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Family Tried and Tested: New Smyrna Beach, Florida

Discover the picturesque family-friendly New Smyrna Beach

Sally Morgan

There aren’t many people who can lay claim to spending the night in George Clooney’s hotel room, but on holiday in Florida I discovered that we could also have been using his bathroom, watching his TV and even sitting at his table for breakfast. Albeit not at the same time, of course. While the Hollywood star was making his sci-fi adventure film Tomorrowland, he reportedly stayed at the famous Black Dolphin Inn - a luxury boutique hotel situated on the Atlantic coast of the sunshine state - and this is where my 16-year-old daughter Alice and I began our own adventure and some much-needed mother and daughter downtime after her deluge of heavy duty exams.

Having often heard me wax lyrical about my trips to the US, Alice had dreamed of visiting with me too, and where better for us to begin our journey than at New Smyrna Beach, a charming sea-side resort with shops, restaurants and activities galore to keep any active teen – and their parent - happy.

Sally and her daughter Alice visited New Smyrna Beach, Florida

About an hour’s drive from Orlando airport, this family-friendly little pocket of Florida is every surfer’s paradise, boasting 17 miles of golden sandy beaches, recreational waterways for sailing, kayaking and paddle-boarding, and a plethora of fascinating marine life for would-be Sir David Attenboroughs. A cornucopia of more relaxing diversions also awaits if you prefer to unwind. There were beauty salons and spas, artisan cafes and art galleries, and unique craft and gift shops to tempt us at every turn. We couldn’t have wished for more as we embarked on a week of mum and daughter bonding, which was heightened by spending our first two nights at the beautiful boutique hotel, the Black Dolphin.

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Idyllically situated in a quiet neighbourhood just a few minutes from the beach, this waterfront gem overlooks the stunning Indian River lagoon. With its captivating view and cool, calm ambiance, it’s no wonder Mr Clooney chose this as his base while filming his 2015 Disney movie. But of the 14 luxurious guest rooms on offer in this gem of a B&B, were we lucky enough to be staying in the same one as him? The owner Brett Smith is the epitome of discretion when it comes to famous guests, and when I asked his son Taylor, the property manager, about a certain Hollywood legend, he smiled enigmatically and replied, “About 50 women turned up looking for him.”

The pair stayed at the Black Dolphin hotel

All year round, people flock here to sample the charms of the real star of the show – the Black Dolphin itself. Each of its exquisite, spacious guest rooms, which range in style from mid-century modern to Hollywood regency, share one common theme: a breath-taking view of the lagoon. With its huge king size beds featuring soft white Egyptian cotton sheets, a spa-inspired ensuite bathroom equipped with Aveda products, flat-screen TV and two balconies, our deluxe bay view suite was the ultimate in comfort and style. A perfect fusion of vintage chic and modern décor, its coastal shades, Florida-themed artwork, elegant furniture and subtle lighting, made us feel wonderfully pampered yet also perfectly at home.

Breakfast is a real family affair here. While ‘housemum’ Sheila and her daughter, executive chef and rising US foodie-star MacKenzie Smith – whose blog, GrilledCheeseSocial.com hosts the largest collection of grilled cheese recipes in the world -  flipped Southern style pancakes in the open kitchen, hotel guests chatted over coffee around the same big dining table.

Kayaking in the lagoon is the perfect way to spot bottlenose dolphins

Then, as Alice and I gazed out at the tropical setting and the vibrant blue Indian River, we discovered how the hotel got its name. Suddenly there was a splash and the flash of tails in the sunlight as three dolphins playfully leapt from the water and began a circuit of the lagoon. We dashed outside for a closer look at this incredible spectacle and as the bottlenose dolphins re-appeared, Mackenzie explained how these majestic creatures and a romantic tale inspired the name of her family’s hotel.

