© Lena Grottling/Shutterstock.com
At Flagler Beach, Old Florida isn’t a thing of the past
Located 40 kilometres north of the roar of Daytona, Flagler Beach markets itself as laid-back and quiet, a seaside community that offers a taste of the “Old Florida.” America’s oldest city, St. Augustine, is 50 kilometres north, but it’s old in terms of history: forts, monuments, relics from the British and Spanish past.
At Flagler Beach, old means cheap motels and seafood shacks, no condos and strip malls, and 10 kilometres of orange-sand beach. There isn’t a chain restaurant in sight, and the town’s centerpiece is an old wooden pier, where you can rent a pole and fish with the locals or, if the waves are good, which they often are, stand and watch the surfers.
Sometimes, you can watch the fishermen and surfers fight. The pier has a 45-metre No Surf Zone, and rogue surfers enter it to get closer to the swells, tangling themselves in the lines and disturbing the fish. It’s one of the longest running controversies at Flagler Beach, with the most recent flare-up being in 2011, when a proposal to extend the zone to 90 metres was voted down after protesting surfers took to the streets with signs saying “Don’t take our break.”
The normal mood at Flagler is calm. Most of the small town (pop. 4484) is built on the west side of the A1A Scenic Highway that runs beside the ocean. On the east side, there isn’t much but beach. You can park your car (for free) on the grass shoulder and go for a swim or a walk on the sand, which gets its distinctive orange-cinnamon colour from coquina shell fragments. The beach has pet-friendly zones for dogs and, further up, coquina rock formations that give children a place to climb.
There are two restaurants on the beach side: the Funky Pelican, beside the pier, and High Tides at Snack Jacks, where you can eat fish tacos and crab cakes in the open-air. Back on the other side of the street, you can watch the sunset from the upper patio at the Golden Lion Café, a regular finalist in best Florida beach bar contests, or Finn’s, a divey but comfortable pub with a large wooden rooftop deck that is a Flagler landmark, the town’s equivalent of a Hard Rock Café.
If you think it all sounds cool, you’re not alone. Last year, Flagler was a finalist in Budget Travel magazine’s Coolest Small Towns Contest. “The area seems to attract more sea turtles and right whales than spring breakers,” the magazine wrote, noting that the “thin strip of a beach town has remained significantly less-developed than its neighbours.” And not only is Flagler Beach cool, it’s also a cool place to be old, at least according to Where to Retire magazine, which in 2012 named it one of the Top Retirement Destinations in Florida.
Stone age to space age
So what does one do in a place that is both cool and old-age friendly? I spent three days in Flagler Beach to find out, armed with a full itinerary of places to go and sites to see.
The number one site would, of course, be the beach, long and unspoiled, with enough wind and waves to keep things interesting. Then there is the “downtown,” which exists in name only, and again is most notable for the lack of chain restaurants and stores. No McDonalds, no Subway, no Walmart or Best Buy (though mind you, it’s a sort of illusion, as all can be found further inland in the planned community of Palm Coast). Instead, there are surf shops, taco stands and galleries with local crafts and art, and odd stores like Toes in the Sand, which has a large sign outside announcing its specialties: ukuleles and flip flops.
The main downtown attraction is the Flagler Beach Historical Museum and Visitor Center (207 South Central Avenue; tel: 386-517-2025; flaglerbeachmuseum.com, which is a long name for a small place. Seeking refuge from the beating noonday heat, I did a full perusal of the museum, which was cool due to both the air conditioning and the friendly senior citizen who was on volunteer duty.
In press materials, the museum proudly describes itself as “quaint,” and so it is, with an ongoing display that tells the history of Flagler Beach “from the Stone Age to the Space Age,” starting with dinosaur bones all the way up to dehydrated astronaut food. Jam-packed with photos, newspaper clippings, maps and curios, it also has vintage brochures (“You do not need to be a millionaire to live in Flagler Beach!”), a classic surfboard and early promotional material from Marineland, which was one of the first theme/sea-life parks in the world. It was a few miles up the road, and still in business.
