table at Java Joint were no match; grudgingly, we backtracked on SR 100, found a fast-food drive-thru, and ate breakfast sandwiches in the car, all while waiting for the rain to dissipate.

There is debate as to “weather” or not Florida’s nickname should be changed. Of course, driving A1A will offer much fun in the sun, but not 24/7. A fun read on this topic comes from Play Hard Florida’s website: “Florida’s Nickname: Stop Calling Florida The Sunshine State – Call It This Instead!”

Still, onward we went.

Our first objective for the day was to drive the highly-touted Ormond Scenic Loop and Trail, 30+ miles of driving through live oak canopied roads, along with oceanside scenery pervading a sense of Old Florida.

There are several ways to access the loop; from the north, Exit 278 off I-95 will put you onto Old Dixie Highway, where you can continue south or cross Walter Boardman Lane and High Bridge Road eastward. From the south, take US 1 North to SR 40/West Granada Boulevard and turn right; a left turn on the North Beach Street portion of Old Dixie Highway just before the Granada Bridge will put you on the loop.

Of course, the most desired way, especially if traveling fully on A1A, is to join the loop and head south to SR40/East Granada Boulevard in Ormond Beach, cross the Granada Bridge, make the right turn onto Old Dixie Highway, where after driving through developed neighborhoods, scenic canopy roads within Tomoka and Bulow Creek state parks prevail.

At the northwest point of the loop, head north a couple of miles to enter Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park, then return back and turn left on Walter Boardman Lane toward High Bridge Road and North Peninsula State Park.

From High Bridge Road, turn south onto John Anderson Drive and ride it back down to East Granada Boulevard. From here, turn left to A1A; north brings you back to Flagler Beach and the final stretch of the loop.

We would head south to Daytona Beach to achieve our second objective of the day: our “Daytona Curiosities” tour. More on that later.

Much of the Ormond Loop is undeveloped, and a grassroots movement is striving to keep it that way. Abigail Mercer’s November 11, 2020 article in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, “Ormond environmentalists pitch plan to protect the loop, but won’t share cost” explains recent efforts, which have the attention of many living along the trail. We saw many “Defend the Loop” signs along and near the loop.

As for curiosities, we did not have to wait until venturing around Daytona Beach. Several, mentioned by Atlas Obscura or Roadside America, make the loop drive quite fascinating from the start.

Just north of the loop’s A1A strip is the Flagler Beach Fishing Pier entrance, a building with an A-shaped roof that clearly reminds you that you are in Flagler Beach. This is also where you find the iconic Funky Pelican restaurant and its huge chalkboard for visitors to compose fun-to-read messages. The food is good, the decor is funky, and the merchandise is fun—get funked up! (we ate at the Funky Pelican on a prior visit to Flagler Beach).

Whaam Burger is another, hard-to-miss restaurant, if not for its wildly-colored retro exterior, for its Bob’s Big Boy statue out front. FYI—there are no Bob’s Big Boy locations in Florida.

Flagler Beach has plenty of dining options, many with cool-looking murals, and almost all giving off a classic, small-town, beach vibe—Flagler Beach is one of the most unique, and classic, beachside communities along A1A.

Not far down the road is another curiosity—the privately occupied Pirate House, listed on Roadside America. This home has pirate statues peering toward the beach, along with a great white shark hanging below its first-level deck.

The peg-leg pirate statue, next to a cannon at the front door, is simply the most unattractive of the bunch—absolutely my favorite.

Check out this Daytona Beach News-Journal story to learn more about the Pirate House: “Curious Coast: Pirate drew occupies yo-ho-home in Flagler Beach” by Shaun Ryan (October 14, 2018).

The Ormond-by-the-Sea WWII Watchtower

Our next site, located south of Flagler Beach, is probably passed by numerous travelers not realizing its historical significance.

It is worth a short visit.

During World War II, America’s coastlines were dotted with observation towers used by Ground Observation Corps volunteers to look out for German U-boats and ships, and with good reason. Four Nazi sailors actually snuck onto Ponte Vedra Beach, just south of Jacksonville, in 1942.

Now a rare sight, Ormond-by-the-Sea has one of three watchtowers left in Florida; the other two, located in Melbourne Beach and Stuart, are also along A1A. Atlas Obscura provides a write-up on the watchtower. A brief read on the watchtower, its restoration efforts, and a plea for a return of a sign marker, is provided by Volusia County-based Hometown News: “U-Boats off the Volusia Coast” by Dan Smith (November 9, 2017).

