If you are looking for a slightly under-the-radar Atlantic beach town, with bargain prices all year round, get ready to discover The Palm Coast. Along the 19-mile stretch of northeast Florida shoreline that includes popular Flagler Beach, nature has the starring role. Traffic frequently comes to a halt as good Samaritans take a moment to get out of their cars and move sea turtles strolling across the road to safer ground. Locals boast that you’re more likely to spot playful manatees and Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins than boisterous spring breakers.
What you will find along The Palm Coast, besides a Bargain
The area is comprised of five communities: Beverly Beach, Flagler Beach, Palm Coast, Marineland and Bunnell. The clean, sandy beaches are the obvious draw. You will see seniors fishing off the pier, teens surfing the waves, and families kayaking.
Laid-back is the rule and no one is ashamed that nothing’s fancy. There are no fees to use the beach, and parking is free. Add inexpensive attractions, low-key dining and accommodations that range from tent camping to resorts to the mix, and you’ll see that it is entirely possible to vacation in Palm Coast on a budget.
Families find most Palm Coast fun in Flagler Beach
Families should head to funky Flagler Beach with its long pier and lifeguards. The area is a popular surf spot with the potential for big waves. The beaches near the pier are dog friendly, so no need to leave the pooch at home. For a more solitary experience, turn down any road with beach access. All you need is sunscreen and sand toys, as all beaches are public.
The most unusual aspect of the beach is the cinnamon colored sand, courtesy of crushed coquina shells. There are no arcade games, kitschy wax museums or rollercoasters, and the only ride you’ll get is on the waves.
If you want to do it up in style, Ocean City Surf will rent and set up beach chairs, umbrellas, stocked coolers and other beach gear for you. For surfing lessons and or board rentals, try Sully’s and Si Como No. If your going to try and catch some waves on your own, the break is best near the pier.
Palm Coast Attractions & Activities off the Beach
As enticing as the beach is, families who change out of their swimsuits will be rewarded with activities that show-off the local flora and fauna. Here are some must-do activities.
Marineland opened in 1938 as the world’s first oceanarium and underwater film studio. In its heyday, it was Florida’s biggest attraction. Today it’s a small educational facility run by the Georgia Aquarium, and its main goals lie in science and research. It is not a theme park and entertainment takes a back seat, so you will be disappointed if you come expecting Sea World-style shows. A baker’s dozen playful dolphins call Marineland home, and general admission gets you unlimited time watching these intelligent and adorable animals at play. General admission is under $10 for adults with discounts for kids and seniors. You will pay dearly for swim-with-the-dolphin programs, but those who choose to splurge rave about the experience. They run a popular weekly summer camp, too.
Florida Agricultural Museum
Venture a few miles inland and the area’s agricultural riches come into focus. Visitors to this fully restored 19th century homestead will get a glimpse at what Florida life was like living off the fertile land in the 1880’s. The two-hour tour of this living history museum will guide you through the dairy barn, mule barn and dry goods store. Feed a chicken, hunt for eggs, husk corn or wash clothes on a washboard. There is a wonderful and informative exhibit on the history of Florida’s Black Cowboys that should not be missed. The museum is justifiably proud of its Florida Cracker cattle, descended from the cattle of the original 16th-century Spanish setters and now endangered. They offer guided horseback trail rides for those aged 8 and older, no experience necessary, but do book in advance. The Florida Agricultural Museum is open Wednesday-Sunday.
Ripple Effect in Marineland offers eco-tours of one of the country’s most pristine estuaries, considered to be a Holy Grail of aquatic treasures. Kayaks provide a unique vantage point to view Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins, manatees, eagles and hundreds of species of rare shore birds. Naturalists lead small groups (age 6 and older) of kayakers around the waterways that are considered to be one of the most productive and biologically rich ecosystems on the planet. All ages are welcome to tour the coastal habitat on a vegetable oil powered boat. The scent may have you craving French fries as you ride on this sustainable wonder. The tour is interpreted by enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides and is 100% kid-friendly.
The Palm Coast Public Parks
The area is teaming with recreational parks. Don’t miss a stroll through gracious Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, once the private home of a wealthy family. Today, families can enjoy acres of stroller-friendly gardens, trees and ponds. Princess Place Preserve is another good place for a morning walk. Its 1,500 flat acres of unspoiled nature attracts hikers of all sizes. It’s a popular horseback riding venue and a prime fishing spot.
