FLAGLER BEACH — The beach houses are modest cottages, more than a few years old, and some have added patios for instant conversions to beachfront businesses. A few bright colors give these home-grown beach businesses an island feel.
A house with sculptures of pirates climbing walls and sitting atop its “forecastle” doesn’t draw code violations, it draws admiration. McMansions and high-rises are the unwanted here, and they are rarely seen along this beach.
This is a beach where you can cruise A1A and park on the shoulder, in the sand, for free.
There’s one stretch of pristine beach south of town where you ride, bike or hike for miles and miles without seeing a single home, save a 100-yard high-rise blip 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 in the magnificent Castillo San Marco in St. Augustine. (St. Augustine is only 30 minutes away, so Flagler Beach makes a good base for exploring the Oldest City.)
The pier at the center of the town has anchored this classic Florida beach town for 80 years, although it has been rebuilt many times because of the storms that sweep across this barrier island.
The village green is across the street, once the front yard of a grand hotel, surrounded by quaint cafes, small businesses, city hall and side streets that take you further down memory lane through the historic district, where many buildings date back to the 1920s. The stories are told at the Flagler Beach Museum, just off the square behind City Hall.
On north side of the green, fronting the beach, is the landmark Finn’s rooftop tiki bar, 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. The food is not fancy — fish sandwiches and other basic seaside bar chow — but it is good and not expensive, a consideration given the oceanfront location.
One of the most popular seafood places in town is right off the main square: Flagler Fish Company, 180 S Daytona Ave. Here, you pick your fish from a refrigerated display and choose how you want it cooked. Yelp readers loved it and so did we.
If pizza is your choice, we recommend Rocky’s Pizzeria and Restaurant, 105 N Highway A1A, right across from the beach. Here’s Yelp on it.
A traditional favorite is the 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 right next to a huge glass window with a perfect beach view.
The pier is a great place to spend the day with your 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 peak weeks at nearby Daytona International Speedway: Speedweeks (mid-February), Bike Week (early March), Coke Zero 400 (July 4th) and Biketoberfest (mid-October). This area is popular with bikers attending those events. They love to cruise the scenic back roads nearby and hang out at Finns, and you will love it, too.
Flagler’s main attraction is the beach, and when the surf is up, you’ll find plenty of surfers. These beaches are among the best surfing grounds on the Atlantic Coast because of the long, rolling swells born deep at sea. And if the breeze is strong and steady, as it often is, kite-surfers and sailboards join their beach brethren.
On the low tide, the beach is covered by shore birds snatching up crabs, pecking through seaweed for snails and digging for sand fleas (small crabs that burrow into the sand as the ocean recedes). This is also a popular snacking stop during the fall and spring bird migrations along the Atlantic Flyway. It is in this area that the Flyway is a fork in the road with many flocks swerving southeast to the Bahamas, or continuing south towards the Everglades and the Caribbean.
There are a lot of birds here year-round. 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.
During the winter, the endangered migratory North Atlantic Right Whales seek refuge in the relative warm waters off this beach, and the whale-watching is especially fruitful in January and February. These right whales are rare whales – only 450 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 whale-watchers.
Here’s more about seeing whales in Flagler Beach.
To learn more about the whales and other wildlife, join the rangers at Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area for their Coffee With A Ranger program at the beach. Visit the Gamble Rogers web site for a schedule of upcoming events.
Gamble Rogers is not a very big park as state parks go, but it has a beautiful 1/2-mile orange sand beach, and there is an oceanfront campground with 34 sites. The inland side of the 145-acre park has a boat ramp and hiking trails that open up on the Intracoastal Waterway and the saltwater marshes that are common along this section of the coast, making it an excellent launch pad for boats, kayaks and canoes wishing to explore a multitiude of quiet inland waterways.
The campground is nestled in the dunes and can accommodate RVs up to 40 feet. Each site has water and electric hookups, a picnic table and fire ring, and all sites have access to a communal dump station. The sites are close together, but that coziness can be a blessing in winter when brisk ocean breezes can make camping here a might uncomfortable.
Personally, I’d be very selective when picking a beachfront campsite this far north during winter. It can get quite cold, and good weather is crap shoot. Unfortunately, a lot of these state parks are reserved months in advance, long before the weather conditions are known. You take your chances, but if I was spending money, I would opt for an inland campground that protected. After March, it’s back to the beach. Reservations at Gamble Rogers can be made up to 11 months in advance for $28 per night through ReserveAmerica.
Day admission to beach parking is $5, as is access to the interior of the park and the boat launch.
A paved bike path runs along State Road A1A through both Gamble Rogers and the adjacent North Peninsula State Park.
This 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-fishers. 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 the Halifax River.
With breeding marshes and tidal creeks feeding the river from every direction, this is an ideal location to hook up with 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 2.4-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 travelling the Intracoastal, or the birds following the waterway during migration. And 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 towards the scenic Ormond Loop Trail.
This is easily done on a bicycle. Although narrow, there is little traffic on Highbridge until you get to the Low Bridge on Walter Boardman Lane. You can leave your car at the beach, Highbridge Park or at Smith’s Creek Landing.
Things to do near Flagler Beach:
- Washington Oaks Gardens State Park — Historic oak-shaded gardens and a beach with fantastically shaped coquina rocks on the other.
- Princess Place Preserve — A delightful place to hike, kayak, camp and tour the lovely 1888 hunting lodge, which has a great story of a real princess behind it.
- Ormond Loop Trail – Scenic drive through shady oak hammocks, sea marshes and islands of the Halifax River south of Flagler Beach.
- Marineland, The historic oceanarium founded in 1938. General admission is $14.95 for adults ages 13 and above, $9.95 for children (ages 3-12), $13.95 for seniors (60+). Behind the Seas admission is $24.95 for adults ages 13 and above, $14.95 for children (ages 3-12). The facility offers a variety of experiences with dolphins, starting with “touch and feed” for five minutes for $35 to $219 (and up) for a “dolphin immersion” to $485 for a “trainer for the day.” Details: Marineland.net
- Fort Matanzas — A small historic Spanish fort on the lovely Matanzas Inlet, which you can visit for free via a National Park Service ferry.
Other Nearby Campgrounds
- 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 per night and can be reserved up to 11 months in advance through ReserveAmerica.
- 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 per night and can be reserved up to 11 months in advance through ReserveAmerica
- Beverly Beach Camptown RV Resort — Private oceanfront RV campground with 130 sites with full hookups, sitting atop a seawall. (Best sites are the lower numbers). Beach views are limited. Call or write for reservations: 2816 North Oceanside Blvd., Beverly Beach, FL (386)439-3111. Directions: 4 miles east on FL 100, then 3 miles north on FL A1A.
- Flagler by the Sea — Private oceanfront campground with 31 full-hookup campsites. Consider oceanfront “deluxe” sites for added scenic atmosphere. Call or write for reservations: 2982 North Oceanshore Blvd., Flagler Beach, FL (386) 439-1666. Directions: 3.5 miles east on FL 100, then 4 miles north on FL A1A.
- Bulow RV Resort — Shady, scenic private RV park with 326 sites with full hookups. Near Bulow Plantation Ruins State Historic Site and Bulow Creek State Park. Call or write for reservations: 3345 Old Kings Rd. S., Flagler Beach, FL 32136 (386) 439-9200. Directions: 1/4 mile east on FL 100, then 3 miles south on FL 2001.
Take Interstate 95 to Exit 284 and go east 4 miles on State Road 100.