Flagler County hovers under the radar between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach, Florida, including a swath of historic Highway A1A that runs along the scenic Atlantic coastline. Drivers often stop for a meal at one of the Mom and Pop establishments along this route and discover Flagler’s hidden gems. Amy Lukasik, Director of Tourism, says, “We draw the accidental tourists, and once they find us, they return year after year.”
What makes the Flagler Beaches and Palm Coast so special? The folks that live there swear it’s the strong community spirit. Many current residents who were not originally Floridians, chose to make this northeast Florida area their home. Now, they won’t consider leaving. Tourists, on the other hand, are enticed by the laid back coastal lifestyle, luxury accommodations at reasonable rates, uncrowded beaches and great restaurants. And if that’s not enough, there are plenty of activities that tempt them to stay and play: golfing, boating, fishing, kayaking, biking and birding.
To plan a fantastic Flagler getaway, start with lodging. My choice is the AAA 4-star rated Hammock Beach Resort, a grand and glorious oceanfront hotel. The red-roofed behemoth earned the #1 ranking for “Resorts in Florida” on Travel & Leisure magazine’s 2016 list. The surrounding rental villas and homes, with full access to all the amenities of the main hotel, attract romantic couples, golf and girlfriend getaway groups, family gatherings or extended-family vacationers.
I stayed in a fully furnished three-bedroom unit that overlooked a quiet section of beach, a short drive from the main building.Everything I needed, from free WiFi, a fully accessorized kitchen, to a deluxe bedroom and bathroom, with super soft linens and towels, made for an ideal stay. Each villa community comes with its own pool and facilities.
Hammock Beach Resort offers two championship seaside golf courses to test golfers’ skills; novice players like to practice on the nine-hole natural grass putting green. The 91,000 square-foot (yes, it’s immense) Fantasy Pool Complex delights all ages, with a lazy river, water slide park, adults-only pool and bar and kid-friendly sandy beach pool. An indoor pool and fitness center cover cooler weather days. For tennis enthusiasts, eight lighted clay courts await play, and I can attest to a therapeutic kindness received in the posh, full-service spa.
Coming by boat? Reserve one of marina slips and enjoy private club privileges at the Yacht Harbor Village. This area resort has even more condominiums, restaurants and pools. But no matter where you stay, come at sundown and catch the Sundancer, an 117-foot yacht, for a scenic sunset cocktail cruise on the Intracoastal Waterway. No better way to feel like a tycoon without breaking the bank.
If you’re not looking for a full-service resort, a more intimate lodging choice with an Old Florida feel is the White Orchid Inn. The small boutique hotel and spa rests along Route A1A, across from the copper-colored sandy shores of Flagler Beach. Stays include breakfast and afternoon appetizers.
Even the most fanatic foodies find happiness in Flagler. Talented chefs work in kitchens that feature local seafood and farm-to-table fresh fare. Feel free to arrive at casual restaurants in flip-flops and cutoffs or break out the sundress for more gourmet affairs.
Happy Hour at the beach is a daily must whether it’s lemonade, cocktails, local craft beers or a special bottle of wine. Consider the Hammock Wine and Cheese Shop as a fun afternoon or pre-dinner stop, or buy a bottle and sip it later.
Coffee shops are typically neighborhood breakfast and lunch eateries, often frequented by walkers or joggers out with their dogs. Flagler maintains a Fido-friendly reputation along some beaches and many dining and lodging establishments. The Beach House Beanery and Cafe is one of those hot spots, decorated in vibrant beachy decor. Owner Carol Fisher graciously divulged her delicious crustless spinach and Cheddar quiche recipe after I begged. Another morning, I hit the popular Java Joint where the chef cooked up some amazing breakfast quesadillas. The Oceanside, run by Greek brothers, is another great find.