Next, we headed to Ormond Beach, making a right turn on East Granada Boulevard, to officially begin our Ormond Loop experience, but not before quickly visiting The Casements.

A Florida Heritage Site, The Casements, known locally as “The Jewel of Ormond Beach,” was the winter home of the man widely considered to be the richest ever, John D. Rockefeller; he bought it in 1918 and died peacefully there on May 23, 1937, at age 97.

Named for the window design that kept the interior cool during sub-tropical heat that frequents Florida, The Casements is currently used as a cultural center; visitors have the opportunity to do a self-guided tour and visit the gift shop.

We quickly admired The Casements from outside before driving across the Halifax River…

… and arriving at Bailey Riverbridge Gardens.

Bailey Riverbridge Gardens is quaint, peaceful, and beautiful. It is also historical.

Within the garden is Pilgrims Rest Primitive Baptist Church, which the Ormond Beach website states: “A scenic fountain and colorful plantings grace the grounds in front of the Pilgrims Rest Church, the historic site of the first Christian wedding in North America.”

To avoid confusion, the church was established in 1879. A historical marker, placed at front of the church, provides clarification.

From the Historical Marker Database:

Near this site
the first Christian Marriage
in North America
is said to have occurred in 1566
between Ernst D’Erlach
a French Huguenot nobleman and
Princess Issena of the
Timucuan Indian tribe

Dedicated by
The Ernst D’Erlach Chapter
The Huguenot Society of Florida
May 13, 1978

Following a brief Oliver photoshoot, we headed to our next stop: Tomoka State Park. This section of Old Dixie Highway takes you through a transition as it leaves behind residential areas and enters protected land known for an abundance of wildlife, including a large number of bird species (over 160 species have been identified), as well as its uncountable number of live oaks. The transformation is not abrupt; the live oak canopy thickens with each mile, and a feeling of traveling back in time begins.

Reading the state park website, I must admit, a worrisome feeling overcame me.

“Rattlesnakes are prevalent in the area and are perfectly camouflaged in the grass and leaf litter, so please use caution and watch where you step.”

And I did watch my steps. No snake sightings on this trip. Instead, we were treated to a white-tailed doe and her fawn.

Wildlife sighting at Tomoka State Park

There is much to do at Tomoka State Park; our one-hour stay did not do it justice. Along with an array of outdoor experiences offered, Tomoka Outpost, the “Camp Store and More,” provides needed provisions, kayak and canoe rentals, and boat tours. The outpost also provides five state park stamps for those possessing a Florida State Parks Passport.

As with much of Northeast Florida, Tomoka has a strong connection to the story of the Timucuan tribe that inhabited the area. The Timucua village of Nocoroco existed for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of the Europeans, beginning with the Spanish in the early 1600s. The state park website offers a good read on the history of the Timucua at Tomoka.

Within the park, a curiosity mentioned on Roadside America gives a brief history and potential demise of the “Invincible Chief Tomokie” statue. The mythical story of Chief Tomokie drinking sacred spring water, thus angering opposing warriors and eventually bringing death upon him from an arrow of the Timucuan princess, Oleeta, might conjure comparison to the Fountain of Youth (another Florida curiosity, found in St. Augustine).

From the Roadside America website:

“The statue has taken almost as much of a beating as the poor Indians in the legend; the bows and arrows once held by the Indian warriors are gone as is Tomokie’s spear. The figure of Oleeta, directly beneath Tomokie, is badly damaged and unrecognizable. But still the sculpture has an unmistakable presence.”

Also badly damaged is the next curiosity on the loop: Dummitt Plantation Mill Ruins, located within Bulow Creek State Park. At this point, the loop shares the history of plantations dedicated to the growth and processing of sugarcane to make sugar and rum, and the destruction brought upon these plantations by the Seminoles during the Second Seminole War, fought between 1835 and 1842.

Above the northern boundary of Bulow Creek State Park is Bulow Plantation Ruins State Park, which its website describes as a “Monument to the Rise and Fall of Sugar Plantations in East Florida.” Bulow Plantation was the LARGEST of the sugar plantations in the region; unlike the Dummitt ruins, those at the Bulow Plantation are much more extensive.

Plenty of interpretative signs, along with an interpretative center, tell the story of this historic site.

The Beach Road at Bulow Plantation Ruins State Park

A drive along “The Beach Road” sets the mood for visiting the ruins; signage mentions that the road is as it was back during the days the plantation sugar mill was in operation. It is a very beautiful drive.

Another option to access Bulow Plantation is by hiking the nearly seven-mile Bulow Woods Trail, beginning at another curiosity along the loop: the Fairchild Oak at Bulow Creek State Park. As for wildlife?

