FLAGLER BEACH — The central pier has anchored this classic Florida beach town for 80 years, rebuilt many times after violent storms. (Alas, it’s currently being rebuilt after a 2022 hurricane.)
The village green across the street was once the front yard of a grand hotel and is now surrounded by quaint cafes, unique boutiques, gift shops, antique stores, City Hall and side streets that take you further down memory lane, where many buildings date to the 1920s, their stories told at the Flagler Beach Museum, just off the square behind City Hall.
The town itself dates back to 1915, when it was known as Ocean City. The name was changed to honor railroad boss Henry Flagler, who pushed through Florida and laid track all the way to Key West.
The town’s beach houses are modest cottages for the most part, more than a few years old, and some have added patios for instant conversions to beachfront businesses. Bright colors give these home-grown beach businesses an island feel.
A house with pirates climbing walls and manning its forecastle doesn’t draw code violations, it draws admiration. McMansions and high-rises are unwanted here, and they are rarely seen.
This is a beach where you can cruise the oceanfront and park on the shoulder for free.
There’s one stretch of beach south of town where you ride, bike or hike for miles without seeing a single home, save a lone high-rise that seems to have crawled into place when nobody was looking.
The broad, flat beach looks like it was sprinkled with cinnamon. The coral color comes from coquina, a soft rock made of ancient marine reefs and limestone that was used to build historic Castillo San Marco in St. Augustine, 30 minutes away.
The beach, the birds and — the whales!
Flagler Beach’s main attraction is the beach, and when the surf is up, you’ll find plenty of wave-riding vehicles. If the breeze is strong and steady, as it often is, kite-surfers and sailboards join their beach brethren.
On low tides, the beach is covered by shore birds pecking through seaweed for snails and digging for tiny crabs, known locally as sand fleas. This is also a popular snacking stop during the fall and spring migrations, serving as a rest stop of sorts for birds swerving southeast to the Bahamas, or continuing on to South Florida’s Everglades or the Caribbean.
Add the always fresh salt air and the gentle splashing of the sea, and you’ve found your place in the sun. It certainly works for me.
In winter, the rare North Atlantic Right Whale seeks refuge in the warm waters off this beach, and the whale-watching is especially fruitful in January and February. Only 450 right whales are known to exist – and they nuzzle close to shore to give birth.
A prime location for whale-watching is the pier, and when there are sightings, the pier magically fills with whale-watchers. On our most recent trip, a pair of tour buses dumped a pile of tourists onto the pier.
When its not crowded, the pier is a great place to spend the day with a fishing rod. Get away from it all and bring home your own dinner of pompano, whiting, flounder, black drum or redfish. No alcohol allowed on the pier, lending to a more family-friendly atmosphere.
State Road A1A is lined with classic Florida mom-and-pop motels, and it shouldn’t be difficult finding a room, except during event weeks at nearby Daytona International Speedway: Speedweeks (mid-February), Bike Week (early March), Coke Zero 400 (July 4) and Biketoberfest (mid-October).
Read More: Whale watching in Northeast Florida
Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area
Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area is a short hop south of town. It’s a small park as state parks go, but its half-mile of orange sand beach is pristine with 34 RV camp sites behind the dunes with another 34 campsites on the river side of the 145-acre park.
Each site has water and electric hookups, a picnic table and fire ring, and all sites have access to a communal dump station.
A boat ramp on the Halifax River (aka Intracoastal Waterway) gives kayakers and other small boats access to the brackish marshes common along this coast.
The park is named after Florida folk singer Gamble Rogers, who drowned in 1991 trying to save a couple foundering in the surf here. Rogers jumped in the churning surf despite his spinal arthritis disability.
The park was renamed in his honor, and twice monthly on the second and fourth Saturdays, folk singers and musicians gather under the park pavilion for an acoustic jam session. The public is welcome.
Day-use admission is $5 per vehicle, including use of the boat launch.
A paved bike path runs along State Road A1A through both Gamble Rogers and the adjacent North Peninsula State Park.
Related story: Gamble Rogers, a celebration of sand and sea
North Peninsula State Park
Just south of Gamble Rogers, North Peninsula State Park is a real gem, an undeveloped 2.5-mile stretch of beach that seems endless, its glistening orange sand inviting sunbathers, swimmers and surf anglers. It’s very quiet here, except for the breeze, the surf and the shore birds.
Dune crossings are available at several points along State Road A1A, and parking is free.
On the inland side, there’s a nature trail for hiking (no bikes), a kayak and canoe launch, and a walkway under a bridge where you can fish in the Halifax River.