Biking Trails along The Palm Coast
Families who enjoy cycling should head to the Mala Compra Plantation Greenway Trail system, located directly off the A1A, spanning between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic. The lush vegetation is reminiscent of the Deep South in this corner of Florida. A canopy of tall oak trees surrounds the trails, so you can bike ride in the shade no matter what the temperature. If you stick to the perimeter, the trail is perfect even for kids who have recently ditched the training wheels.
Dining in Palm Coast
A casual, sand-between-your–toes style of dining dominates. You won’t find chain restaurants but you will find family-owned spots with heaps of local color and easy-on-the-wallet prices.
In Flagler Beach, the Funky Pelican enjoys the best location in town, right next to the Flagler Beach Pier. You’ll get a great view of the Atlantic if you dine al fresco on the spacious terrace. They serve a fabulous breakfast starting at 7am but lunch and dinner are when you’ll find the big crowds. The fish here is very fresh and the large menu offers loads of options. The large chalkboard just outside the entrance is where locals and tourists leave messages or drawings written with colored chalk, a whimsical touch.
JT’s Seafood Shack is another local favorite in Palm Coast. Oysters, shrimp and crab are briney treats prepared with a light touch, served in cozy digs. Families might want to head to the terrace out back, where you’ll eat on picnic tables.
When nothing but meat will do, some of the best barbecue in Florida is found at Captains’ BBQ in Palm Coast. Slow-cooked pork, beef, chicken and ribs are served with down-home sides like baked beans and corn bread. It is located smack in the middle of Bing’s Landing, an 8-acre park on the Intracoastal and near the Mala Compra bike trails. There is a fully excavated dig site here for kids interested in archeology and a shady playground, so plan to stay awhile.
If the heat has you longing for a refreshing ice-cream cone, The Waffle Cone in downtown Flagler Beach is a no-brainer. It’s a retro-style ice cream parlor serving dozens of hand-churned flavors, with a penny candy counter to satiate any sweet tooth. Toddlers even get free kiddie cones, so they really roll out the welcome mat to families.
Where to Stay along The Palm Coast
If you are looking for a resort experience, Hammock Beach is close to perfect. It is a large Oceanfront hotel with a multi-level fantasy pool complex complete with slides and a lazy river, tennis, dining, a full-service spa and more. The property is perhaps best known for its famed golf course, with links that play directly alongside the very edge of the Atlantic, offering dramatic views. You will see lots of golf-crazed families here, and it’s a great choice if you’re vacationing with sporty grandparents. The entire area is so popular with golfers that it has been nicknamed “the Pebble Beach of Florida”. The grounds at Hammock Beach are carefully maintained and the rooms are amenity-filled, but it doesn’t feel at all formal. It is a fun choice for families and your biggest problem may be dragging the kids away from the waterpark. You could never leave the property and still have a great vacation, but with so much to do in the area, that would be a shame.
Larger families and multi-generational groups might consider renting a house or condo. Savvy travelers know that this can be a money-saving option, giving you the ability to prepare meals in the fully equipped kitchen. Vacation Rental Pros is a holiday rental company that represents dozens of local properties.
Si Como No is a family-owned motel offering eight spotless rooms and excellent value, which explains the large amount of return customers. Guests are greeted to a rainbow of colors and bold stripes that may make you think you’re in Mexico. Strategically placed hammocks provide the perfect siesta spot. Rooms are equipped with microwaves and small fridges, so you can prepare light meals. There are kayaks for your use and a small skateboard ramp. The owner gives surf lessons and runs a popular summer surf camp.
Camping is a popular option except in summer, when the generous insect population makes it nearly impossible to sleep outdoors. If you’re visiting at another time of the year, Princess Place offers rustic sites to pitch a tent. For RV camping, Gamble Rodgers State Park has 34 beachside sites.
Trip Planning Details for a Palm Coast Getaway
Florida’s Palm Coast and the Flagler Beaches are located just south of St. Augustine and north of Daytona Beach. Geographical proximity is about the only thing this seaside area shares with either neighbor. St. Augustine is famed for its history and quaint charm, Daytona for its party-ready college students and NASCAR fans.
Palm Coast and Flagler are on the scenic A1A and only a few miles off I-95, so getting here is easy. The closest airport is Daytona Beach, only minutes away, followed by Jacksonville an hour north and Orlando, 90-minutes southwest. If you are planning a theme-park vacation to Orlando, a few days here could be the perfect panacea to long lines and crowds.
For more information on planning a visit to the area, go to Palm Coast and The Flagler Beaches.
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