St. Augustine » Flagler Beach
Day 1: Setting out from St. Augustine
is an occasion in itself as I cross the newly restored Bridge of Lions. After some five years of renovations, the scaffolding is gone and the marble lions, cleaned to a glistening shine, are once again standing guard as I depart from this venerable Old City. Giving a nod to the Castillo de San Marco, a glorious fortress of coquina block — a type of limestone composed of seashell fragments, sand and clay that’s mined on the other side of the Matanzas Bay that I’m crossing — I coast onto Anastasia Boulevard (aka Highway A1A). Almost instantly, my mood changes from history buff to beach bum, giving me reason to make a sharp left turn into Anastasia State Park. A stop at Salt Run, a wind- surfing and paddle-boarding spot, is perfectly timed. The show is about to begin. No, not windsurfers, but brown pelicans. Just beyond the puffy sand dunes, I spot two pelicans afloat on the bluest of waters. Suddenly, the birds take flight, lifting off at the same precise moment, moving to the left and then to the right almost as one. When they reach the ideal height, they plunge headfirst into the water just like synchronized acrobats who have practiced the performance a million times. To my delight, the crazy birds repeat their performance again and again until I’m laughing aloud.
Farther inside the park, I get my first view of the mighty Atlantic shoreline from a wooden boardwalk that crosses sand dunes that are studded with sea oats to prevent erosion. While walking their cocka- poo, Buffy, Donna and Jim McAndrew from the Poconos tell me that they’re on a 10-week park-hop- ping journey down the Florida coast. “We’re staying on the Atlantic side of the state this time,” Jim says, and sounding like a seasoned snowbird, he adds, “We love the ocean.”
Continuing on A1A, I veer off to a stretch called Scenic A1A and pull right into the parking lot at the St. Augustine Beach’s fishing pier. Before descending onto the hard-packed sands, I spy surfers who look like killer whales — dressed in black wetsuits and sitting on white surfboards, waiting for a promis- ing wave and the perfect ride. A surfer since he was 10 years old, Lee Cohen, now 30, tells me that the waves in St. Augustine are good, but the farther south you go, the bigger the waves get. It’s easy to turn into a beach bum here, cruising the stretch on bicycle or scooter, stopping for grilled mahimahi at Mango’s Caribbean Grill & Bar and a cup of orange creamsicle at Rita’s ice cream stand.
Switching back to history-buff mode, I arrive at Fort Matanzas National Monument and park under a canopy of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. The epiphytic plants, ubiquitous in northern Florida, were used by early settlers to stuff mattresses. Folks are boarding the ferry en route to the shoebox-size fort across the inlet. On the seven-minute boat ride over, park ranger Olivia Heinrich, with long red tresses blowing in the wind from under a safari hat, rattles off the history lesson. Even after Castillo de San Marcos was completed in 1695, the town was still vulnerable to attacks by the British through the Matanzas Inlet, 14 miles south of St. Augustine, she tells us. The Spanish built this tiny fort and its 30-foot tower. When I climb the ladder, I find a Spanish soldier wearing a tricorne, knickers and red knee-highs entertaining his visitors with tales of life as a soldier at this remote out- post. Poking my head inside the officer’s quarters, I notice the munchkin-size bed, which hints at the diminutive stature of the Spanish back then.
As the sun starts its descent, I’m back on A1A heading to Flagler Beach, a funky beach town that’s a bit of a throwback to the 1950s. For miles the smooth black asphalt of A1A meets the very edge of the sandy coast. Wooden stairways lead down to the beach, and from the car, I’m enjoying killer views of the orange-tinted shoreline as I approach the town’s fishing pier. Eclectic beach houses, including a very curious one decked out with life-size pirate figurines on the roof, line the other side of the road. Pulling into Island Cottage Oceanfront Inn (islandcottagevillas.com) I’m greeted by innkeeper, Toni Treworgy, who is all smiles. She and her husband Mark built this hideaway across the street from the Atlantic and it’s obvious that she’s proud of the property. “It’s all about romance and pam- pering,” she tells me as she opens the door to the Aruba room. A white fourposter bed, a fire- place and a deep Jacuzzi tub for two require no further explanation.
Later that evening, I head to the Golden Lion (goldenlioncafe.com) to meet Tony Marlow, a Brit who after a stint in the Caribbean opened this beach bar. The newly expanded second-story deck offers coastal views, while the tiki hut with palm trees sprouting through its roof is where serious drinkers congregate. I’m told this place rocks on a Sunday afternoon. Over a basket of fish and chips, Marlow explains in his heavy London accent, “I never knew what to call this place, but then my wife pointed out that the name Golden Lion was lucky for my mum and dad, so we took the name from their London pub.” After 18 years, Marlow is still puzzled as to how his little beach shack became so popular. Eavesdropping diners at the table next to me interject their two cents: “The fish tacos are the best we ever ate.” And the fish and chips aren’t bad either, I add.