With breeding marshes and tidal creeks feeding the river from every direction, this is an ideal location to hook sea trout, snapper and red drum, and it is popular with locals in summer during the shrimp runs.
The boat launch is at Highbridge Park, off A1A at the High Bridge. On the north side of the bridge is Smith’s Creek Landing, where you will find a picnic pavilion, rest rooms and the trailhead for the park’s Coastal Strand Trail.
The Coastal Strand Trail is a 2.5-mile loop that winds through several distinct eco-systems, including maritime hammock, coastal strand and coastal scrub. There is considerable change of grade, around and over dunes and hammocks, and there are sandy sections, but it’s not overly challenging.
This is also great spot to just sit and watch the boats cruising the Intracoastal, or the birds following the waterway during migration. On a recent visit, I saw numerous paddlers enjoying the paddling trails back into the marshes and islands.
Cross the High Bridge and follow narrow, curvy two-lane Highbridge Road as it winds through the marshes, part of the scenic Ormond Loop Trail.
This is easily done on a bicycle. Although narrow, there is little traffic on Highbridge Road until you get to the Low Bridge on Walter Boardman Lane. You can leave your car at the beach, at Highbridge Park or Smith’s Creek Landing.
Related story: Ormond Scenic Loop & Trail worth more than a quick ride
Things to do near Flagler Beach
Washington Oaks Gardens State Park — Historic gardens and an unusual beach strewn with coquina boulders. Within the 425-acre park, enjoy 20 acres of formal gardens and trails for both hiking and biking through a mature coastal maritime hammock. When we visited in Spring of 2022, we were treated to a rose garden in full bloom. This park is on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, and we saw evidence of birds throughout the gardens, along the river and beach. Admission is $5 per vehicle, collected at honor boxes. Open 8 a.m. until sunset. 6400 N. Oceanshore Blvd., Palm Coast FL 32137. Phone: 386-446-6780
Related story: Washington Oaks: Gardens plus unusual beach
Marineland, The historic oceanarium (“world’s first”) founded in 1938. Swim with the dolphins, dolphin training demonstrations, a daily sand tiger shark feeding and educational talk, a daily sea turtle feeding, a trip through Marineland’s new Historical Museum, and a “below the decks” experience where you’ll see hundreds of species of exotic sea life. General admission: $24 (adults); $17 (ages 5-11); $23 (seniors 55+). A variety of dolphin encounters, starting at $70 for a “meet and greet” to $200 for the “royal swim.” Full price list. Open 7 days from 9 am-4:30 p.m.
Drive Scenic A1A, For beauty and history and its lack of dense development, the 30 mile stretch of Florida A1A from Ormond Beach to St. Augustine is unsurpassed. Drive 20 miles without a traffic light, much of it covered in a canopy of live Oak and nearly empty beaches with free parking.
Kayaking near Flagler Beach
Several county and state parks offer great kayaking:
Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park is a good place to access the 6.5 mile Bulow Creek Paddling Trail. Here’s a map of that trail with launch spots and information about outfitters. In addition to paddling the trail, you can also paddle upstream about 3 miles as the creek narrows. This section is considered the most wild and scenic.
Haw Creek Preserve State Park and its Russell Landing marina give you access to the pristine blackwater Haw Creek. It passes through an old cypress swamp under a lush tree canopy that leads to Crescent Lake. The remote Haw Creek is not heavily used, so you may have it all to yourself. The trail is 5.7 miles from Russell Landing to Bull Creek Fish Camp, which is located at the end of Mud Lake.
Princess Place Preserve is the start of the Pellicer Creek Paddling Trail through an unspoiled tidal estuary to Faver-Dykes State Park. Here’s the trail map and guide to the 6.5 miles round trip Pellicer Creek Paddling Trail.
Fort Matanzas is one of my favorite places to go in the Flagler Beach area, and it is on a body of water that is a great place to kayak – the Matanzas River and Matanzas Inlet. One place to launch your kayak is the Helen Mellon Schmidt Park in St. Augustine.
