A book and a blanket on the sand would be enough to enjoy a getaway to Palm Coast and the Flagler County beaches, but one also should arrive with a thirst for shopping, history and the outdoors.
Hiking, camping and kayaking opportunities abound in Flagler County's roughly 570 square miles, enough incentive to explore beyond the dunes.
Although Flagler has been overshadowed as a tourist destination by world-famous Daytona Beach to the south and historic St. Augustine to the north, such diversions have turned the county into a quiet gem that recalls Old Florida spots that preceded Walt Disney's landscape-changing Central Florida arrival in 1971.
- Pictures: Travel to Palm Coast and the Flagler Beaches
- Pictures: Restaurants in Flagler Beach
- Pictures: Kayaking Flagler
- Pictures: Marineland -- Florida's first theme park
- Pictures: Gamble Rogers State Park, Flagler Beach
- Florida Beach Guide: Flagler Beach pictures
- Dining and Drinking
- Restaurant and Catering Industry
- State Parks
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Florida A1A, FL, USA
Flagler Beach, the county's centerpiece tourist stop, welcomes visitors with a signature landmark that makes it easy to visualize the laid-back lifestyle.
About 3 miles east of Interstate 95, Flagler Beach Municipal Pier is hard to miss with the city's name emblazoned in yellow block letters atop a weather-beaten A-frame. It houses a bait shop and restaurant, where fishing and tide reports are updated on a chalkboard for anglers who pay $6 for a day's fishing on the 800-foot pier.
Along State Road A1A, two larger chalkboards are available for visitors to scribble their own messages. Even without a fishing pole, guests can stroll on the pier for $1.50, the better to ogle the day's big catches along with sea gulls, pelicans and other birds interested in a free meal.
That unassuming style helped make Flagler Beach a finalist in Budget Travel magazine's "Coolest Small Town contest" in 2013, praised by the magazine as an area that "seems to attract more sea turtles and right whales than spring breakers." Flagler Beach also was honored by Where to Retire magazine as one of the top retirement spots in Florida in a 2012 poll.
The Atlantic waves always have been a magnet for surfers, but even without a board, one can catch the vibe at High Tides at Snack Jack (snackjacks.com). Perched on a dune near the southern border of Flagler Beach on A1A, Snack Jack has been a surfer hangout since 1950, and diners nosh on steamed shrimp — cash only — at rustic benches on a windblown deck.
North on A1A, a few blocks from the pier, Oceanside Beach Bar & Grill (oceansideflagler.com) offers American, Italian and Southern-style favorites prepared by a family with roots in the Flagler Beach restaurant business since 1989.
For another taste of local history, artifacts from prehistoric times to the space program are displayed at the Flagler Beach Historical Museum (flaglerbeachmuseum.com).
Although a cozy, one-room building in the middle of the city's pedestrian-friendly business district, the museum is packed with interesting tidbits: Timucuan Indian trinkets; photos of Charles Lindbergh on a visit to Flagler Beach in 1931; and a Flagler Beach flag that traveled aboard space shuttle Endeavour with astronaut Scott Kelly, whose parents live in the city.
There's another history museum in Bunnell, where Holden House opens to visitors on Wednesday afternoons. Built in 1918, Holden House is now operated by the Flagler County Historical Society. It's about a 10-mile drive inland from Flagler Beach.
Within walking distance of the Flagler Beach museum, meanwhile, are shops that sell everything from ukuleles to health food, galleries featuring the work of local artists and a bookstore that specializes in fiction by Florida authors.
If window-shopping isn't strenuous enough, you can burn off calories by hiking or paddling on the Intracoastal Waterway at Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area, just south of Snack Jack. Or head north on A1A past the blink-and-you-miss-them destinations of Beverly Beach and Hammock to smell the roses, literally, at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park in Palm Coast, where landscaped gardens showcase azaleas and camellias under the shelter of an oak hammock.
The park's rose garden is part of ornamental plant and fruit orchards designed by Louise Young, wife of the property's original owner, Owen D. Young, a businessman who built a winter retreat there in the late 1930s. Now the garden features Gold Medal and Ingrid Bergman red roses, among other varieties.
Across A1A, Washington Oaks offers less fragile diversions, such as camping next to the ocean, where coquina rocks accent the sea oats that border the beach.
Just north of Washington Oaks, the ocean also is the backdrop for Marineland Dolphin Adventure (marineland.net). That's the latest incarnation of the historic Marineland park that opened in 1938. The colder months are prime viewing season for endangered northern right whales that migrate south from December through March to Florida's Atlantic coast between Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral.
In 2006, Marineland reopened as an affiliate of the Georgia Aquarium to offer a variety of programs that allow guests to touch, feed, swim and communicate with dolphins. Cost of the interactive programs starts at $29, but visitors can watch the dolphins for general admission of $9.95 adults, $5.95 for age 12 and younger.
Like the rest of Flagler County, the park has found a way to keep its history from growing old.
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Flagler County's state parks
Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area, 3100 S. S.R. A1A, Flagler Beach: On the southern border of Flagler Beach, this 145-acre park features nature trails; boat ramps; canoe and kayak rentals; a full-facility campground; and picnic pavilions with a view of wildlife on the Intracoastal Waterway. Beach access also is available. Hours: 8 a.m.-sundown daily. Cost: $5 per vehicle. Visit floridastateparks.org/gamblerogers.
Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, 6400 N. S.R. A1A, Palm Coast: This state park, roughly 9 miles north of the Flagler Pier, features formal gardens with native and exotic plants as well as fishing on the Matanzas River. On the beach side, the park offers wide beaches accented by famous coquina-rock formations. Hours: 8 a.m.-sundown daily. Cost: $5 per vehicle. Visit washingtonoaks.org.
Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park, Old Kings Road between Old Dixie Highway and State Road 100, Flagler Beach: The park is on the site of a working plantation destroyed in the Second Seminole War in 1836. The ruins include a coquina sugar mill; foundations of the plantation house and slave quarters; a walking trail; picnic areas; and canoe rentals to explore Bulow Creek. Visit floridastateparks.org/bulowplantation
If you go
Palm Coast and the Flagler beaches
What: Roughly 570 square miles bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Putnam County to the west, Volusia County to the south and St. Johns County to the north, Flagler County is known for its beaches, fishing and outdoor activities.
Getting there: Flagler Beach, the county's centerpiece, is roughly 3 miles east of Interstate 95 at State Road 100, roughly 90 miles north of Orlando and 68 miles south of Jacksonville. The Flagler beaches are bordered by St. Augustine to the north and Ormond Beach to the south.
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 Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area in Flagler Beach and Washington Oaks Gardens State Park in Palm Coast. Visit palmcoastandtheflaglerbeaches.com for details.