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Road Trip: Florida’s East Coast

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East Coast Road Trip

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.

East Coast Road Trip

Flagler Beach » Melbourne
Day Two: There’s nothing like your own private beach, and that’s exactly what I find when I cross A1A at 7 a.m. and descend the stairs onto Flagler Beach. It’s just the terns and me. Where else in Florida can you have such an expansive shoreline all to yourself? This is the perfect spot to spread a towel, arm yourself with binoculars and tons of patience and keep watch for the right whales that migrate to the coast of Florida from December through March to give birth. There’s even a phone number (888.979.4253) to call if you sight one. After inhaling the salty sea air, I head to the inn’s break- fast room. I’ve encountered travelers who book bed-and -breakfasts solely on the quality of the breakfast served; I would add this inn to those lists. A deep vanilla aroma awakens my senses as I seat myself at a table. Soon a plate of bananas Foster French toast with a sprinkling of candied pecans appears, paired with a cup of freshly brewed rich, dark coffee.

Fueled and ready to hit the road, I edge my way out of town in search of Highbridge Road. This turn leads me to the Ormand Scenic Loop & Trail, a 30-mile drive that’s a favorite among motorcy- clists en route to neighboring Daytona Beach, where an annual Bike Week and numerous stores and bars cater to motorcycle enthusiasts. I follow the serpentine road along the marshlike waterways and through cool shady tunnels formed by the gnarled branches of granddaddy oaks. It’s a very peaceful refuge devoid of heavy traffic, where even the bikers refrain from the temptation to rev their motors.

Upon exiting the loop, I cheat a little by heading west to Interstate 95 then south to Titusville, exit 220, ready to explore the Canaveral National Seashore before reconnecting with A1A. I arrive in Florida’s Space Coast, home to the shuttle launch pad, three days before the Discovery blasts off on its final journey into outer space (read more). Trailers are already parked at prime viewing spots at the entrance to the national seashore, and I pass folks relaxing in lawn chairs as I make my way to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

This 35-mile-long barrier island has plenty of options for hiking, ranging from a ¼-mile boardwalk loop located at the visitor center to the two-mile Palm Hammock Trail. Near the center is a manatee observation deck, where in spring and fall you’ll have the best chance of watching sea cows lumber through the canal. Setting off down the boardwalk, I stop and scan the trees for birds. The refuge is located on the Atlantic Flyway, its a major bird-migration corridor, and today I spot a red-winged blackbird fluttering about. Following the trail along the wetlands, I stop to gaze at watery reflections of cattails and tall, slender blades of grass before sitting on a bench to contemplate the world from a place where only the sounds of nature can interrupt one’s deepest thoughts.

Although I hate to leave this sanctuary, it’s time to hook up with A1A and head to Cocoa Beach where the dress code is simple: board shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops. This stretch of the highway is dotted with kitschy beach shops, where oversize towels printed with a map of Florida hang in the windows alongside polka-dot bikinis and seashell souvenirs. I pass tattoo parlors and miniature golf centers before arriving at the two-story surfer emporium Ron Jon Surf Shop. Boards, gear and everything else a surfer would need line the shelves at this store-turned-attraction. Although this is quite a hot spot for watching surfers catch waves, I’m tempted to take a detour off A1A and explore Historic Cocoa Village, a 15-minute drive west over a couple of bridges. The buttery cookies at the Swiss Oleander Village Bakery justify the deviation as does the organic Tuscan herb-flavored extra virgin olive oil I find at From Olives & Grapes, a shop chockfull of olive oils and balsamic vinegars that you’re encouraged to taste before buying.

After an hour or so I’m back on track, heading toward Melbourne Beach. My plan is to arrive at the Port d’Hiver Bed and Breakfast (portdhiver.com) in time to sip wine and exchange travel stories with other guests. As I approach the property, I find myself oohing and aahing at the beautiful 1916 house with gingerbread detail that hugs the corner where A1A turns back into a coastal route. Owner Mike Rydson gives me a tour. There are original pine floors, pecky cypress ceilings and beadboard walls. In the courtyard, an elegant blue mosaic waterfall and heated mini pool for late night soaks catch my eye. Rydson constructed two more buildings with metal roofs and wroughtiron- trimmed balconies to complement the original house. My room is named Creole, a nice touch because inside a West Indies décor prevails.

