Ponce Inlet - a quiet stopover in busy Florida

If you hanker to get off the beaten path in Florida, Ponce Inlet might be just the place to do it. This small fishing village is located at the end of Route A-1-A, a few miles south of Daytona Beach. Few tourists have found it. Though the inlet here has been home to fishermen for more than 250 years, it wasn't until recent years that some modernizing was begun. Back in 1963 the registered voters here then -- all 65 of them -- decided by a wide margin to accept the charter that made the village a town. Since then, Ponce Inlet's population has grown to 1,328, but so far there are few encroaching condos. The town does have a police department (seven people) and a fire department (volunteer).

More significantly, it has the sparkling Atlantic to the east,, the placid Halifax River to the west, and the rich mouth of the Halifax to the south.

In addition to the coastline, the major attraction here is the old Ponce Lighthouse and Museum. Inlet residents proudly proclaim it the second highest on the East Coast, surpassed only by the Cape Hatteras light.

The Ponce lighthouse, museum complex, seafood restaurants, and colorful harbor are not pointed out by signs on Interstate 95, so it's easy for tourists to miss this place, even though the highway is just a few miles to the west.

Those who do discover this picturesque spot will learn that the 175-foot lighthouse has stood guard for a century.

Designed by F. Hopkinson Smith and completed in 1886, this engineering marvel was built entirely of red brick hauled in by ship from Baltimore.

At that time the area was known as Mosquito Inlet - for good reasons, too. Work on the lighthouse had to be stopped during the summer months because of the swarms of mosquitos.

Many years later, when tourism started to become a factor in Florida, the village and lighthouse were renamed in honor of the Spanish explorer Ponce De Le'on.

The view from the top of the lighthouse can make for some great photos, but it's a tough climb up those 205 steel steps. If you attempt it, you can rest at each landing.

But you don't have to go to the top to appreciate this village. The lighthouse serves as one part of a quadrangle, whose remaining sides are the red brick buildings that served as quarters for the lighthouse keeper and his assistants.

``In the old days it took several men to tend this place,'' said Ayer Davies, president of the local Lighthouse Preservation Association.

``They had to trim the wicks in the kerosene light; they had to haul oil and keep the property up. But things are changed with our new beacon. It's a six-beam rotary light that replaced the old fresnel lens they used for so many years. The new beacon is smaller, but it projects close to 17 miles out to sea.''

Today the buildings in the lighthouse complex are museums. One cottage contains furnishings typical of the turn of the century. Another building houses a display of navigational aids, as well as exhibits on marine biology, ocean exploration, and sport and commercial fishing. The third building is devoted to the history of the lighthouse. It displays the original kerosene beacon built in Paris in 1867, original building plans for the project, and photos of the building in progress.

But that's not all of the museum complex: An old generator building has also been turned into a museum of sorts to display more than 100 photographs of lighthouses from around the world, with brief histories. You'll be completely imbued with the lighthouse spirit before you leave this place. The exit is through a small gift shop offering interesting lighthouse mementos. The profits go to the Lighthouse Preservation Association.

Since 1900 Ponce Inlet has been known among fishermen for the mixture of fresh and saltwater fish to be found here. Today both commercial and sports fishing are popular, and the major seafood restaurants - Inlet Harbor, Fisherman's Wharf, and Down the Hatch - are justly famous for serving the best of the daily catch.

If you arrive at one of the restaurants after 6 p.m. during their busy season (February through August), plan to wait in line. Dinners range in pricefrom about $7 to about $12.

You might want to plan a morning trip to the lighthouse and try a restaurant for lunch, when it isn't so crowded. All the restaurants offer a fine view of the inlet, and the sunsets are something special here. Bring your camera. Practical information

To get to Ponce Inlet, take any of the Daytona Beach exits from I-95. Go east to the ocean, turn right on Highway A-1-A, and drive about seven miles. The Lighthouse Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. year round. The fee is $1.50. The restaurants are open for lunch and dinner. For further information write Ponce De Le'on Lighthouse Preservation Association, 4931 S. Peninsula Drive, Ponce Inlet, FL, 32018, or telephone (904) 761-1821.

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