December 14, 2013

Flagler County offers a taste of old Florida

A road trip along A1A in northeastern Florida takes a traveler more than just miles from Disney World and South Beach.

From my car window along Highway A1A in Flagler County, somewhere between the towns of Marineland and Flagler Beach, the Atlantic Ocean and its sugar-soft dunes glide by in a dizzying landscape of colors and textures.

There is the beach, its sand polished to copper and ginger by billions of fragments of coquina shells. Beyond that, the Atlantic is luscious in pastels of green and blue. After that is only the curvature of the earth.

But the best is yet to come. It is nearing sunset, and the sky explodes into unreal shades and contrasts reminiscent of a fruit-basket turnover.

Oranges slowly spill over into deeper tangerines before melting into hues of pomegranate and berries. Everything is cloaked in a golden glow and the sky is simply mesmerizing. It is as fine of a sunset as I’ve ever seen, and I cannot look away until the last of the light fades into twilight and finally darkness.

There is the fast-paced Florida of Disney World, Panama City and South Beach. Then there is the old Florida, that of Highway A1A, where the sunrises and sunsets are spectacular and there is no such thing as “in a hurry.” It is best enjoyed slowly.

A1A is mostly a two-lane, sometimes four-lane, road that stretches to the Georgia-Florida border. Meandering through storied towns like Palm Beach, Jupiter, Boca Raton, Cape Canaveral and Fernandina — they are separate highways now.

Here in Flagler County, where I’ve come to visit for a couple of nights, I’m captured by the nostalgic romance of the old highway. I’ve always enjoyed driving back roads, but because of the faster nonstop I-95, I had forgotten about A1A. Its ubiquitous old hotels and neon restaurants are relics — maybe survivors is a better word — from the 1950s when the road trip was born.

Now I would discover it again. From the town of Marineland on the northern fringes of Flagler County to Flagler Beach on its southern end, driving A1A provides a rare snapshot into the Florida that much of today’s I-Want-It-Now generation has forgotten.

Few know that Marineland is an actual town that was incorporated in 1942. Its population ebbs and flows, peaking with a high of about 16, currently down to five permanent residents.

Marineland, the attraction, first opened as Marine Studios in 1937 as an underwater movie studio, churning out corny ’50s fright-fest movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Marine Studios, the world’s first oceanarium and once its largest aquarium, eventually metamorphosed into today’s Marineland Dolphin Adventure. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins dance and twirl through the air before splashing with great fanfare back into their tanks. The thing about dolphins is that they always look happy and playful, and if you want to get in the water and personally interact with them, there are oceans of programs available.

Traveling farther south on A1A, the road curves inland to Palm Coast. Palm Coast is sort of the modern side of Flagler County, with chain hotels and restaurants mixed in with quieter, laid-back resorts of nearby Hammock Beach and plenty of championship golf courses.

Etched with nearly 80 miles of salt- and freshwater canals, Palm Coast is rife with hiking and biking trails. A favorite stop for my husband and me was the picturesque Washington Oaks Gardens State Park with easy access directly on A1A. The rose gardens were in full bloom when we visited, and the sweet perfume of the flowers complemented our afternoon walk.

On our way to Flagler Beach, we passed through Beverly Beach. Just a mile long and a mile wide, it is surrounded by sand dunes. Near Beverly Beach, just off A1A, we stayed overnight at the Hammock Beach Resort directly on the Atlantic and were treated to the most vivid sunrises imaginable.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Captain’s BBQ on A1A, where I had my first-ever pulled-pork tacos with all the Southern trimmings of baked beans, cole slaw, sweet cornbread and macaroni salad.

But it is Cheesecake Mike’s New York-style cheesecakes that stole the show for me. Baked on site, the red velvet and devil’s food cheesecakes were divinely rich. But be forewarned: Captain’s BBQ, immensely popular with the locals, makes only a certain amount of barbecue, ribs and desserts each day, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Flagler Beach was our last stop on this slice of A1A Americana. No high-rise condominiums spoil the view here, and the restaurants, beach boutiques and roadside motels are one-of-a-kind. Roy and I walked the pier near the Funky Pelican Restaurant after a meal of shrimp, shrimp and more shrimp and were thrilled to see a mama North Atlantic right whale and her calf close to shore as they ever-so-slowly swam southward.

Those who weren’t pointing and gawking at the whales were either fishing, walking along the beach, or parasailing over the blue-green water. When the surf’s up and the waves are just right, the six miles of Flagler Beach lure surfers and they have been doing for decades. It is a beach village for certain, Caribbean-bright with colors and sounds but definitely old Florida.

A1A crawls out of Flagler County north to St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach. Southward it winds to the much more crowded Daytona Beach. In between, though, in this quieter side of Florida, the beer is cold, the food is good, and the atmosphere is just right for a getaway down nostalgia lane.

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