East Coast Road Trip

Melbourne » Hutchinson Island
Day Three: An early riser, I’m up at 7 a.m. looking for the public access point to the beach. Between houses I find that the walk- way is cleverly disguised with gorgeous sea grape trees. As I stroll along the shore, the wind bathes me in the cool morning air, and the sound of the waves is music to my ears. Soon I en- counter the welcoming committee: a huge flock of sea birds. As I advance, they tiptoe away. I love identifying the species and can easily spot the plump sea gulls but need a closer look at those with yellow beaks and black feathered headdresses, so I try sneaking up to get a look, but once again, the birds inch away. At last I get close enough to conclude that they are indeed royal terns.

In the distance I spot silhouettes of surf fishermen with their poles anchored in the sand against the sunrise light. Approaching a tall, dark-skinned fellow reeling in a fish, I inquire, “What did you catch?” “It’s whiting,” he replies adding with a grin, “I have to catch two fish, one for me and one for my wife.” There’s no doubt that Lenox, who hails from Guyana, is a regular, as opposed to the visitor from Michigan who I stop to chat with next. Despite looking really cool sitting on the shore with his shades and casted lines, he admits when I ask the usual question that he hasn’t caught anything and hasn’t a clue what he’s doing. But hey, more credit to him for getting out there and winging it in the warm Florida rays. Back at Port d’Hiver, I sit down to a beautiful plate of Swiss eggs, an English muffin with ham and Swiss cheese that is topped with slices of hard-boiled egg and served with a fluffy potato pancake. I would definitely add this B&B to the A-list for breakfasts.

Continuing south from Melbourne, I actually realized that I’m in sea-turtle country. A yellow road sign featuring a turtle reads “Let’s give them a brake.” Turning into the Barrier Island Sanctuary (barrierislandcenter.com), I’m eager to study up on the nesting and hatching habits of the species that come to this 34-acre beach habitat to lay eggs. The loggerhead, leatherback and green turtle, which is the most popular, are on the move from March 1 through Oct. 31. From the center’s video I learn that a single female makes four nests in intervals of 14 days and that each nest has an average of 115 eggs — amazing. The nesting process takes one to two hours.

My next stop is Sebastian Inlet State Park. This particular barrier island is split by the inlet that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian River. A concrete and metal fishing pier juts into the water- way, and if you have your fishing license, you’ll be tempted to cast a line. Among the catch of the day are snook, redfish, bluefish and even some Spanish mackerel. However, I’m more intrigued by the park’s two small museums. The Sebastian Fishing Museum sheds light on the history of Florida’s commercial fishing industry, and the display of traps is fascinating. There is a wooden version for catching stone crabs and a trap made of chicken coop wire for capturing blue crabs. Farther down the highway is the McLarty Treasure Museum. A Spanish fleet en route from Cuba to Spain carrying New World treasure — gold and silver mined in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia — sank offshore during a hurricane in 1715. The museum sits on the site of the survivors’ camp. In 1963 treasure hunter Mel Fisher traded California for Florida to search these waters for the coins. After a year, he was ready to give up when — bingo! He discovered a blanket of gold, some 3,500 gold coins on the bottom of the sea. Thus the area’s moniker, the Treasure Coast, was born.

As I continue my way down south, the first hint that I’m approaching South Florida’s more affluent beach communities appears in the form of meticulously manicured lawns and gardens of the homes and condominiums. When I pull over in Vero Beach to ask for directions, my thought is confirmed when a seasoned gent in neatly pressed khaki shorts, a collared shirt and polished leather loafers points me in the right direction. I also notice that the pickup trucks with surfboards are gone, and a parade of BMWs, Mercedes and Lexuses is rolling by. I find my way to Ocean Drive — three blocks of high-end boutiques with names like A Pampered Life, Posh and Very Fitting. Popping into the shop Twig, I cannot resist the Ralph Lauren swimsuits, white gauzy coverups, fringed straw sunhats and faux-jeweled flip-flops. Across the street sit small beach hotels, including the landmark Drift wood Resort, with its funky drift wood architecture angling in all directions and a packed Waldo’s poolside bar, where margaritas are flowing mid-afternoon.

