Think Florida, and you might conjure images of Miami glitz, Orlando theme parks and upscale retirement communities on the West Coast. But those areas are worlds away from the quaint historic towns and small cities that line the roughly 300 miles of beaches along the Florida Atlantic Coast. These quieter, laid-back stretches boast pristine beaches, nearly 30 state parks, some of the best cuisine in the state and even a few ghost stories. Below, some select itineraries.
AMELIA ISLAND AND SURROUNDINGS
About 30 miles north of Jacksonville you’ll find Amelia Island, at the tip of the state. Long known for its 13 miles of great beaches and its extraordinary biodiversity, it is flanked by Fort Clinch State Park to the north and Amelia Island State Park to the south (one of the few places on the East Coast where you can go horseback riding on the beach).
Less than five miles north, the town of Fernandina Beach is small but bustling, with restored historic buildings and a cobblestone main street. Recently designated a Florida Main Street community, it attracts people like hotelier Spence Romine, who purchased the dilapidated Amelia Schoolhouse Inn and reopened it as a high-end boutique hotel just two years ago.
After strolling through streets lined with trees draped in Spanish moss, lunch at Timoti’s, a local favorite where you can order fresh fish tacos, bowls and fish and chips at the counter and sit at picnic tables outside. There’s also a wide variety of upscale dining in town, including the phenomenal Lagniappe on the south side of the island, with a menu steeped in New Orleans traditions—do not skimp on the shrimp and grits or blackened redfish.
For water adventures and spectacular fishing, Amelia is paradise. Chris McComas, a Riptide Watersports guide and conservationist, leads kayak and paddleboard excursions along winding waterways and marshes, where you can catch sight of herons and turtles.
FLORIDA’S HISTORIC COAST
Just south of Jacksonville, running 50 miles or so south from Pointe Vedra Beach to St. Augustine, you’ll find what’s called Florida’s Historic Coast. Start with a meal at Palm Valley Fish Camp, where the cuisine matches the breathtaking view of the Intracoastal Waterway. The crab cake is a must here.
A little farther down the coast, past miles of oceanfront mansions, is St. Augustine, the lovingly preserved oldest city in the United States, founded by the Spanish in 1565. Its majestic fort, the Castillo de San Marcos, is a must-visit for inquisitive travelers looking to better understand the history of Florida and the continent.
In deference to the city’s time-honored character, stay at one of its historic properties. The charming Bayfront Marin House, right on the bay, boasts achingly beautiful views, tasteful decor and Southern hospitality: Homemade breakfast and cocktails are taken daily to suites. Late-night ghost tours are fun in a city teeming with history—make sure to read up on Henry Flagler, who built railroads down the length of then-wild Florida in the late 1800s and early 1900s, turning trading outposts such as Miami into full-blown cities. There’s also standout food in chic farm-to-table locales like Catch 27. To immerse yourself in the area’s natural wonders, head out on the water in a kayak or catamaran, or book a boat excursion guided by Zach McKenna of St. Augustine Eco Tours, who’ll ensure you see the gorgeous beaches, get a glimpse of the Fountain of Youth explorer Ponce de León once sought. There’s also a good chance you’ll spot frolicking dolphins.
Just 53 miles south of St. Augustine but a world apart, is Daytona Beach, home to the Daytona International Speedway and iconic Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most important race. If you’re looking to add some action to your scenic Florida jaunt, the speedway hosts events year-round, and the city’s famous Daytona Beach Bike Week and Biketoberfest court motorcycle enthusiasts annually. But the city still offers many of the same charms as its neighboring towns, with 23 miles of flat beaches on which driving is permitted in designated areas. The beach is also home to a charming boardwalk and pier and its bandshell, right on the beach, is a delight for warm evening concerts.
SEBASTIAN AND MELBOURNE
An hour and 40 minutes southeast of Orlando, hit the A1A scenic highway and the scenery changes considerably when you approach Sebastian Inlet State Park. Cross the bridge—with the Indian River to your left, the Atlantic to your right—and you’ll discover a vast landscape of marshes and mangroves suitable for fishing, kayaking and wildlife discovery.
Campgrounds, small motels and seaside luxury home rentals dot the narrow road toward Melbourne Beach, a tiny surf-friendly town suspended in time where building height is capped at 28 feet (roughly three stories). There are frequent points of public access to the beach, easy parking and historic properties like the SeaGlass Inn Bed & Breakfast, a century-old wooden home with green and white shutters. The experience is highlighted by an excellent two-course breakfast served in the courtyard on beautiful china, and a daily wine happy hour with local cheese paired with jam made from the mangoes on property. Borrow bikes from the porch and take an impromptu tour of the restored stately homes on the Indian River, just one block away.
Just south of Sebastian is Vero Beach, where high-end and laid-back options coexist in beachfront hotels like Costa d’Este and the elegant Kimpton Vero Beach. Here, most of the rooms are suites, replete with wet bars and fridges, making them ideal for families. The second-floor library is a standout, and the ultra-fresh seafood tower at the on-site Heaton’s restaurant is highly recommended. Aside from a small, but modern and complete gym on the premises, all rooms are equipped with yoga mats, there is coffee and tea service in the lobby in the mornings and wine in the afternoons, and pets are welcome.
If you happen to be in Vero on a Saturday, make sure to stop by the Farmers Market Oceanside to sample Georgia peaches, local honey and the sweetest Florida oranges you’ll ever taste. Make sure to take some home with you.