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.