One of Florida's new "hot" destinations, this 19-mile stretch of coastline and its natural sportsmen's haven inland are just being discovered by visitors and relocators who value its proximity to resort and culture centers, yet its removal from the stress and fast pace of metropolises.
A1A Ocean Shore Scenic Highway spans a seven-mile stretch of Flagler County's beach between quiet Flagler Beach and Beverly Beach. A bicycle/pedestrian path parallels the scenic corridor and provides recreation for the cyclist, jogger and peace-loving stroller. The River to Sea Preserve takes in Palm Coast and the historic town of Marineland, site of the world's first "oceanarium," opened in 1938 and fed by waters from the Atlantic Ocean.
Mammoth sea turtles nest along this traffic-free, all-natural coastline. Anglers catch fish from Flagler Beach Pier and surfers catch waves. Four-legged friends are also welcome on designated parts of the beach as well as pet-friendly restaurants and oceanfront accommodations. Two state parks line the beach.
Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area at Flagler Beach is cradled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, where you can enjoy kayaking, beachfront camping, picnicking, swimming and birding. Huge coquina boulders and peaceful ornamental gardens distinguish the beach and Matanzas riverfront at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. Once a plantation, its pedigree can be traced back to our first president's family.
Bayside, marshlands and estuaries harbor rare and endangered birds along Florida's Great Birding Trail, such as the roseate spoonbill, wood stork, great blue heron and osprey. Dolphins play in the wake of passing boats and manatees herd in the waterway during spring and summer. Eco-tours on water and land introduce you to the rife wildlife in what has been designated the most productive ecosystem on the planet. More than 100 miles of connected canopied trails take you through nature trails in local parks and preserves.
Oranges, sugar and steamboats created the small coastal and inland towns in these parts and their preserved downtowns recall the heyday. For a taste of bygones in and around Flagler Beach and Bunnell, stroll Flagler Beach Historical District and Museum, the Holden House Museum and Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park. Charming outdoor restaurants, hotels and bed and breakfast inns have taken up residence in other historic structures. An old-fashioned Farmer's Market convenes on Fridays and Saturdays.
Golf is the name of the game in Flagler Beach and Palm Coast. The Ocean Course at Hammock Beach Resort ranks as one of the few premier golf courses in the country with six holes directly on the ocean, more than any other course in Florida.
Inland, bass-fishing rules in nearby Putnam County, historic and happily undiscovered by the masses. Palatka, its county seat, is central to natural and historic treasures. Take the Palatka Mural Tour, featuring 33 artistic renderings of local scenes and heritage. Historic sites include the circa-1854 Bronson Mulholland House downtown, a Greek-Revival antebellum style plantation manor offering guided tours; the Putnam History Museum, housed in a Second Seminole Indian War barrack circa 1836-37; and the David Browning Railroad Museum in the old Union Station.
Palatka lies along the mighty St. Johns River, one of the few rivers in the United States that flows northward. River tours and houseboat rentals are a popular way to explore this historic waterway where steamboats once plied their cargo of oranges to return with tourists adventuring into this wilderness paradise. The town also celebrates its Florida Azalea Festival in springtime when the flamboyant plants reach full blossom. The best place to experience the showy natural phenomenon is at Ravine Gardens State Park.
For more ravine topography, visit Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park, in nearby Keystone Heights. This 2,000-acre wonderland delights the senses with lush vegetation, rolling sand hills, marshes, springs, mill ruins and the cooling waters of Lake Johnson. Besides all the bass and speckled perch you'll find in the lake, the park is home to fox squirrels, gray foxes, scrub jays and black bears.
In Victorian-style Crescent City on Crescent Lake, ornate historic homes and the Little Blue House tell local history lessons. Today it is site of the annual St. Johns River Catfish Festival in April.
Photos by Lauren Tjaden for VISIT FLORIDA