“White-tailed deer, barred owls, and raccoons are commonly seen, and, occasionally, a diamondback rattlesnake.”

Fairchild Oak at Bulow Creek State Park
On another visit to Fairchild Oak, my buddy Robert. who stands at 6’4″, is dwarfed by the live oak, which has a diameter of about eight feet.

Fairchild Oak is a highlight of the Ormond Loop. It is about eight feet in diameter, and over 400 years old. The live oak is also known to be haunted. The namesake of Ormond Beach, James Ormond II, died on September 30, 1829 (his burial site is located at James Ormond Tomb Park, across the street from Bulow Creek State Park); it is believed that his body was found under the tree. Another notable death, most likely by suicide, is that of Norman Haywood. As reported by Abigail Brashear (March 1, 2020) in her Daytona Beach News-Journal article, “‘An elderly citizen’: Fairchild Oak heads into 2020s going strong”:

These stories include well-known businessman Norman Harwood’s possible suicide under the tree after facing intense amount of debt, as well as rumors the businessman was poisoned there. For a long time after Harwood’s death in the 1880s, the tree was nicknamed the “Haunt Oak” or the “Harwood Oak.”

Another fun read about Fairchild Oak comes from the Tripping on Legends website, “Travel Log: The Fairchild Oak, Ormond Beach’s Suicide Tree” (Juen 6, 2019).

“The Fairchild Oak in Ormond Beach is right out of Central Casting.  It’s overwhelming size and twisted branches, mixed with a story here and there about spooky happenings, and it’s no wonder it has become one of the more popular legends in the area and a have-to-go spot for those examining the weird in Florida.”

After visiting Fairchild Oak and the Bulow Plantation, we headed east on Walter Boardman Lane and High Bridge Road before crossing the drawbridge across the Halifax River. For the second leg of the loop, we would turn south onto John Anderson Drive, but not before sneaking back into Flagler Beach and driving through Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area for lunch at High Tides at Snack Jack.

Opened in 1947, this Old Florida-style seafood dive, complete with valet parking, serves up some excellent, fresh seafood. With a nice break in the weather, we enjoyed the outdoor oceanfront view. its south deck is dog-friendly, although….

Other than a bit of barking quieted by a taste of a hushpuppy, Oliver followed the rules. Larcy, not a fan of seafood, enjoyed a mushroom swiss burger with onion rings, while I hit the light sides list, consuming a bowl of clam chowder and coconut shrimp with spicy raspberry dipping sauce. I later ordered two hushpuppies to finish off the sauce. High Tides at Snack Jack is also where I bought my t-shirt for the day (awesome designs).

Check out this Florida Back Roads Travel write-up (February 28, 2021) on High Tides at Snack Jack.

Getting back on the loop, we headed down John Anderson Drive. a pleasant drive with salt marsh views, plenty of fishing spots, and interesting homes, many with Defend the Loop signs. It didn’t take long to finish this leg of the loop.

From here, a left turn on Granada and a right turn on A1A takes you through Daytona Beach’s hotels, souvenir shops, miniature golf courses, restaurants, and shopping centers. It also brings you to several interesting sites: Birthplace of Speed Park, the Streamline Hotel—the birthplace of NASCAR, the “Daytona Beach: World’s Most Famous Beach arch sign, and a little beyond A1A, markers recognizing the north and south turns of the Daytona Beach and Road Course—precursor to Daytona International Speedway, and the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, the TALLEST in Florida.

However, we turned right and crossed over the Granada Bridge again to explore curiosities west of the Halifax River. We turned onto South Beach Street, which later becomes Riverside Drive; soon, we arrived at the Holly Hill Gnome Tree.

To get a feel for the Gnome Tree, take a look at the Enchanted America website’s fantastical write-up in which Holly Hill resident Ginny Morris, after chatting with three gnomes, decided to create a home for them.

“I was out walking my dog when the gnomes saw me and asked if they could live in that big, old tree,” Mrs. Morris said. “I knew that that type of tree is endangered, so I thought they should have permission first. Since they couldn’t go to City Hall themselves, I went to speak for them.”

The gnomes, with permission from the powers that be, were able to call the tree home in 2003. Since then, the population of the Gnome Tree has increased, even allowing M&M characters to claim residence there.

Some may wonder what the big deal is, but the gnome tree has been visited by people throughout America and the world, and many have left gifts for the gnomes such as toys and tobacco, along with letters from the heart. Mainly, the Gnome Tree is meant to pervade a sense of happiness—we left the gnome tree with a smile.