Captain’s BBQ at Bing’s Landing (also accessible by boat via the Intracoastal Waterway) has earned a ranking as one of the ten best barbecue restaurants in the US and #1 in Florida from TripAdvisor. I have to agree. Captain’s BBQ is ever so juicy, and the servings are more than plentiful. Owner Chris Herrera is a pitmaster by trade but harbors a passion for fishing. He somehow manages to run the best BBQ joint in the state as well as a charter fishing business. So whether you’re hungry or in need of an angling adventure, Chris is the man who can make it happen. And his partner, known as Cheesecake Mike, the baker at Captain’s BBQ, draws his own devoted crowd for spectacular New York style cheesecake and other homemade desserts. Many diners opt to get his dessert as take-out.
Flagler Fish Company allows you to survey all the fresh catch chilling on ice behind glass showcases in the casual restaurant; you can take some home to prepare. I ordered a soft-shell crab sandwich that came with an outstanding sauce. Owner Chris Casper was recently featured in an ad that claimed: “Fish fear him and hungry people worship him.” I now understand why!
Looking to dine someplace more upscale? Try 386, A Fusion of Fine Eating, located in “The Hammock.” Owner Frank dishes up fresh seafood, with Southern favorites like Shrimp ‘n Grits. He cooks a sensational New England scallop dish, and his Italian background shines through in the luscious lasagna. You can’t go wrong dining in this local establishment. Another wonderful spot for Italian fare is La Piazza in the European Village.
Tops on the list of activities is relaxing (and sunbathing for those who still do) along the 19 miles of cinnamon-toast-colored sandy beaches. The Pier at Flagler Beach is where you can fish, rent surfboards, paddleboards and other aquatic gear, as well as bicycles.
The town of Marineland, population around 16, sits at the northern tip of Flagler County and border of St. John’s Country. In 1938, Marineland Studios opened as the world’s first oceanarium and remains one of Florida’s oldest tourists attractions. Marineland became an immense tourist draw in the 1960s and ’70’s, before Disney World existed. Today, the dolphin shows are gone, but Marineland Dolphin Adventure remains one of the best places to observe dolphin behavior. The facility underwent a total renovation and now focuses on education and research. Some may disagree, but I think the optimal way to learn and connect with these majestic mammals is to book an interactive, up-close and personal water encounter. I will always cherish my special face-to-face moments with dolphin Lily and her trainer. Guests may also choose land-based programs such as hand-feeding the dolphins.
Kayaking through the pristine waterways is the specialty of Ripple Effect Adventure Outfitters. The guides are certified University of Florida Master Naturalist instructors who love to share their knowledge and passion for the eco-system. Those who prefer not to paddle can sit back and take the Eco-Explorer jet boat tour powered from recycled vegetable oil.
Birders and photographers thrive on the area’s five designated Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trails. Thousands of colorful birds make northeast Florida their nesting grounds. Another popular photo op is Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. I recommend that you arrive at sunrise or sunset to capture the surf flowing over the coquina rock formations along the shore. Others prefer daytime strolls in the Park’s oak hammock area, among the native and exotic species that bloom in the well-manicured gardens.
Rent a golf cart at the Beach House Beanery and take it for a whirl around Flagler Beach. I had lots of laughs while shopping for cute and quirky souvenirs, but my favorite buys were found in the Farmers Market held on Fridays and Saturdays.
In addition to Hammock Resort’s two championship courses, four other 18-holes challenges await golfers in Palm Coast. Stay a week and play all of them. I’m not a biker, but I certainly noticed some of the 125 miles of bike trails rambling through the area. Any questions about the trails should be addressed to the local “Bicycle Doctor,” Tony Liberetti. Visitors can rent cycles at the pier or from Tony.
Should you get too relaxed, you can always join the crowds visiting nearby historic St. Augustine or Daytona Beach. However, I’m sure you’ll discover that a getaway to Flagler County uncovers a Florida vacation that feeds, nourishes and recharges your soul. Find Flagler and you will find yourself.