Northeast Florida: 100 Miles of US Route A1A
Put the top down, slide on your movie star shades, let your hair fly. Your mission, road trip, 100-miles of Florida’s coast.
By Mary Charlebois
Two-lane A1A meanders along Northeast Florida’s Atlantic coast. It zigzags frequently, crossing the Intercoastal Waterway, jumping between the mainland and narrow islands sitting like dots and dashes just off-shore.
It links towns and cities to the white sand beach-culture. Laid-back hideaways on scenic waterways fortify the beach ‘n’ boat life. Flip-flops, shorts and Hawaiian shirts are never out of fashion.
The 100-miles of A1A between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach are home to prehistoric settlements, Spanish forts, early plantations, grand hotels and 20th-century palaces. Go from big city buzz to plantation ease.
Jacksonville – city buzz & beach-life.
Jacksonville is a big city, in fact, geographically, it’s the country’s largest. Located on St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean, it’s one of America’s major seaports, hosting two US Naval bases.
Water surrounds three sides of Jacksonville; ocean, river, and wetlands. Beaches, boating, fishing, and water sports are some of the best ways to immerse in nature and soak up the Jacksonville sun.
Downtown Jacksonville is the place to soak up culture.
Stay on A1A where you can hear the surf, but have an easy drive downtown. Atlantic and Neptune Beaches are perfect. These tiny A1A towns have white sand, persistent sea breezes, and friendly residents operating lodging, restaurants, taverns, and shops.
Hotel Palms is the place to stay. Opened in 1947, the motor court was a vital part of the winter ‘snow bird’ community. A 2016 renovation transformed Palms to one of the hippest hotels in Jacksonville.
Modern amenities, beautiful, comfy rooms, loaner bicycles, events like neighborhood outdoor movie night, hosts filled with ideas to make your visit memorable.
Beach-life -- Walk three blocks from Hotel Palms to the beach and village. White sand beaches with lifeguards and umbrella rentals are flawless for lazing away the day.
Morning in the Marshes - Occupy nature with a morning kayak tour of Timucuan Preserve Estuary. Kayak Amelia has kayak rentals and guided tours led by a naturalist. About 13 miles from Hotel Palms.
Spend a day imbibing local culture downtown.
My city exploration included: an Art and Architecture Downtown Walking Tour with AdLib Tours, the Willy-Wonka-like Sweet Pete’s Candy Factory tour, succulent Carolina style BBQ and locals chat at The Bank BBQ and Bakery (remarkable desserts).
Plan a couple of hours at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. The museum lies on St Johns River. Outside, formal gardens dating from 1903, overlook the river. Inside a 5000-piece art collection spans 2100 BC to the twenty-first century. Try the café and gift shop, both are first-rate.
Eat & Drink Near Hotel
It’s hard to go wrong in this area when it comes to food and drink. The Asian street food and ice-cold beer at Hawkers in Neptune Beach village make for the perfect ‘cool down’ spot after beach-time.
Happy Hour -- Most in the places in the area host happy hours. There seemed to be some competition for the happy hour crowd. (Yay for us!) Ask at Hotel Palms. They have insider’s info and they’ll share.
St Augustine – First American Thanksgiving & Deep Culture
The oldest city in the US, St Augustine is charged with history and culture. It’s the oldest, continuously occupied, European-established, US settlement.
Founded in 1565 by Pedro Menéndez, Spanish settlers and troops established a colony with Timucua Indians, St Augustine’s first occupants.
Timucua, Spanish, British, Minorcan and French left their marks here. All that came wanted control of the new world resources, St Augustine, and its position on the inlet.
Historic old town St Augustine has a European feel. Its narrow, cobblestone streets and shoulder-to-shoulder shops, eateries and lodging were built by varying waves of conquerors, crossing the pond to the new world.
Sleep & Relax
Stay at St Francis Inn, St Augustine’s oldest inn, established in 1791. In the heart of old town, St Francis is two blocks from the waterfront and two blocks from A1A.