On the day it opened in 1938, Marineland caused a sensation, with over 20,000 tourists jamming the A1A highway hoping to see what was billed as the largest aquarium in the world. Partially owned by the grandson of Leo Tolstoy, the park had its heyday in the ’50s, and was famous for its film studio (parts of Creature from the Black Lagoon were filmed there) and dolphin show. It was hit hard in the ’70s by the arrival of Orlando’s SeaWorld and a long period of financial trouble ensued, with the park’s reputation falling into shabby disrepute. In the last decade, demolishment, donations and renovations have pulled it back to life, and it is now trying to reinvent itself as Marineland Dolphin Adventure (9600 Ocean Shore Blvd., St. Augustine; tel: 904-471-1111; marineland.net; ages 13 and up US$12, kids US$7), with an emphasis on educational and interactive programs for kids.
On the day I went, a highlight of the short tour was Nellie, the world’s oldest dolphin. Born in 1953, Nellie, an Atlantic bottlenose, had been a star of Marineland for most of her life, but was now on her last legs, or rather flippers, and was only able to bob up and down, over and over again, in her tank. Her doting guardians assured me she was happy, and enjoying her retirement, but at any rate she died a few months later at the age of 61 -- not bad considering the life expectancy for most dolphins in captivity is 30 at most, and much less for dolphins in the wild.
Old is new
Marineland is north of Flagler Beach, and while still in Flagler County, it is actually its own small town, with a population of 16. Across the street, on the Matanzas River, which is part of the Intracoastal Waterway that separates Flagler Beach from the mainland, is Ripple Effect Ecotours (101 Tolstoy Lane, St. Augustine; tel: 904-347-1565; rippleeffectecotours.com, which runs kayak tours guided by naturalists from the University of Florida. They also have jet boat tours, on a boat that runs on vegetable oil and that doesn’t have a propeller that’ll harm dolphins and manatees.
I did a three-hour, 5.5-kilometre kayak tour through the Pellicer Flats lagoon, a peaceful paddle through an ecosystem that has never been logged or developed in any way, and looks pretty much the same as it did 10,000 years ago. The price was US$55, which also includes entrance to Marineland Dolphin Adventure.
In keeping with my Old Florida theme, the next place I visited was Princess Place Preserve (2500 Princess Place Road; Palm Coast; tel: 386-313-4020), a 605-hectare park on the north side of the Matanzas River. It’s great for hiking, canoeing and kayaking, and has campgrounds as well as Flagler County’s oldest intact structure, an Adirondack-style lodge that was built in 1887 by a rich New England sportsman, Henry Cutting, who was then 24.
Cutting used tree trunks and coquina rock for the lodge, and it’s still an impressive site. Unfortunately, after entertaining guests for four years, Cutting died on a boat near St. Augustine, from an overdose of codeine. His wife Angela inherited the lodge and years later married an exiled Russian prince named Boris, thus becoming a princess and giving the lodge its name.
Of keen interest, though, is what’s outside: Florida’s first inground pool. Fed by an artesian well, the pool is still full of water that flows into Pellicer Creek, and is almost inviting enough to take a dip, were it not in a state of crumbling disrepair with a big sign that says “No Swimming.” The old bathhouses and changing rooms are nearby, and apparently there are plans to fix everything one day, if money can be raised.
As exciting as the first pool was, there’s more Old Florida history to discover at the Florida Agricultural Museum (7900 Old Kings Road, Palm Coast; tel: 386-446-7630; myagmuseum.com; adults US$9, kids 6 to 12 US$7), which has fully restored pioneer homesteads from the 1890s, and the Washington Oaks Gardens State Park (6400 N. Ocean Shore Blvd., Palm Coast; tel: 386-446-6780; washingtonoaks.org which preserves the original habitat of a Florida Barrier island, with award-winning gardens and the second largest outcropping of coquina rock on the Atlantic Coast.
The Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area (3100 S. Ocean Shore Blvd., Flager Beach; tel: 386-517-2086; floridastateparks.org/gamblerogers; US$5 per car) is a good place to visit for the hiking trails, camping and seaside picnicking, and has a poignant history of its own. Gamble Rogers was a Florida storyteller, folksinger and guitar-picker — he appeared on the Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson shows, and was a big influence on Jimmy Buffett — who died a hero’s death on Flagler Beach in 1991, at the age of 54, trying to save a Canadian tourist who was caught in a rip tide. Someone to raise a toast to — and a reminder to be careful in the water, as there are only lifeguards in certain areas — as you watch the sun go down on Flagler Beach.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.