Can these gnomes be mischievous? On another visit, with Robert, our visit was followed by a Holly Hill police officer pulling us over for driving 35-mph in a 25-mph. After explaining that we were in the area to see the gnomes, the officer let us off with a warning. We blamed the gnomes, and we thanked the gnomes.

Get to know Ginny Morris by reading Chris Graham’s “Ginny Morris often sits on her front porch and imagines what her gnomes would say” from the Daytona Beach News Journal (October 12, 2014).

Three miles from the Gnome Tree is Daytona Beach’s Riverfront Park, where we visited two curiosity sites: Jackie Robinson Ballpark, and Brownie the Town Dog’s Grave and Memorial.

As parking was scarce along Riverfront Park, Larcy dropped me off to quickly visit both the ballpark and Brownie’s gravesite.

The ballpark, currently home of the Single-A Minor League Daytona Tortugas and the Bethune-Cookman University Wildcats, was built in 1914 and is America’s fourth oldest professional ballpark. It is site of Jackie Robinson’s first-ever professional game, thus integrating baseball forever.

Though closed during my visit, I was able to walk around and peek into the ballpark, affectionately known as “The Jack,” from various spots, and to see the statue near the front entrance. The statue, dedicated in 1990 with Jackie Robinson’s wife Rachel in attendance, shows Jackie with two children, one black and one white, with hands connected to each other.

Minor League Baseball’s website offers an excellent read on the stadium and its historical significance here. The Tortugas, by the way, have their home-opening, 12-game homestand against the St. Lucie Mets and the Jupiter Hammerheads, beginning May 11.

A walk from the ballpark, which sits on the ballpark’s former namesake, City Island, to the gravesite of Brownie is a short one; but on this day, it was difficult to find Brownie. From a distance, I eventually noticed the crate-like fixture that currently protects the gravesite from the elements.

And I immediately recognized the irony. During his lifetime, Brownie—Florida’s most historic and beloved dog—was a stray dog that freely roamed the downtown streets of Daytona Beach to the delight of shop owners, citizens, and visitors from 1939 until 1954. The locals took care of him, feeding him and providing a dog house. Brownie even had his own bank account. His website is a must read—Brownie is one of America’s most famous dogs.

Our last curiosity of the day pretty much sums up our day of exploration. Port Orange’s Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens, a six and a half mile drive from Riverfront Park, mostly along the Halifax River, is the site of another sugar mill plantation burned down during the Second Seminole War; the site of a former plantation owner murdered (Patrick Dean); the site of a massive, octopus-like tree known as Confederate Oak (signage removed recently); the site of preserved sugar mill ruins; the site of a gnome home; and the site of lush gardens and beautiful nature trails.

It is also the site of a pre-Disney, former theme park known as Bongoland—named after a resident baboon.

Both Roadside America and Atlas Obscura have write-ups on the Bongoland Ruins. So does Authentic Florida, Abandoned Florida, Weird U.S.,and Florida Hikes.

The story of how Bongoland came to be is quite bizarre. Its founder, Dr. Perry Sperber, wrote a book, Sex and the Dinosaur; that should be reason enough to claim Bongoland as weird. The remains of Bongoland, made by Manny Lawrence of chicken wire and concrete, truly make the gardens the most odd site of the day.

Among the concrete dinosaurs that still inhabit the gardens is the Giant Ground Sloth, which apparently roamed this area of Florida now known as the birthplace of speed—again, I embrace the irony.

What the gardens does not have, anymore, is the one dinosaur that would top the list of most dinosaur admirers:

The T-Rex.

Read Alyssa Warner’s July 25, 2019 article in the Port Orange Observer, “Former ‘Bongoland’ T-Rex falls at Sugar Mill Botanical Gardens in Port Orange” to find out about how the resident T-Rex “crumbled and fell.”

Simply put, Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens is paradise for curiosity seekers. Admission is free (donations accepted); one can easily spend a few hours here. However, our day was coming to a close, and the gardens are not pet friendly. Larcy and I took turns entering the gardens, giving ourselves a half-hour each to explore and take pictures (as you can see).

Since we ventured into Port Orange, I want to mention probably the most bizarre curiosity one can encounter, not just in Florida, but anywhere—The Last Resort Bar. A future blog on this spot is coming, but for now, I’ll let you figure this one out.

Leaving Daytona Beach and heading north, we had one more stop along A1A before hopping back onto I-95 to head home.

Sometimes, it’s good to enjoy dessert before dinner.

Welcome to Sally’s Ice Cream!

And Happy Traveling!

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