Tucked back from the busy streets, but in the middle of it all, park your car and forget it until you leave St Augustine. The historic inn serves a sumptuous breakfast, afternoon snacks and happy hour daily. Everything is house made. The level of customer care is 5-star, the property is an inviting treasure.
If you’d rather stay at the beach, St Francis has secret beach houses available on St Augustine Beach. Beach house stays include the amenities at St Francis Inn.
Touring historic old town -- St Augustine has lots to explore. The old town is destination-dense. It’s also challenging to drive and park. Buy a ticket for Old Town Trolley. For 3-days, you have unlimited hop-on-hop-off access. The tram covers all the sights, even the beach.
Leave your car at your hotel or at the Old Town Trolley parking lot, it’s free. Take the entire tour first to get a feel for the area and what you’d like to explore. Use the tram to go to your favorites.
Fountain of Youth -- If you only go to one place in St Augustine, Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is the place to go. Located on the original site of America’s oldest city, the park brings history to life through re-enactments, village reconstruction, demonstrations, and tours.
Explore the park's wetlands on wood walkways dotted with benches. It’s an outstanding wildlife viewing and photo op spot in the middle of the city.
Grand hotels - Lightner Museum, 20th-century palaces - Flagler College. Florida’s first legal bourbon distillery – St Augustine Distillery. There are hundreds of historic buildings, a Spanish fort, an iconic lighthouse, boating, wildlife, water sports and miles of sand in St Augustine Beach along A1A.
St Augustine is a foodie-nirvana, especially for seafood lovers. It’s hard to make a wrong step.
Must try - St Augustine’s secret pepper, the datil. This little firecracker is often called the Minorcan pepper. In the 1600s, it was brought to St Augustine by Minorcan immigrants aboard Spanish ships.
The origin of datils is sometimes disputed. It’s rare to find it growing outside this area. It’s been a part of St Augustine agriculture and food-culture for 400 years.
Try some Minorcan Clam Chowder, it’s ubiquitous and has a secret ingredient – datil peppers. The Great Chowder Debate takes place in November each year. Local restaurants compete for the coveted title for Best Minorcan Clam Chowder.
Breakfast – St Francis Inn (for guests only) or Hot Shot Bakery.
Lunch – Five Flags Café in Fountain of Youth Park, farm-to-table, sustainable and chef driven. You’ll be happily surprised. Try their genuine Cuban sandwich with creamy black beans. Park entry fee is not required, free parking.
Hot Shot Bakery, old town. Breakfast served all day, hot and cold sandwiches, house made pickles, bakery desserts, beer, wine, and coffee. The best story here is Sherry Stoppelbein, chef, owner, and Duchess of Datil.
She’s 5-time winner of Best Minorcan Clam Chowder, and creator of addictive datil pepper condiments, available at Hot Shot. For an authentic taste of St Augustine, take one of Sherry’s cooking classes.
Dinner – Before dinner, have a glass of champagne aboard the scenic tour boat, Victory III. Watch the sunset behind St Augustine’s distinct skyline. (Victory III boards across the street from O.C. White’s.)
O.C. White’s in old town for dinner. If grouper is on the menu, go for it. Located on the water with indoor and outdoor seating, this is the place for local seafood. Salt Life Food Shack, St Augustine Beach. Bright, buzzy and casual. Beach-life is the mode of the day.
Seafood, sushi, tacos, and bowls are paired with beer, wine, and cocktails. Inside and outside dining. Often have live music on the dog-friendly deck.
Daytona Beach – The Original American Beach
Cars on the beach, NASCAR, amusement piers, buzzy bars, condos, and hotels. That’s one side of Daytona Beach. Another is plantations, grand winter homes, quiet white sand beaches, old Florida, and nature.
Daytona Beach is called the original American beach. Since the 1920s, it’s been a vacation destination for folks escaping frigid northern winters. Today it hosts visitors year-round that come for the sun, nature, and beach-life.