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“At dusk the setting sun casts a shadow on their fins, making them look black,” she said. “And according to legend, when the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon first arrived at the coast of Florida, he was safely guided to shore by a pod of black dolphins.” Eager for more sightings, Alice and I took up position on the colourful orange sun loungers on the hotel’s little jetty just a few feet away. Then, as we relaxed in the warm sun, we heard another splash – and saw the  paddle-shaped tail of a manatee diving down to graze on sea grass. Marine life abounds in the Indian River and to experience it up close we took a Dolphin Discovery Boat Tour on a 40-passenger pontoon. As our boat skimmed through the water, a ripple of ‘Ooohs’ and ‘Aaaahs’ went up whenever we glimpsed the river’s resident manatees, a swooping osprey, a group of pelicans, and the playful antics of bottlenose dolphin.

Alice cruised the waterways on a paddleboard

A keen paddleboard fanatic, Alice jumped at the chance to cruise the waterways with an experienced guide from Paddleboard NSB.  Despite my initial hesitation, I boarded a kayak and rowed alongside her, tentatively dipping my oars into the calm water. My initial apprehension swiftly abated as we glided through the estuaries, soaking up the tranquillity of the environment and stopping off at a tiny tropical island covered in palm trees. Then came the highlight of our lagoon tour. As we floated along we were suddenly rewarded by the sight of two dolphins leaping up to greet us just a few feet away.

The second leg of our stay was at the heart of the action, at the family-friendly Hampton Inn on New Smyrna Beach’s buzzing Flagler Avenue. This attractive, pale green and white hotel was built in the appealing Florida architectural style, with canopies and upstairs balconies, and 112 spacious rooms featuring all the mod-cons. Set up for the day by a hearty buffet breakfast, we strolled the short walk to the beach, passing cafes, restaurants, gift shops and unusual boutiques on the way. After cooling off in the sea, we couldn’t resist exploring the beach further. On bicycles hired from Salty Rentals you can race along the shore and splash through the surf to your heart’s content, before collapsing in a heap on the sand.

Hampton Inn at New Smyrna Beach is the perfect place for a family holiday

With all that exercise, working up a thirst – and an appetite – are par for the course, and when it came to choosing a place to eat at New Smyrna Beach we really were spoilt for choice. For panoramic views of the ocean – and the best burgers and fries in town – we couldn’t fault Breakers, which overlooks the beach. We also dined al fresco in the colourful, relaxed setting of the Yellow Dog Eats Kitchen and Bar on Canal Street. With a menu that includes pulled-pork tacos, salmon BLTs, and tasty barbecues and salads – as well as imaginatively-named dishes such as Blue Suede Shoes, Kitty Kat and Hot Diggy Dog -  the amazing chef, Fish Morgan, made sure it was a lunch we shall never forget.

Eating out at night was a culinary delight, too. New Smyrna Beach’s eclectic mix of restaurants boasts almost every type of cuisine from around the world. From the authentic Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Korean and Chinese dishes at AA Garden Fusion to the fabulous pizzas of That’s Amore, and Tuscan-themed menu - served at tables beneath a vine-covered arbour - of The Garlic, NSB has got the lot. We loved dining on the fairy light-festooned garden patio at the Third Wave Café, where the global inspired menu features the finest ingredients – including oak roasted lemon chicken and Cape Canaveral white shrimp and jumbo pan seared scallops over pasta – as well as an impressive list of cocktails.

Relaxing by the pool at the Riverview Spa

For the ultimate dining experience, we booked a fabulous window table at River Park Terrace, a bijou restaurant opposite the Indian River. The cuisine and friendly, attentive staff totally bowled us over. Here we dined on a medley of delights including parmesan and herb-encrusted Pacific salmon with sautéed vegetables and lemon butter, and a side order of truffle fries, followed by delectable coconut and vanilla chiffon cake and brown butter brownies.

