In spring, summer, and fall (not winter, when it can be chilly), Flagler Beach supplies the best budget-priced seaside vacation in Florida
It's a place you probably have never heard of. It's not widely promoted. Chalk that up to small promotional budgets and no fire in the belly for the big time. What you may have heard of is Palm Coast. That's the massive ITT-sponsored development that in the 1980s made rural Flagler County a retirement destination, though not a vacation one. Even with four incorporated cities, Flagler's population today barely tops 50,000. (Smallest city, Marineland, site of America's oldest dolphin attraction, numbers six.)
Palm Coast promotes lot sales. It's the power behind the county chamber of commerce that hardly bothers with tourism. Give thanks for that.
Otherwise, Flagler would look like everyplace else in Florida, its beaches condo-mania. But that's not yet the case and certainly not in Flagler Beach, a town of about 5,000 between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. That's far enough north along the Atlantic coast that locals quit swimming in winter, though many northerners splash year-round. Flagler Beach is primarily for Americans looking for an authentic, rewarding, budget-priced vacation in spring, summer, and fall.
What makes Flagler Beach so good?
You get attractive, clean, locally owned motel rooms any time of year for between $40 and $60. Substantial meals with tax, tip, and a glass of wine can be had for $15 - early-bird specials can drop that to $10! Even at the posh Palm Coast Golf Resort, after a two-course early bird with coffee, tax, and tip you can get out for under $20.
Best of all, the beach is open. No hotels, no condos, no houses stand between Highway A1A and the beach. No parking meters line the shore road or municipal lots. In 1983 the only high-rise rose behind low condos on the north side of town and the city commission soon barred any more.
Elsewhere in Florida, wherever a state road ends at the beach, you'd expect a row of gaudy hotels. In Flagler Beach, Finnegan's Beachside Pub occupies the north side of where State Route 100 meets Highway A1A, with its painted mural of mermaids and shillelagh-wielding leprechauns. A corner north is a bait-and-tackle shop. East across Highway 100, an every-Friday farmers market occupies the empty lot that was site of the old Flagler Beach Hotel, gone since 1972, the town's onetime grab for glory, its history detailed along with much more in the newly opened, smartly curated little Flagler Beach Historical Museum (207 S. Central Ave., 386/517-2025).
The shore road's only billboards promote Hammock Dunes, a ritzy development six miles north of Flagler Beach where ITT successfully lobbied to relocate A1A inland and so turn a section of beach essentially private. Don't complain.
Wonderfully small town
Flagler Beach folks cheered when the Pizza Hut failed. You want pizza? You go to LaBella's. It's local and here for 13 years. Chains otherwise? A couple of low-key convenience stores, the gas stations, the Bank of America branch, an H&R Block office, and Car Quest Auto Parts.
Single mom Bonnie Scott brought her eight-year-old son here eight years ago precisely because the place is almost crime-free. Bonnie runs Pegasus by the Sea Books with some 60,000 mostly used titles. (Graham Greene's The Third Man lately sold for a buck in paperback.) Businesspeople are known to leave their doors unlocked when they walk to the post office.
Rosemary Williams operates Art Soup, an art gallery that sells inexpensive originals behind Playhouse by the Beach, a 74-seat theater in a shed that drew SRO crowds last year with Always Patsy Cline (produced with live music, tickets $15).
Landmark downtown attraction is the 804-foot fishing pier. The pier restaurant rates for bargain midweek breakfasts: $2.99 for two pancakes, two eggs, two bacon strips. Otherwise popular are the pier benches and fence in front of the $1 gate where town teens (not a troublesome lot) hang out.
Surfing is big. With an offshore wind there's no better surfing along Florida's east coast. Lawyer Dennis Bayer is known to drop his books and grab his board. Zoee Forehand at Z Wave Surf Shop gets calls from as far as Atlanta and Tampa.
It helps that most shopkeepers live in town. Like everybody, they tend to live in bungalows and modest clapboard and shingle houses, even though expensive homes are going up south of town.
These new houses are inflating land values, which suggests that sooner rather than later more posh places to stay will get built and rate creep will follow. As it is, the B&B in town, expensive and with its own new spa, is low-rise and fits right in.
More than just affordable
Vacationers find plenty to do.
North to south are four state parks. Faver-Dykes State Park occupies the north side of Pellicer Creek and rents canoes for exploring this reed-banked waterway. The creek can be challenging, especially in offshore winds when the open banks provide little shelter and the wind, as you paddle back downstream, will wrestle even the best paddler for control of a high bow. A small community of houses about a mile upstream from the launch opens suddenly around a bend with the rapport, you might imagine, of Thoreau coming upon an early Massachusetts settlement during his week paddling the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
South on the creek is Princess Place, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, an old coquina lodge barely above a cypress swamp that you can also reach along a dirt road that dates from colonial times. The site is darkly gothic, draped beneath Spanish moss, dripping in saltwater marsh, freshwater wetlands, oak hammocks, rising to scrub, joined by the restless sheet of water where Pellicer Creek empties into the Matanzas. Visitors enjoy four-and-a-half miles of trails.
Two oceanfront parks include Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, once owned by GE chairman Owen D. Young. His waterway home today is an interpretive center surrounded by gardens of azaleas, camellias, and roses; on the beach, outcroppings of coquina. Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area also supplies beach and waterway recreation.
Inland, Bulow Plantation Ruins State Historic Park marks an early nineteenth-century sugar plantation, notable today for its coquina ruins where you can picnic, canoe, hike, and visit an interpretive center that recalls an 1830s visit by John James Audubon. Trails go off alongside impounded ponds from two parking areas in 4,500-acre Graham Swamp Conservation Area. In 2001, the entire 26 county miles of A1A became a designated National Scenic Highway. A bicycle path rims the entire road.
The county seat of Bunnell, a blue-collar place where blue-jeaned grannies drive Harleys to the HandyWay, centers a large farming district. Fields alternate with forest. In April this year, dedication of an old dairy barn launched the long-delayed development of the Florida Agricultural Museum near Princess Place.
Inland, Haw Creek Preserve provides a boardwalk over marsh at a site seasonally good for watching swallow-tailed kites, warblers, and wading birds.
Several motels sit across the road from the beach, those noted below all clean, all offering optional efficiencies, some cottages, all with weekly and monthly rates, most units with coffeemakers. All zip codes are 32136.
Choices include :
Some affordable Flagler Beach eating places with their specialties, all on the shore road except as noted, and most of their seafood fresh: Canatella's Cafe (Cajun, Italian entrees with sides average $14; romantic); Evans' Ocean Shore (pasta, seafood, chicken, veal, beef with sides average $12, early birds $6 to $11); Fisherman's Net (seafood with sides average $12, early birds $5.95-$6.96); Golden Lion Cafe (seafood, grills, ribs with sides average $14); High Tides at Snack Jack (seafood with mini-sides average $10.50, beer imports $2.75; best atmosphere, rustic, directly on the water, no credit cards); Martins Restaurant (seafood, grills with sides average $13). For sandwiches, on-site pastries, fresh bean coffee, and ice cream, try Cafe Cara, a block off A1A. For gourmet take-out or eat-in, Starfire Market (Greek wrap $5.95, tuna wrap $10.95, veggie and grain platter $12).
For more information: Flagler Beach Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 5, Flagler Beach, FL 32136-0005, 800/298-0995, flaglercounty.com/fbcc; Flagler County Chamber of Commerce, Star Route Box 18-N, Bunnell, FL 32110, 386/437-0106, flaglerpcchamber.org.