On a brisk winter morning, a van rolls to a stop on the sand at St. Augustine Beach. Parents pile out with school-age children, and they all race down to the shore and plunge into the surf, splashing and laughing in the 60-degree water. Judging from their wild abandon, you guess they're not from around here. Then you look at the van, see the Michigan license plates, and everything is clear. Northerners don't notice the chill, it seems, but the Atlantic is cold enough to send a Southerner into shock. Face it--we're spoiled. I don't like to swim in anything that isn't hot enough to simmer vegetables. You may think I've simmered too long if I tell you this part of the Florida coast, from St. Augustine to Daytona Beach, is an undiscovered gem of a winter getaway.
One of the things I love most is the road that joins it all together. On an early morning when the sun glows amber over Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, the graceful old Bridge of Lions (pictured) looms in front of me like a gateway. Beyond it, State A1A hugs the coast for 54 miles to Daytona Beach. It strings together small towns, beaches, and pristine state parks. The historic coastal route was recently designated a Florida Scenic Highway by the state and named a National Scenic Byway by the Federal Highway Administration.
It isn't a road for speed. Vacationers making a beeline to the theme parks in Orlando stream down I-95, but some are glad to take a slower pace.
On the interstate, you can't catch a glimpse of a right whale and her newborn baby, watch a surfer ride the curl of a perfect wave, or taste the tart flavor of a Marsh seedless grapefruit.
At the Wednesday morning Farmers Market in St. Augustine Beach, Cecil Nelson hands me a slice of the old-fashioned grapefruit he grows in his 10-acre citrus grove. "Can't find these much in the supermarket anymore," he says. "Mostly it's pinks and reds. White grapefruit just doesn't sell." I take a bite and immediately ask Cecil to bag up a week's supply.
Not far from the market, I stop to climb the 165-foot-tall St. Augustine Lighthouse (pictured). The hefty climb up 219 steps isn't all that takes my breath away when I get to the top. The view is incredible. Down below I can see the long sweep of wave-washed beach at Anastasia State Recreation Area. To the north, the old town of St. Augustine hunkers beneath the greenery of ancient live oaks.
Back on the highway again, I ride a shuttle boat across the Matanzas River to see the ancient Spanish outpost at Fort Matanzas and stroll the beach at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. There, low tide exposes huge formations of coquina rock rising out of the sand.
Along this stretch of coast, travelers are rediscovering one of Florida's oldest tourist attractions, Marineland. Visitors can take part in dolphin encounters and dive into the 450,000-gallon oceanarium.
Down the highway from Marineland sits Ocean Hammock Golf Club. Here, the waves come almost close enough to the fairway to let you feel the spray of the surf. Eight holes--including No. 9--have ocean views on this beautiful but challenging new course, which some call the Pebble Beach of the East.
South of Ocean Hammock, centerpiece of the bustling Palm Coast Golf Resort, A1A ambles along like a beachcomber through Flagler Beach. Residents have worked hard to keep the town's old Florida flavor. There aren't any lodging chains, and most buildings are low-rise. An ordinance limits height to 35 feet. "I like to call it country ocean. To me it's a little bit of heaven," says businessman Charles Helm, who helped lead efforts to get scenic highway status for A1A in Flagler Beach and Beverly Beach.
Near the center of town, anglers cast their lines from a long fishing pier where three state-record fish have been landed. Farther down the shore, breaking waves send surfers in wet suits skimming across the water like tightrope walkers in overdrive. A number of the country's best surfers have honed their skills in Flagler Beach, including four-time world champion Frieda Zamba.
Some of the few remaining right whales in the world also frequent these coastal waters in winter. "When they are seen, everyone passes the word," says Jay Humphreys, communications director at the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau.
It's late afternoon by the time I reach Ormond Beach. I cut through to the Old Dixie Highway and Old Kings Road to see some of the area's other attractions. The massive Fairchild Oak--one of the largest live oaks in the South--spreads its branches at Bulow Creek State Park. At nearby Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park, ranger Danny Quantz points the way to a section of the Old Beach Road used by travelers in the early 1800s. It runs for a mile, enclosed by a leafy tunnel of hickories, sweet gums, cabbage palms, and live oaks that's barely big enough for a car to pass through. "Tourists often stop and take pictures," Danny says. "Many people say they've never been on a road like this before."
There's so much more to see here, it almost makes me wish I was a snowbird. Then I could stay all winter long like so many of them do. Hey, anyone for a swim?
For more information: Contact the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau, 88 Riberia Street, Suite 400, St. Augustine, FL 32084; 1-800-418-7529 or www.visitoldcity.com.
This article is from the January 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.