A Post-Spring Break Jaunt to Florida’s BeachesBy SETH KUGEL
I’d been on the road for barely an hour, but when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.
To the beach, I mean. As I drove down the eastern Florida coast, the view had gone from high-rise ocean-view condos to luxe waterfront homes to just a narrow strip of grass and shrubs, with Atlantic waves breaking on the other side. Spotting a footpath through the shrubs, with a lone car parked nearby, I swung the wheel of my rental Ford Focus and parked.
Thirty seconds later, I had my own private beach, almost: a lone surfer in long trunks the colors of a sunset was standing a good 100 yards down the sand, staring at the breaking surf. I stayed for about the same time it would take to use the bathroom and scarf down a Cinnabon at a highway rest stop, and headed back to the car.
Spots like that one, in Sebastian Inlet State Park, were a whole new Florida for me. I’ll admit to having a pretty stunted knowledge of the state before taking a 250-mile road trip from the Georgia border south along the coast to Hutchinson Island, just north of West Palm Beach, in early April. There was Miami, where cool people hang out in South Beach and cooler people go to Art Basel. Orlando for theme parks, Key West for quirkiness and pastel houses, the Panhandle for southern culture, and the Everglades for alligators.
All that that stretch of Atlantic coast had, as far as I knew, was Daytona Beach, home to the drunken spectacle known as spring break. Not for me (anymore).
But upon closer examination, the map showed an intriguingly spindly state highway with a smugly self-confident name, A1A. It hugged the water as much as possible, along endless beaches, through state parks and down the spine of barrier islands. It passed right through St. Augustine, the oldest city in America, then through beaches with names like Ormond and Daytona and Cocoa into — well, what do you know? — Cape Canaveral.
So earlier this month, I flew to Jacksonville, rented the cheapest car I could coax out of Priceline ($137 a week, including tax, from Alamo) and embarked on my own Adult Spring Break Road Trip. It would be a cheaper alternative to a more glamorous route at the southern tip of the state, a four-tiered frugal plan that involved free beaches, cheap attractions, seafood for under $10 an entree and motels for about $60 a night.My first stop was St. Augustine, founded by the Spanish in 1565. Nearly 450 years later, it had changed a lot – though not entirely for the better. It’s got a half-historic, half-tourist trap look to it – as if were the love child of Savannah, Ga., and Disney World. Visitors ride sightseeing “trains,” about $22 for a three-day pass, between sites that for most people would be pretty walkable — passing signs like “Authentic Old Drugstore” and “Fine Art Gallery” that scream the opposite, and making a stop at a 600-year-old oak tree nicknamed the Old Senator with a Howard Johnson motel built around it.
But I set my schlock filter to high and smoked out two attractions that were AWESOME. Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, the only 17th-century fort still standing in the United States, is run by the National Parks Service, which charges just $6 for entry. The fort’s tale is told not just by historical weapons demonstrations (cannons!) but exhibitions showing how it passed from Spanish to British and then American hands, eventually serving as a jail for “lawless” Plains Indians who became, disturbingly, a 19th-century tourist attraction.
The 20th century brought a far better attraction: the original, irresistible Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum ($15 for adults), opened in 1950, one year after Robert Ripley’s death. Sure, it’s politically incorrect in places –- a torture exhibit is punctuated gleefully as “MAN’S INHUMANITY TO MAN!” — and controversially conservative in others – an outdoor replica of Michelangelo’s “David” is surrounded by hedges to protect innocent eyes from scandalous nudity. But playing the game implied by the museum’s name in your head is too much fun to miss. A 10.6-ounce feline hairball? Believe it. A Mexican stone mason who walked 38 miles to work every day? Not.I found St. Augustine’s largely restored Spanish town center to be cloyingly touristy. But I did like the food, especially the downtown duo of the Florida Cracker Café, where I sat at the counter raving about my oyster po’boy and tomato-based Minorcan clam chowder to the woman next to me, and Savannah Sweets, where I fell in love with the white chocolate-drenched Ritz peanut butter sandwiches for 95 cents. Or as gluttons like to call it, three for $2.85. And I fell for the special at the Cuban Corner Café, too: a pint of Harp and a hand-rolled cigar for $6.