Dining out in Flagler Beach
For breakfast or lunch, check out Sunbros Cafe, just off the square at 301 Moody Blvd., with indoor and sidewalk dining. This little family-run coffee shop is just what you need to start your day. While I had the Ultimate Platter with 2 eggs, ham and wheat toast ($8.95), you might enjoy your egg (any style), layered with bacon, shredded cheese and tomato over avocado on whole wheat toast ($10.45). | TripAdvisor Reviews
One of the most popular seafood places in town is next door to Sunbros Cafe, The Flagler Fish Company, at 180 S Daytona Ave. Pick your fish from a refrigerated display and choose how you want it cooked. Yelp readers loved it and so did we. |. TripAdvisor Reviews
High Tides at Snack Jack, on A1A South near Gamble Rogers State Park, is our favorite oceanfront seafood shack with its rustic dining rooms, indoor and outdoor seating, where we enjoyed some outstanding dishes, reasonably priced considering we were oceanfront. (The fried seafood combo platter ran $23.50 and $7 for a glass of pinot grigio.). |. TripAdvisor Reviews
Back on the village green, fronting the beach, is the landmark Finns Beachfront Rooftop, where on nice days you can sit in the sun, enjoy a cocktail or a beer and lunch with a spectacular view of the ocean, overlooking the pier. The food is not fancy — fish sandwiches and seaside pub chow — but it is tasty and moderately priced, a consideration given the oceanfront location. | TripAdivor Reviews
Back at sea level, a traditional favorite is the Funky Pelican Pier Restaurant, where you dine inside looking out over the beach, pier and ocean. On a recent Sunday lunch hour, we enjoyed a fresh and flavorful fried flounder sandwich from a table adjacent to a huge glass window with a perfect beach view. |. TripAdvisor Reviews
Flagler Beach campgrounds
Gamble Rogers State Park, 3100 S. Oceanshore Blvd., Flagler Beach FL. (386) 517-2086. There are 34 sand-base campsites behind the grassy dunes, and another 34 sites inland on the banks of the Halifax River. All sites feature water, electricity, a picnic table and a fire ring. All sites accommodate tents or recreational vehicles, although I would suggest that the beach sites are more welcoming to RV’s because the sites are close together. Sites are $28 plus a $7 nightly utility fee for water and electric, state and local taxes, and a one-time booking fee of $6.70. For reservations up to 11 months in advance, book online at reserve.floridastateparks.org or call 800-326-3521, 8 am-8 pm, Monday through Friday. |. TripAdvisor Reviews
Related story: Best campgrounds near Daytona — plus some awesome secrets
Tomoka State Park, 2099 North Beach Street, Ormond Beach, FL. (386-676-4050). Located in a shady hammock near the Tomoko River, this park has 100 campsites with electric and water, picnic tables and a grill. Maximum RV length is 34 feet. Sites are $24 plus a $7 nightly utility fee for water and electric, state and local taxes, and a one-time booking fee of $6.70. For reservations up to 11 months in advance, book online at reserve.floridastateparks.org or call 800-326-3521, 8 am-8 pm, Monday through Friday. | TripAdvisor Reviews
Related story: Tomoka State Park: Gateway to the Ormond Scenic Loop
Faver-Dykes State Park, 1000 Faver-Dykes Road, St. Augustine. (904-794-0997). This tranquil park just off I-95 south of St. Augustine is a popular destination for paddlers and fishers. It has 30 campsites in a shady hardwood hammock with natural buffers between most of the sites. Each campsite has water, electric, an inground fire circule with a grill and picnic table. Maximum RV length is 30 feet. Sites are $18 plus a $7 nightly utility fee for water and electric, state and local taxes, and a one-time booking fee of $6.70. For reservations up to 11 months in advance, book online at reserve.floridastateparks.org or call 800-326-3521, 8 am-8 pm, Monday through Friday. | TripAdvisor Reviews
Beverly Beach Camptown RV Resort, 2816 North Oceanside Blvd., Beverly Beach, FL. — Private oceanfront RV campground with 130 sites, each with full hookups and 50-amp electric. The park sits behind a seawall. (Best sites are the lower numbers). Beach views are limited. Three miles north of Flagler Beach on State Road A1A. Sites are $70 (interior) to $160 and up (beachfront); $120-$220 during Daytona event weeks. (2022) Weekly rates available. Call (386) 439-3111 up to a year in advance for reservations. | TripAdvisor Reviews
Bulow RV Resort, 3345 Old Kings Rd. S., Flagler Beach, FL — Shady, scenic private RV park with 385 sites with full hookups. Cottages and cabins also available. Near Bulow Plantation Ruins State Historic Site and Bulow Creek State Park. $66 and up per night for RVs and cabins; tent sites $33 and up. Book online through RVontheGo.com, or call (386) 439-9200 for reservations. (Note: This is an Encore/Thousand Trails destination.) | TripAdvisor Reviews
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Veteran journalists who worked together at Fort Lauderdale’s SunSentinel newspaper, Bonnie and Bob founded FloridaRambler.com in 2010 to explore the natural, authentic Florida, writing about their natural interests in hiking, biking, paddling, RV and tent camping, wildlife, unique lodging, dining and historic places.