Holly Hill is a little city that occupies just four square miles in coastal Central Florida, nestled in between Daytona Beach and Ormond Beach. Locals refer to it as “Holy Hell” (in the most loving way, of course). It’s a low-income city dotted with inebriated folks roaming the streets; there are sweet neighborhoods, and old, interesting houses. But brand new trucks occasionally end up on cement blocks in Holly Hill. Every once in a while, you might have to shoo away a drug-addled couple looking for a safe place to get their next fix. You may even get the exciting opportunity to witness a resident zip down the street on their riding mower and swing into the drive-thru at the local watering hole (the Townline, a venerable landmark around these parts).
The best part of Holly Hill is the ride down Riverside Drive. The Intracoastal Waterway is on one side of you, and beautiful, historic homes line the other. At the intersection of Riverside and 2nd Street stand two monstrous luxury towers built right before the economic downturn in 2009. These towers (the “Marina Grande”) are still partially unoccupied because of this. The towers stand well above any condominium in the area, and they are the only one of their kind on the river. Locals still lament the loss of their little Publix plaza that used to occupy that space. The Marina Grande is an eyesore, an unpleasant blip on an otherwise beautiful drive along the river’s shore.
The penthouses at Marina Grande go for half a million dollars when literally across the street sits the Townline. The Townline is an icon, the ultimate dive bar. They’ve been around for decades and just started taking credit cards last year. The folks are friendly enough that you can enter for a cocktail without concern for safety; be prepared for the smell of smoke to stain your clothes and hair immediately. Order a whiskey and soda and be prepared for a plastic cup filled near to the brim with cheap booze, topped with barely a squirt from the soda gun (that will be three dollars, please). Many of the Townline regulars reside just next door in the trailer park and work their drinking habit into their monthly government-funded budget. The owner of the park is “cleaning things up” a bit, but the fact remains that the park is possibly one of the worst in the county, dilapidated to the point that most trailers should be condemned. But they haven’t been, and they won’t be, because this is Holy Hell, folks. The Marina Grande condos damn near engulf the low-income neighborhood to the west. The juxtaposition is confusing and comical.
But I’m making Holly Hill sound bad here. The fact is, it’s pretty special. Holly Hill is home to a lot of Old Florida history, including the house used for rum-running by Bill McCoy in the Prohibition days. There’s a building called “The Market” that was constructed in 1938 from hand-chiseled coquina. Inside the U-shaped building is a picturesque courtyard that’s nearly an acre, filled with century-old water oaks. Just across the street is the former location of racing legend Smokey Yunick’s garage (if you’re not familiar with Smokey, check out this article). Take a stroll down Riverside Drive and you’ll come across a tree on the riverbanks dubbed “Gnome Tree.” Locals and visitors alike donate gnome figurines of all shapes and sizes to live under Gnome Tree. It’s a fun little spot to stop and admire the river and check out a colorful assortment of mythical creatures.
Another Holly Hill icon is the Twilight Motel on US1. It looks a little run-down most days of the year, but during the Christmas season, it is a sight to behold. The owners decorate the property with endless lights, Santa and Rudolph figurines, and other cheery holiday displays of grandeur. We often drive through, marveling at the beauty and the thought of the electric bill. But the owners ask for nothing more than a donation in their little wood box (if you can afford one). Let’s not forget that Holly Hill is in beautiful, sunny Florida. The grass is greener on this side because it doesn’t freeze here, dammit. Just across the river awaits the Atlantic ocean. There are lots of little riverfront parks for local kids to terrorize. The folks in Holly Hill are generally more friendly than their snooty Ormond counterparts or the derelict Daytonians.
Because of the odd placement of the Marina Grande, and those even grander historic homes lining the Halifax river, Holly Hill is a place where the poorest family and the upper class can both feel at home. That’s the best way to describe our beloved Holy Hell: a place you can feel at home, no matter your position in life. It’s an anomaly: a low-income, dilapidated community on the water in paradise. If you ever happen to book a flight to Daytona Beach to escape the miserable winter in Ohio or Wisconsin, take an afternoon to visit Holly Hill (soon to proudly be the home of a professional, state-of-the-art pickleball court). We’ve got a brewery and a distillery here now, paying homage to our alcohol-smuggling roots. There is a decent pizza place or two and an outstanding dive bar with a bit of old-timey nostalgia mixed in. Damn near brings tears to my eyes; I’m feeling bold enough to say that Holy Hell, despite the seemingly undeserved nickname, is close to heaven on Earth.