Ready to call it a day, I head over to the Hutchinson Island Marriott Beach Resort & Marina (marriott.com). This barrier island has its share of condos, and I learn that between Thanksgiving and also Christmas, huge semitrailers make regular runs here to unload seasonal residents’ cars. Across the bridge is Stuart, where during season it’s almost impossible to get a table in a restaurant. After trying several eateries where lines are out the door, I opt for a hamburger at the resort’s bar.

East Coast Road Trip

Hutchinson Island » Palm Beach
Day Four: I spend my morning chatting with folks at the resort’s marina about renting a Boston Whaler and heading into the Indian River. The suntanned fellow at the water-sports shack is trying to convince us to go fishing in the inlet. He tells us to anchor by the flats and throw out a line, then head to Manatee Pocket, a bay with restaurants and a marina, for some crunchy fried shrimp at Shrimpers Grill & Raw Bar. The father, who is attentively listening, books the boat and heads out with his sons. I get on my way, as I’m eager to explore my next destination: Jupiter Island. While cruising down Highway A1A, I turn onto Bridge Road, the entrance to a piece of paradise where real-estate prices soar. Consider it a mini Palm Beach. I cross Hobe Sound Bridge and drive through a passageway cuddled by banyan trees that must be over 100 years old. These veteran trees have aerial prop roots that wrap around the original trunk. A sign announces that I’m entering the Town of Jupiter Island. Once on the barrier island, I take the narrow two-lane County Road 707 to Blowing Rocks Preserve. Upscale beach cottages with gravel driveways are hidden behind walls of tropical foliage — shapely sea grape trees and ficus hedges — accented with rows of white petunias.

A stream of bicyclists, their tight spandex shorts stretching as they pedal, pass me as I pull into the preserve’s parking lot. The lady at the ticket booth informs me it’s high tide and the water will be gushing up through the crenulated limestone coast. Joining a family from New York, we walk the junglelike path to the shore and stake out a spot on the lookout deck. As my eyes scan the turquoise water, I hear a man’s commanding voice with a distinct New York accent shouting, “Look at the sea turtle!” Puzzled, we all turn to him as he chats on his cell phone, pausing the conversation to yell again, “Look at the sea turtle over there.” Now he’s pointing as he continues yakking on the phone. Amazing multitasking skills. We all see the turtle now as it struggles against the pull of the waves.

The fresh air has a way of stirring one’s appetite, so I decide to grab a bite at Guanabanas in Jupiter. Super packed, this alfresco restaurant surrounded by palm trees sits on a mangrove inlet. I manage to claim a stool at the thatch-roof bar, strike up a conversation with a golfer sitting next to me and order an avocado, mango and bacon salad topped with sweet chili shrimp. Taking a sip of my iced tea, I drink in the scene — a well-deserved break from the road.

Heading out of Jupiter, I’m on the last leg of my trip. To reach Palm Beach, I have more zigzagging to do; I shoot back to the mainland, travel south on U.S. Route 1 and pick up Quadrille Boulevard or junction A1A. The route travels the Flagler Memorial drawbridge and places me on Royal Poinciana Way. This entrance on the northern end of the elite island has an air of privilege. Rows of royal palms like sentries greet me as I make my way down the boulevard and then south alittle past the Breakers, Florida’s grandest dame of a hotel built for folks just like Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan as well as the Rockefellers in the early 20th century. My favorite part of this road is along the coast where almost every palatial home has some sort of figurine guarding its entrance. I see gold eagles, lions, parrots and also elephants perched on columns flanking wrought-iron gates that open onto Mediterranean-inspired homes. A huge American flag waves over the Mar-a-Lago Club, a landmark owned by Donald Trump. If the gate’s open, you might get a peek at a game of croquet in progress on the lawn.

A visit to Palm Beach is truly a love affair with luxury, and as I glide into the portico of the Four Seasons Resort (fourseasons.com), I feel special. Bellhops and handsome valet boys swoon over me, opening doors and carrying luggage. The property is fresh off a renovation, and my room has a contemporary beach house palette that mirrors the sea, sky and sand. The bathroom’s mosaic floor of seashell tones and textures brings the beach to me.

From my balcony overlooking the pool and Atlantic surf, I can see the evening’s Bubbles and Bites cocktail hour beginning. I’m ready for some Wagyu beef sliders and a bubbly concoction to toast the end of a fabulous road trip. After scanning the drink menu, I order a Chanel No. 6 — champagne, Chambord and pineapple juice. Cheers!

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