There are many different sides to Florida. From the sleek metro vibes of Miami to the tropical kitsch of Key West and everything in between, there's something for everyone. You can even escape the crowds and have an unforgettable adventure at one of the best lesser-known sides of the Sunshine State. Old Florida is unlike anything anywhere else in the country. Enjoy the laid-back atmosphere and unbelievable natural beauty of Old Florida in Flagler. Filled with quiet beaches dusted with cinnamon-colored sand and mossy oaks standing over old ruins, it feels worlds away from the rest of the state, despite the fact that it's a quick drive from Daytona Beach. Here's how to make the most of an excursion through Flagler's Old Florida.
There are all kinds of attractions, parks, tours, and restaurants in Flagler, so if you're having trouble deciding where to start, head to the Flagler Beach Historical Museum. It's a great overview of the area's rich past, from the Stone Age to the Space Age, and will give visitors a whole new appreciation for Flagler. The museum's location right near the beach doesn't hurt, either. It serves as a visitor center on the weekends, so it really is an ideal first stop. Plus, it's free to visit.
Flagler's most unique activity is the Marineland Dolphin Adventure. The "oceanfront playground" is part aquarium, part theme park, and all epic fun. From its earliest days in the 1940s as a location for Hollywood filmmakers to film ocean creatures ("The Creature From The Black Lagoon" owes credit to Marineland!) to its work training dolphins and its contributions to marine science and conservation, there's a lot to appreciate if you take a tour here. And that isn't even counting the best part of Marineland Dolphin Adventure ... the fact that they offer a bevy of dolphin encounters. They have something for everyone, like Touch & Play experiences (the most popular option), shallow water encounters, "trainer for a day" programs, and, most special of all, the chance to have a dolphin create a painting just for you.
If your idea of a vacation involves relaxing in nature, pack a picnic and head for Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. Acres of formal garden, all centered around a massive live oak dripping with Spanish moss, back up to a rocky, boulder-strewn stretch of ocean. The gardens were developed by Louise Powis Clark, wife of the industrialist Owen D. Young, in the 1930s. She dubbed the property Washington Oaks after a previous owner, a descendant of George Washington. There are special things to see whichever way you turn here, from the coquina rocks and tidepools of the beach to the bubbling springs and well-maintained formal gardens. Check out the historic home that's been converted into a visitor center and make sure to explore a trail or two while you're here.
Built in 1927, the Flagler Beach Municipal Pier is one of those classic beach experiences. It only costs $1.25 to access the 800-foot-long historic boardwalk and enjoy the stunning views it offers. It's one of the best spots for fishing in Flagler, and if you didn't bring your own gear, you can rent some from the bait shop. Or, you can stick to strolling along the unique cinnamon-colored sand below while you watch surfers in the water. The vibe here is super laid-back, and it really feels like a hidden gem known only to locals. Pro tip: it's especially pretty at sunset.
Another stellar state park in Flagler is Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park. Here, you can walk among the crumbling remains of an old sugar cane, cotton, rice and indigo plantation, the largest in East Florida. It's been abandoned since the Second Seminole War in 1836, and the ruins of a sugar mill, the spring house, several wells and the foundations of the plantation house and slave cabins have since become overgrown. The museum and interpretive center onsite provide some great background on the Bulow Plantation and the Seminole Wars before you set off to explore the ruins themselves. There are miles of trails to explore, along with a canoe launch on Bulow Creek, so it's not hard to spend a full afternoon here.
There's nothing more quintessentially "Florida" than a horseback ride on the beach, and Flagler, with its incredible natural beauty and "Old Florida" feel is an ideal location for a ride. Equestrian Adventures of Florida offers guided rides along Flagler Beach at low tide, which are truly unforgettable. They also can take you on a ride along the equestrian trails at several of the area's state parks, to get even more of that untouched Florida beauty. And if you've never ridden a horse before, fear not. The pros at Equestrian Adventures of Florida work hard to make sure everyone, horses and riders alike, are safe and comfortable.
If you'd rather explore by boat than horse, Flagler can accommodate. Ripple Effect Ecotours is a unique outfitter thanks to their focus on being eco-friendly and on education. Take a guided kayak tour with a professional kayaker/naturalist, or book a ride on the only vegetable powered ecotour boat in Northeast Florida. There's so much waterway to explore in the Flagler area, with the rivers, salt marshes, and the ocean, and getting out on the water is a perfect way to experience the natural landscape. Ripple Effect can even help you plan a fishing or whitewater excursion by kayak.
Princess Place Preserve is another slice of untouched natural beauty, with a fascinating past. The property, once called Cherokee Grove, was purchased by Henry Cutting in 1886, and when he died, it passed on to his widow Angela Mills Cutting Worden. She eventually remarried, to an exiled Russian prince, and it wasn't long before she assumed the title of princess, hence the name "Princess Place". She and her husband would entertain royals and other famous figures from across the world in the lodge Cutting had built. Eventually, Flagler County came to own the property, and set to work protecting it as much as possible while opening it up to the public. Set on 2,000 acres along the Matanzas River, the preserve offers activities aplenty. Camp under the stars at one of the primitive sites, canoe or kayak, fish, hike, or ride horses on the equestrian trails that the princess once enjoyed.
Fuel up for a long day of exploring Flagler at the Funky Pelican. Located right on the water, this joint serves up fresh fare and incredible views. Stop by for breakfast (nothing like a helping of shrimp and grits to start off the day right) or take advantage of their daily Funky Hour, with drinks specials between 4-6pm. Their lunch and dinner menus boast plenty of seafood options, from lobster ravioli and a Florida Reuben to Cajun gator bites and clam chowder. There's something on the menu to hit the spot for everyone.
If you're looking to cut loose and enjoy some fun in the sun, The Golden Lion Cafe is your spot. It's beachside eatery with huge servings of delicious pub fare (with plenty of seafood such as fish tacos and shrimp and chips), killer cocktails (the rum punch is the perfect way to get into a beachy mood), and a great tropical-looking setting. Golden Lion Cafe is the only place in Flagler that offers a raw bar; if you're feeling indulgent, order the large seafood tower with a whole lobster and dig in. They truly bring the fun with their lineup of parties and live music, including regular reggae nights.
No day at the beach is complete without ice cream. Sally's Ice Cream will have you feeling like a kid again with their colorful menu of mouthwatering treats. They've got all of the classic flavors like rainbow sherbet, mint chocolate chip, double fudge brownie, and butter pecan, along with a specialties like chocolate dipped key lime pie. The walk-up window also features soft serve, fro-yo, sundaes, and hot dogs. You might need to come back more than once to try them all.
Looking for a souvenir to remember your trip? You'll probably find it at Frankie Alice's Beachside Boutique. This adorable little shop specializes in clothing and accessories that complement beach life. From tote bags and sunglasses to jewelry and apparel and home goods, there's a ton of stuff here, so leave plenty of time to browse the wares. Their offerings are unique, high quality, comfy, and (best of all) reasonably priced, and they'll add a touch of style to your perfect beach trip.
It's not hard to feel right at home in Flagler's relaxed, Old Florida atmosphere. Somewhere in between hiking among historic ruins, enjoying ice cream on the beach, and swimming with dolphins, you might find yourself falling in love with Flagler.
Banner Photo Credit: Shutterstock/ Gregory Johnston