Perfect Daytona Beach lodging is a beach resort. Ocean front, swimming pool, pool bar, beach front bar and grill are beach-life necessities. Hilton Daytona Beach, Oceanfront Resort fills the bill nicely. Sitting between A1A and the Atlantic, this is the place to soak-up Daytona Beach.
Hang out on the beach - Vendors rent cabanas, umbrellas, lounges, beach-cycles and boogie boards. The water is shallow and the surf is perfect for floating, body surfing or boogie boarding.
Take a beach-cycle and explore. Along the way, you’ll find fishing piers, food, and beverage for all taste and budgets. Bring the waterproof sunscreen, Florida sun is intense, especially in the water.
Explore old Florida and A1A – Drive Ormond Beach Scenic Loop and Trail. This 30-mile double-loop wanders through scenic and regionally distinct nature and history. You’ll have access to the ocean, rivers, and waterways.
Parks have vistas of rivers, creeks, marshes, barrier island dunes, and beaches. Along the way, you’ll find sugar plantations, grand homes, historic public buildings, and museums.
Along A1A - The Casements, former winter home of John D Rockefeller, retains it’s 1913 character from top to bottom.
Tour the mansion and learn about the wealthy, but eccentric, John D.
Outstanding cooking classes are taught here in the large, modern kitchen. My Big Fat Greek Cooking Class teaches the hands-on preparation of traditional Greek dishes and ties them to local Greek culture.
Ponce de Leon Lighthouse – One of the most perfectly restored and preserved light stations in the country. See what life was like for those brave enough to come to this wild ‘mosquito’ coast in the 1800s.
A large collection of lenses is displayed in a glass front building. It’s like walking through a rainbow.
Marine Science Center – is only a couple of blocks from the lighthouse. Get up-close and personal with Daytona Beach’s marine inhabitants.
Explore Lighthouse Point Park and surrounding area. Stop into Hidden Treasure Rum Bar and Grill and sit outside. This is old Florida. The view across the estuary and Halifax River will occupy you for hours.
The funky, slightly Jimmy Buffet vibe is genuine. The outstanding food is locally sourced. Kayaking, parasailing, fishing, and boating are at their best in this quiet part of Daytona Beach.
Crabby Joe’s on Sunglow Pier, breakfast, lunch, dinner, local seafood, full bar. Super casual, great views of Daytona Beach-life. Legends Sports Bar, Hilton Beach Resort. Lunch and dinner. Good pub food, great soups. Full bar, lots of screens, and excellent service.
Have a progressive dinner in the Riverfront Park area of Ormond Beach, just 15-minutes from the hotel. Try three eateries for one meal.
Cocktails and apps at 31 Supper Club, entrée at Grind Gastropub , then Absinthe and dessert at Rose Villa Southern Table. Each is unique and within 2-blocks of one another.
Between the three cities -- along A1A, small communities and growing developments occupy much of the ocean front. Between Daytona Beach and St Augustine, around Flagler Beach, are undeveloped state parks and recreation areas. Nice stops for surf fishing, photo ops, and picnics.
There’s an old Florida saying, once you get Florida sand between your toes, you’ll always return. It’s true.
Air – Jacksonville International Airport, JAX, is your best bet for air. All major airlines and rental cars service this airport. Easy to get in and out via auto. Good airport with very good services.
Amtrak – Jacksonville has connections from New York, Washington DC, Charleston, Savannah, Orlando, Tampa, and Miami. With reservations, you can pick up an Enterprise rental car at the Jacksonville Amtrak station.
For my A1A road trip, I went in by air and out by rail. I returned to San Francisco on Amtrak. Life in a sleeper aboard the California Zephyr was outstanding, I highly recommend it.
If you can take the time, take the train. No cramped seats, no carry-on hassles, no seat belt lights, unbeatable scenery, good food, wonderful crew, what’s not to like?
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Mary Charlebois is a freelance journalist and photographer. Her home base is on California’s Mendocino Coast. She travels by train, plane, bus, boat, shoe sole, and auto. She digs into the culture, people, and history wherever she goes and isn’t opposed to a little adventure along the way.