Here's How to Take a Road Trip to Paradise
Just before dawn, as a dim wash of pink light begins to glow over the Atlantic Ocean, what looks like a stand of trees against the horizon reveals itself to be clouds—puffs of deep blue hovering over the glassy, ethereal colors of the sea at daybreak. It's a life-changing sight, available daily along Florida's State A1A.
One of the most storied strips of pavement in the South, A1A runs along the Atlantic from Fernandina Beach, Florida, all the way down to Key West, sometimes offering watery views, sometimes not. Now and again, it heads inland, disappearing into U.S. 1. Then it will unexpectedly dart out across a bridge to cross the waves and cruise South Florida islands. A 72-mile stretch of A1A from northern St. Johns County to southern Flagler County has been designated a Scenic & Historic Coastal Byway—and it's easy to see why.
Mostly a two-lane road, A1A passes through a string of Florida tourist magnets: Amelia Island; the "Ancient City" of St. Augustine; NASCAR birthplace Daytona Beach; spring break-central Fort Lauderdale; and a quaint little village called Miami. But it's also home to beach towns undiscovered by those of us who instead have standing reservations at places like South Padre Island, Texas; Gulf Shores, Alabama; the Florida Panhandle; and South Carolina's Grand Strand. We might go the extra mile to visit Central Florida's theme parks, but we tend to "beach it" closer to home.
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That's what makes an A1A adventure so much fun—the beaches here are totally different from anything you typically see elsewhere. And the hot months of summer are their off-season, so you can score some deals on hotels. Best of all, while you might expect a certain level of homogeneity among towns dotting the same highway, A1A beach towns can be as different as Daytona and Miami. Two of our favorite destinations are New Smyrna Beach and Delray Beach.
Pit Stops on Your Drive
If you're traveling between Delray and New Smyrna, make a stop at Juno Beach to see some of the most gorgeous water this side of The Keys. Juno Beach Park is easy to access from downtown and has a popular pier, lifeguards, and picnic areas. About 10 minutes south of Juno Beach and less than an hour north of Delray, John D. MacArthur Beach State Park offers pristine sands on the northern end of Singer Island.
For the Campers
Named for a Florida folk singer, Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area at Flagler Beach, north of New Smyrna Beach, faces the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Intracoastal Waterway on the other. Find tent and RV sites available on both shores, some with spectacular views of the ocean. (The max RV length is 47 feet.) All campsites have electricity, water, and a few other conveniences. Gamble Rogers also has accessible showers and picnic sites, and you can rent a beach wheelchair if you call the ranger station in advance (386/517-2086). Rent kayaks and bikes from the ranger station if you don't bring your own, and take advantage of the park's boat ramp, located on a channel that leads right to the Intracoastal Waterway. Leashed pets are welcome in the campgrounds but aren't allowed on the beach. Note: Gamble Rogers is still recovering from Hurricane Matthew and can currently accommodate only campers but not day-trippers, though they're working hard to change that. Contact the park in advance for more information on closings.