While I was in St. Augustine, my parents happened to have dinner with a couple who knew this coast well, and passed along a recommendation: Fernandina Beach, a town that occupies about half of Amelia Island just south of the Georgia border. It combined Southern charm, history and a seemingly endless beach.
But I had already passed, so I doubled back north 60 miles, arriving there in the late morning of Day 3 to explore the downtown historic district, block after block of stately 19TH-century homes anchored by an old-fashioned main street with ice cream shops, bookstores, shops selling shark teeth and a friendly brunch place called Jack & Diane’s. I ordered the Auntie Joon, two biscuits topped with eggs over easy and a slew of vegetables. It came with a side of grits and a side of scolding. Or that’s the way it seemed: I had been seated two feet from a blond 7-year-old named Seth, whose father consistently upbraided him — by name — to sit still. I don’t run into other Seths every day, especially misbehaving ones, so kept looking up as if I were the one playing with my food.
They noticed, and we all eventually became friends, his dad giving me advice about what to do on the island and Seth and I discussing our name, our mutual dislike of the color pink and his newly acquired shark-tooth necklace.
Following the dad’s advice, I drove up to Fort Clinch State Park and to its namesake 19th-century fort, which did stints under both the Union and Confederate flags during the Civil War. Intimidating black cannons lined the outer walls of the pentagonal structure, though the fort never came under siege. Alas, I had only scheduled a few hours in Fernandina Beach and had no time for a hike in the park, so I briefly hit one patch of the 13 miles of sand on the island before heading south.
Two days later, I stopped for a sand-and-sun break in developed downtown Cocoa Beach, 125 miles down the coast. Though it lacked historic tourist sites, it was still educational. I parked next to a beach shop with a dry-erase board sign that I couldn’t understand a word of: “Micro-Kinis, Scrunchie-butts, Ruffle triangles & lots more! Sale separates starting @ $5!!!” Shocking Google Image searches would later reveal the specifics of just how little modern swimwear covers, but I realized I’d inadvertently stumbled across the last gasp of spring break. Sunburned, sunglassed college boys paraded past bikini (micro-kini?)-clad co-eds on their way to a beachfront bar and restaurant that smelled of weeks of stale beer.
Luckily, I wasn’t looking for a place to eat. I had eaten a full lunch earlier that day. At Our Deck Down Under, tucked under an A1A bridge up the coast in Port Orange, you can wait over an hour in line to order at the counter on a weekend. Even on Monday at 1:15 p.m., there was a 20-minute wait (well worth it) to order a $8.99 wrap stuffed juicy, fresh shrimp and pieces of crabcake bonded together by a surprisingly sharp Parmesan mayo.
On the final day of my trip, I went to Kennedy Space Center — just north of Cocoa Beach — to check out the rockets and Imax movies. (And a $5 coupon hidden on their Web site to slightly defray the $43 entry fee.) The space shuttle Endeavour stood on Launch Pad 39A, ready for its last-ever launch on April 29. (Kennedy Space Center was recently declared the rest home for the retired Atlantis shuttle, so future visitors will be able to get much closer than the distant view I got of the Endeavour.)
My original plan had been to end up in West Palm Beach by the end of my five-day trip. But that proved impossible. Though the oyster po’boys and Spanish forts and NASA rockets were fun, the best part of the trip was that I was never more than five minutes from the water. So whenever a beach beckoned, I pulled the car over to the side of Route A1A and hopped out to check it out. The college kids can have their ruffle triangles and beach bars; I’ll take my walks along empty sands, quick dips alongside family groups in the chilly waves, or chats with fishermen about their catch. That always put me way behind schedule, but made for a perfect adult spring break.