With a population that has grown steadily over the past few years, Palm Coast and Flagler County are proving to be the softest patch of Florida’s many beaches in which to settle down.
Visitors needn’t worry, either. This stretch of coastal delights between Volusia and St. Johns counties on Florida’s East Coast remains the most hidden of vacation hideaways, and you can still explore much of what the area has to offer in a long weekend. But why would you? About 75 miles north of Orlando, the Flagler beaches are built for breezy afternoons, not whirlwind tours.
In the actual city of Flagler Beach, a colorful assortment of beach bars, restaurants and shops waits in lazy orbit around the hub of the Flagler Beach Municipal Pier. Constructed in 1928, the pier remains the best place to start planning the rest of your visit, though don’t be surprised if the day floats away while you’re fishing. (Daily fishing passes on the pier are $6 adults, $4 seniors and military, while walk-out admission is $1.50 adults, $1 for seniors and military.)
Highlights around the pier along State Road A1A include the Golden Lion Cafe (goldenlioncafe.com), one of the oldest of several eateries offering raw-bar dining on a rooftop deck. As you might expect, seafood reigns supreme in the restaurant scene, though you can enjoy Mexican fare at relative newcomer Fuego Del Mar, along with a cozy view of the Atlantic Ocean from the patio fire pit.
For a glass of wine and great conversation, check in and kick back at the Flagler Beachfront Winery (flaglerbeachfrontwinery.com), where the chardonnays and cabernets are crafted in-house from imported grapes. And light shopping awaits a few blocks inland at spots such as Change Jar Books (changejarbooks.com).
Special note for those vacationing with man’s best friend: Leashed pets are welcome on Flagler Beach, but only north of North 10th Street and south of South 10th Street.
After mining the delights of Flagler Beach, it’s time to lace up the hiking boots or hop on that bike. Either method is ideal for exploring Washington Oaks Gardens State Park in Palm Coast (washingtonoaks.org), just 12 miles north on S.R. A1A.
The centerpiece of this network of nature trails is the Formal Gardens, where a brook winds through native plants, a rose garden and a picture-perfect gazebo. Visitors who enjoy the Edenic scenery can thank the late energy magnate and diplomat Owen D. Young and wife Louise Young, the winter residents of Washington Oaks who donated the property to the state of Florida in 1964. Cap off the visit with a walk to the majestic beachside coquina rocks, just east of the Florida scrub habitat where the state park meets the ocean.
Back on A1A, aquatic adventures await at Marineland (marineland.net), one of Florida’s earliest animal attractions. The facility celebrated a 75th anniversary in 2013, and continues to focus on marine conservation with educational and fun exhibits such as the dolphin encounter. General admission tickets start at $12.95 for adults, $11.95 for seniors or $7.95 for ages 3-12, with interactive dolphin experiences priced from $32.95.
Those inspired by the natural splendor can get hands-on with the help of Ripple Effect Eco-Tours (rippleeffectecotours.com), offering kayak and boat excursions on the Matanzas River from the Marineland Marina just across A1A from Marineland. If you’re at the marina on a Sunday, you can also sample local crafts and produce at the Salt Air Farmers Market from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Time for a lunch break? Just a short drive south on A1A, grab a seat at Captain’s BBQ (captainsbbqbaittackle.com). Locals regularly weigh anchor on the Matanzas River docks behind this restaurant to enjoy the pulled pork and brisket that earned Captain’s a No. 1 statewide ranking for barbecue on travel site TripAdvisor.com. (Thumbs up from this vacationer for the New York-style cheesecake, too.)
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If you go
What: The easternmost cities in Flagler County, Palm Coast and Flagler Beach are on Florida’s East Coast, with St. John’s County to the north and Volusia County to the south.
Where: Flagler Beach, the county’s centerpiece, is roughly 3 miles east of Interstate 95 at State Road 100, 75 miles northeast of Orlando and 70 miles south of Jacksonville. Palm Coast is directly northwest of Flagler Beach and roughly 25 miles south of St. Augustine.
Getting there: From Orlando take Interstate 4 east to Interstate 95 north. Flagler Beach and Palm Coast exits are 284 and 289.
Population: According to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the population of Palm Coast is 78,740 and Flagler Beach is 4,655.
Accommodations and activities: Flagler County features a variety of hotels, from locally owned bed-and-breakfasts, cabins and furnished apartments to national chain hotels. The area is known for its fishing, surfing, shopping and outdoor activities at a variety of parks and marinas.
Call: 866-736-9291 (Flagler County Chamber of Commerce)
Other parks and activities
Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park, Old Kings Road between Old Dixie Highway and S.R. 100, Flagler Beach: Take the walking trail to the ruins of a plantation house and sugar mill destroyed in the Second Seminole War, or explore Bulow Creek on a rented canoe. Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Monday. Cost: $4 per vehicle, $2 for pedestrians or cyclists. Visitfloridastateparks.org/park/Bulow-Plantation.
Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area, 3100 S. State Road A1A, Flagler Beach: Camp or picnic near the beach at the scenic pavilions and facilities. Canoe and kayak rentals or nature trails await nearby. Hours: 8 a.m.-sundown daily. Cost: $5 per vehicle, $2 pedestrians or cyclists. Visit floridastateparks.org/park/Gamble-Rogers.
Flagler Beach Historical Museum and Visitors Center, 207 S. Central Ave., Flagler Beach: This one-room museum traces more than a century of local history with artifacts from Timucuan Indians and the early years of the NASA space program. Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Cost: Free, donations accepted. Visit flaglerbeachmuseum.com.