No holiday in New Smyrna Beach would be complete without a mooch around its vintage souvenir shops and antique emporiums, which are brimming with fairly affordable treasures from a glamorous bygone era. As we strolled in the sunshine along palm tree lined Canal Street, we felt as if we’d been transported back to the 1950s when a turquoise Chevrolet parked up next to the Little Drug Co, a traditional American diner cum pharmacy and grocery store. Popping in to cool off, we sat down at one of its retro tables for a creamy milk-shake whipped up by a 1950s-style soda fountain. The Beachside Candy Co sweet shop – selling delicious ice-cream and ‘taffy’ in oodles of mouth-watering flavours - was also an irresistible daily treat.

The Beachside Candy Co sweet shop was an irresistible daily treat

Art shops and galleries are part of the fabric of NSB, and to sample this vibrant scene we headed to The Hub on Canal Street, where the work of over 80 local artists – including paintings, ceramics, photography, sculpture, and glass – is on display. If you fancy getting involved, there are numerous classes and workshops available, too – something for Alice and I to take up when we return. Further inland and nestled among an 11-acre haven of natural foliage is the Atlantic Center for the Arts, a thriving community and arts education facility dedicated to promoting artistic excellence. Artists from all over the globe gather in this peaceful environment to collaborate with some of the world's most distinguished contemporary artists.

Atlantic Center for the Arts is a community and arts education facility

Disney World is not far from NSB, but my teenage daughter – a budding astronaut - has moved on from Disney princesses to the wonderful world of science and outer space, and to experience this we were in just the right place. Our daytrip to the Kennedy Space Center, an hour’s drive away in Cape Canaveral was, if you’ll pardon the pun, really out of this world.  The action-packed adventure included standing on the pad that launched NASA’s first astronauts, walking alongside the largest and most powerful rocket ever launched, seeing where Apollo’s moon rockets were prepared, and getting up close to Space Shuttle Atlantis.

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We were fascinated by the Astronaut Hall of Fame in the Heroes and Legends section, but most thrilling of all, we got to meet a real space traveller, too: astronaut Don Thomas. Having lunch with an astronaut is one of the extras you can book at the KSC and is not to be missed. Over a delicious buffet lunch – featuring Tang, an orange drink that quenched the thirst of astronauts in space – you can take part in a Q&A session.

Sally and Alice with astronaut Don Thomas at the Kennedy Space Center

Don Thomas, who completed four space shuttle missions, told us how it felt to fly into space, how astronauts amuse themselves when they’re off-duty on the shuttle, and why powdery space ice-cream made it on to one Apollo flight. If you’re lucky on your visit to the KSC, you might even witness a real life rocket launch – and to our amazement, we did. Soaking up the excitement of a countdown to lift off, we watched the launch of a telecommunications satellite into space. Now that the race to Mars has begun, the KSC has just launched an astronaut training experience where visitors can train like an astronaut preparing for a trip to the mysterious red planet.

As part of the new Astronaut Training Experience, immersive simulation technology trains participants to live and work in the harshest environment on Mars using real NASA science. Alice and I plan to save that pleasure until next time, but to round off our holiday with our feet firmly on planet earth, we immersed ourselves in a day of indulgence at NSB’s Riverview Spa.

Here we experienced the delights of massages and facials carried out by skilled therapists, before totally chilling out on sun-loungers beneath the palm trees in its outdoor tropical oasis. Sipping a glass of chilled bubbly - and fruit tea for Alice – against the soothing backdrop of a waterfall pool was the perfect way to end a perfect holiday.

For more information on New Smyrna Beach, Florida, go to www.visitnsbfl.comRooms at the Black Dolphin Innstart from $169 per room, per night, including breakfast. Rooms at the Hampton Inn start from $145 per room, per night, including breakfast.  Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex: admission is $50 + tax for adults and $40 + tax for children ages 3-11.  Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights between London Gatwick and Orlando with fares starting from £399 return – inclusive of baggage, onboard food and drink and inflight entertainment.

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