Monday, October 19, 2009

Flagler County: Visit Florida as it used to be

Travelers used to  come to Florida for warmth, tropical scenery, oceans and beaches. Levelers will find all of that, plus flat surfaces and easy access in Flagler County.

This little-visited area between historic St. Augustine and speedy Daytona Beach is a destination for anyone who wants to kick back and enjoy nature.

 Palm Coast, a retirement community that grew like kudzu to over 75,000, is the most populated area but Flagler Beach, with maybe 6,000 residents along A1A to the south, is its heart.

There's only one high-rise condo (thanks to height restrictions hastily enacted by horrified residents it won't have company) and A1A flanks the ocean so nothing gets between joyriders and views of the ocean and red sand beaches.

Much of what was built in the early 1900s is still around. Many private homes have become quaint shops, restaurants or inns (the first school house is now a tavern). The large and once glamorous Flagler Hotel is gone, replaced with a bustling Friday-Saturday farmer's market, a testament to the county's largely rural farmland west of I-95.

Tip: The town is flat and compact - six or seven by three or four blocks centered on the 600-foot-long ocean pier where the fishing is good.

Other than that, it's a nature lover's paradise.
* Get up close and personal with dolphins at Marineland.                    Washington Oaks   

* Fish, bike, hike or just sit and enjoy the scenery and gardens at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park then go to its beachfront walkway at low tide to see the fascinating coquina formations.
* Fish, paddle to or just tour Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park.
* Add to your count along the Great Florida Birding Trail, perhaps at Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area which stretches from the Intracoastal Waterway on the West to the Atlantic Ocean (via a convenient dune walkover) on the East.
* Canoe, kayak or rent an electric boat to explore the myriad streams, tributaries and canals around the Intracoastal Waterway, including Bulow Creek, a designated state canoe trail.

* See the first in-ground swimming pool built in Florida at Princess Place Preserve, a magical lodge once lived in by a rich divorcee and her Russian prince at the corner of the Matanzas River and Pelicer Creek.

* Experience what it took to live off the land at the Florida Agricultural Museum with its Florida Cracker Cattle and Cracker Horses, descendants of those the Conquistadors brought to the New World.
Tip: This facility is a lot more fun than its name implies and you can tour around its acreage on a wagon pulled by an old Allis Chalmers tractor that starred in the movie Cars!

Accommodations? Take your choice. At one end, the luxe Hammock Beach Resort with its gourmet dining, lush ocean golf course, private beach, pool and lazy river complexes, spa, yacht basin and ocean-view condo units. Just off I-95, perhaps a mile from Flagler Beach, the very modern and comfortable Hampton Inn & Suites and Hilton Garden Inn. Several ocean/riverfront campgrounds offer spaces for RVs or primitive tenting. Then there are the anything but ordinary possibilities along A1A from the personality-filled Si Como No Inn and the collection- and possession-filled Topaz Hotel or its more traditional Motel to the much written-about White Orchid Inn & Spa.
Tip: Before picking a beachfront spot for over-nighting, ask how many steps down to the beach. Erosion has eaten away many of the more gently sloped access points, leaving some very high and steep stairways.

Dining? Same range. Blue Restaurant at The Topaz Hotel captures the gourmet crowd. A1A Burrito Works, a tiny hole in the wall with an outside picnic table dining room and to-die-for fish tacos, attracts the surfer set. 

Tip: Like books, don't judge beach-side restaurants by their covers. Un-chic shabby often disguises the best seafood joints.

This is Florida before the glamor, glitz and theme parks. Leave your pretensions in the trunk for stops farther south.                                                 They're just kidding.
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