Old Florida charm lives on in Ormond Beach

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T0614ORMONDBEACH_C_HR [Credit: Ormond Beach Chamber of Commerce]
A seaside picnic area in Ormond Beach. The city is home to a hard-packed sand beach with a rolling surf and plenty of seabirds. Driving on the beach is still permitted. Photo Credit: Ormond Beach Chamber of Commerce

Ormond Beach is yet another of those towns along the Atlantic coast that was opened for tourism by Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway.

Flagler bought the 2-year-old Hotel Ormond in 1890 and expanded it to 400 rooms. For a century it was the place to stay in Ormond Beach. Once the largest wooden structure in America, it was razed in 1992 for a condominium.

Today, Ormond Beach is the kind of place many people are searching for and are still surprised to find in Florida. It is small scale, manageable, quaint but with an appealing main drag and evocative of the mythical Old Florida.

It reminds me of Delray Beach or Naples before development really changed the atmosphere of those two communities.

Ormond Beach's most famous resident was oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, who retired there to play a daily game of golf in 1915.  Flagler was a partner in Rockefeller's Standard Oil Co., and Rockefeller stayed for several winters at the Hotel Ormond, occupying an entire floor.

T0607ORMOND2_C [Credit: Tom Stieghorst]
The Casements, once the winter home of Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, is now a museum. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

In 1918, he bought a home across the street called the Casements for $75,000. In wintering in Florida, Rockefeller's goal was to live to be 100. He died at the Casements in 1937, shortly before his 98th birthday.

I toured the Casements as part of a stay in Ormond Beach in March. Admission is free, but there were no guided tours because of Covid restrictions. There is an audio tour that is easily downloaded to your smart phone.

One striking thing about the Casements is its relative modesty. Rockefeller had more money than he could intelligently give away, but the Casements, named for its many windows, is only 9,000 square feet. A widower, Rockefeller had a few rooms for guests and a sun porch he liked to inhabit.

Built in 1913 by a Connecticut preacher, the Shingle-style house has an unusual octagonal atrium that runs through its three floors. Rockefeller used the bottom floor as a living room. The house today is decorated in the Victorian style he would have been comfortable with.

The other striking thing about the Casements is how it was nearly lost to history. After Rockefeller's death it was used as a women's college for a decade and thereafter found a number of lesser uses. By the 1970s, it was in shambles, but the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and the next year the city bought it and gradually restored it.

Beyond the Casements, Ormond Beach has other attractions. There is a fine, hard-packed sand beach with a rolling surf and plenty of seabirds. Driving on the beach is still permitted, although at times it is limited to four-wheel-drive vehicles. There is a $20 fee to take your vehicle onto the sand.

Locals are proud of the Ormond Loop, a 30-mile scenic drive that skirts the Halifax River and is popular with bicyclists and motorcyclists as well as auto tourists. The loop runs past Tomoka State Park, which offers a canoe launch and rentals for a day of paddling on the Tomoka River.

T0607ORMOND3_C [Credit: Tom Stieghorst]
A replica of the steam-powered Stanley Rocket, an early race car, sits in the window at the Ormond Garage restaurant in Ormond Beach Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

The main shopping and dining street, Granada Boulevard, has a cluster of interesting restaurants just west of the bridge over the Halifax River. I sampled the short rib sandwich and an in-house beer at the Ormand Garage, a brew pub that re-creates a famous garage of the early pioneers of auto racing.

Before it moved to Daytona Beach, the racing scene flourished in Ormond Beach, and as late as 1952 there were Nascar races on an oval that was partly on the beach. In the front window of the Ormond Garage is a replica of the 1906 steam-powered Stanley Rocket automobile, which hit a top speed of 127 mph, a record that endured until 1910. The city of Ormond Beach owns the car.

Another relic, this one an original, is the three-story cupola from the Hotel Ormond, which sits in Fortunato Park along the river. It is open to the public Saturday and Sunday afternoons during the winter months.

Top-rated Ormond Beach hotels on TripAdvisor include the Cove on Ormond Beach (currently being renovated); the Best Western Castillo Del Sol and the Oceanfront Inn and Suites, all on the beach.

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