Florida instantly conjures up images of Mickey Mouse and deliriously smiley Disney princesses, but if you want to discover the real sunshine state, head east to tranquil surf city, New Smyrna Beach.

Away from the madness of Orlando's famous theme parks, this is a taste of quaint, small-town USA, where kids still get around on skateboards, surfer dudes ride the waves, and the Southern charm is infectious. If New Smyrna Beach was a song it would be Pharrell Williams' Happy.

A former British colony in the 18th century, with a population of 26,470 settled on either side of the expansive Indian River, it's a favourite holiday destination for 'snowbirds' - retirees from colder climes who fly south for the winter months to soak up the sun and experience all the beauty of the sea.

Thirty miles from Cape Canaveral and at the heart of the US space programme, the region is undergoing a major development. With 1,200 miles of stunning coastline, white sandy beaches and abundant sea life, you can wake up to the sight of bottle-nosed dolphins frolicking as the sun rises over the river, dine on local seafood and tap into a community spirit that makes you feel like you're one of the family.

Experience the arts and culture scene

New Smyrna Beach has a vibrant arts scene. A silent movie theatre on Canal Street (the town's main street) has been converted to create The Hub on Canal (thehuboncanal.org; free admission), a bustling, interactive arts centre. With an art gallery showcasing the work of 70 regional artists (many of whom work on site), the non-profit organisation holds educational workshops and hosts local concerts and film festivals, offering the locals and visitors a place to experience and participate in the arts.

Featuring beach landscapes, dramatic black and white photographs of the region and handicrafts such as handmade moccasins and alpaca shawls, there is much to marvel at, while resident artists are always happy to talk you through the finer details of their work.

Go kayaking on the Indian River

To experience the area's wildlife, it's possible to hire a kayak at the Marine Discovery Centre (marinediscoverycenter.org) and travel along part of the Indian River, a 160 mile stretch of water from New Smyrna to Miami, rich with plant and birdlife.

In a two-hour guided session (adults: $40; children aged 6-12: $22), paddle along a four-mile round stretch of intercoastal waterways, flanked by luscious black and red mangroves. The route is sedate enough for novices and guides are always within safe distance to offer instruction on paddling technique. Cormorants, white herons and pelicans can all be seen.

Sample the local fare

You won't find a commercial restaurant chain anywhere on New Smyrna and eating out is much like dropping in for dinner with family. Small eateries pride themselves on their locally-sourced fresh produce. Of course, fish features heavily on the menus. At The Local Pearl Oyster Shoppe (thelocalpearl.com; mains $30) you can sample an endless array of fish dishes, from the catch of the day to oysters fried in cornmeal.

For something less formal, head to JB's Fish Camp (jbsfishcamp.com),a shack-style eatery on the waterfront, which serves as the setting for some hearty Southern fare. The Riverpark Terrace (riverparkterrace.com; mains $35) offers the best of traditional American cuisine from the surroundings of a tropical garden. An eclectic menu includes buttermilk fried green tomatoes, grilled wild salmon and baked crab mac and cheese.

Discover refreshing hangouts

Run by former school friends, The Florida Local (floridalocalmarket.com) is a trendy hangout where you can catch up with friends over an ice cold coffee. Brewmaster Chris began making beer for his friends in his garage six years ago. Or try the New Smyrna Beach Brewing Company (newsmyrnabeachbrewery.com), a local watering hole where family and friends gather at the end of the working day and everybody knows your name. With over 80 home-brewed beers - from the intense flagship beer dubbed Shark Attack to the fruity apricot Pilsner - there's something for all palates.

Head for the beach

New Smyrna is all about the beach life. Wake up to the soft sound of the ebbing waves from an ocean front view at SpringHill Suites by Marriott (marriott.co.uk $159) per room, per night, including breakfast), and head out to Flagler Avenue for a morning walk, as families setting up a picnic for a day of relaxation.

You can also hire a bike or a buggy from Salty Rentals, at The Salty Mermaid Hotel (saltyrentalsnsb.com - bikes: $10 per hour, or$35 per 24 hours, buggies: $25 per hour). Seating four, a buggy ride is a great way to cover the vast stretch of sandy coastline, taking in the view and the warm sea breeze, while playing your favourite beach tracks.