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Road Trips

Your Perfect Road Trip Up Florida’s First Coast

Forget Interstate 95—the real Florida can be found on Highway A1A and U.S. Route 1 along the eastern coast, starting in Titusville and heading north to the “First Coast,” St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach. This 175-mile jaunt will take you to some of the coast’s best sandy spots, seafood shacks and quaint towns. Pack the swim suit, bottled water and a beach umbrella. You’re going to need them all.

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Alligators and Atlantis: Titusville, Florida

Driving time from Orlando: 50 min (40 mi)

From Orlando, take State Road 528 (toll road) and head east. Known as the “Beach Line Expressway,” it’s a straight shot to the water. The first major town you’ll hit is Titusville, Brevard’s county seat founded in the 1850s, and home to the Titusville Playhouse, where some of Florida’s best community theater takes the stage. Take the self-guided walking tour of downtown and learn about the salt production that aided the Civil War efforts. If you’re feeling a little peckish upon arrival in Titusville, stop at Dixie Crossroads for blackened mahi mahi and fried shrimp. It’s been a favorite seafood spot for locals and tourists for more than 30 years.

Take a 15-minute inland detour to Christmas, Florida and the Airboat Rides at Midway. Snap some pics holding the baby alligators at their facility before heading out for a boat tour of the Everglades. Mid-day in the winter is the best time to see alligators on the trip, but they can be found all year round, along with turtles, anhinga birds and other native wildlife.

Continue your trip with some downtime at the gorgeous Canaveral National Seashore, a quiet, 24 mile (40-km) long barrier island offering beaches strewn with plenty of shells for collecting and trails for exploring. Tip: While the beaches do have bathrooms, this is largely undeveloped space, so services are limited. Check the website for more information on access points.

If you have an extra day to spend in Titusville, be sure to stop at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. This sprawling compound takes guests on a journey through every historical stage of American space travel, from the early days of rockets to the moon landing to the shuttle program and beyond. You can even visit the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which has made its permanent home here.

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Sand and Sea Turtles: New Smyrna Beach, Florida

Driving time from Titusville: 40 min (32 mi)

Full of art galleries, beach-style shopping and top-notch dining, New Smyrna Beach, and especially Flagler Avenue, offers the perfect beach day with plenty of diversion if the sun’s rays get too intense. Because the white sand is so tightly packed here, guests are allowed to drive their cars right onto the beach. Speed limits, however, are highly enforced, so just find a spot up- or down-beach and settle in.

For a lazy afternoon on the water, rent a pontoon boat from Sand Dollar Charters. Or take your time on ocean kayaks or stand-up paddle boards at JB’s Fish Camp, where locals love to lunch. New Smyrna Beach is a popular spot for sea turtle nesting in the fall, so it’s almost certain you’ll spot one close to shore if you visit between October through December. But don’t try to pet them—they’re highly protected.

In the evening, enjoy small bites and wine or pizza and craft beer at Third Wave Cafe on a patio adorned with market lights. Finish your beach day at Frozen Gold, a cash-only post-beach tradition, and home of the one of the best banana splits.

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Need for Speed: Daytona Beach, Florida

Driving time from New Smyrna Beach: 25 min (15 mi)

Daytona Beach was known for epic spring breaks in the ’80s and ’90s and college students packed the beach from door to shore and neon bikinis reigned. Daytona Beach is a little sleepier now, with long-term condos beating out luxury resorts for beachfront space—but not by much, as the new Hard Rock Hotel is scheduled to open in 2018—all fit for family fun.

Start at the the iconic and newly renovated Daytona International Speedway. The racetrack, originally built in 1959, now sports a third tier of seating, multiple concourse levels, 40 escalators and a 13-foot (4-meter) LED sign sporting more than 3,600 bright-light bulbs. Take a 30-minute open-air tram tour for a view into all the new additions. Or take advantage of the “All-Access” tour to hang out in the pit and visit the start and finish lines.

Don’t leave this area without visiting the revitalized Daytona Beach Boardwalk, a classic midway packed with family businesses to explore, like Zeno’s Boardwalk Sweet Shop. Roller coasters, a Ferris wheel and old-school arcade games make it a fun spot for kids—let them ride while you relax in the sunshine with a funnel cake.Or bring them to the beach and find sand dollars and sea stars. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, watch fireworks over the water every Saturday night at 9:45 p.m.

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Steeped in History: St. Augustine, Florida

Driving time from Daytona Beach: 1 hr (52 mi)

The town of St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by Ponce de Leon. His search for the Fountain of Youth started (and ended) here. Yes, you can take home a bottle from the spring, though it’s unlikely to grant you the benefits Ponce de Leon searched for. As the earliest European settlement in the United States, there’s plenty of history to explore here—and new discoveries are being made all the time. As recently as February 2017, archaeologists discovered remains which may have belonged to the town’s first settlers.

With beaches to enjoy, cobblestone streets to explore and all that atmosphere, you’ll probably want to stay overnight. The old city is a maze of tiny streets lined with boutiques, so spend a couple of hours perusing. Tour the 16th-century Spanish fort, Castillo de San Marcos, and watch actors in full-period Spanish military uniforms shoot off the original cannons each day.

Finally, make reservations at Columbia Restaurant for paella and authentic Spanish and Cuban food inside an incredible atrium (treat yourself to the equally incredible white-chocolate bread pudding for dessert).

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Rolling Greens and Winter Treats: Fernandina Beach, Florida

Driving time from St. Augustine: 1 hr, 22 min (72 mi)

From St. Augustine, drive north on Route 1 and then Interstate 295 to Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island. Upon arrival, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into another time. There are no cars allowed on Amelia Island’s streets, which are lined with Victorian homes and storefronts, so plan to park at your hotel and take bikes for your tour of the hamlet. Fernandina Beach is the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry, so you can watch the boats come in and go out from the marina on most days.

If you’re visiting in late spring, summer or fall, put a round of golf on your to-do list. Fernandina Beach Golf Club sports rolling Champion Bermuda grass. Play 18 holes walking for only $19 per person. Sea turtles nest on the beach in the summer and early fall, so try to catch a glimpse of these gentle giants from a safe distance.

Don’t think you’re limited to three seasons, though. The holidays on Amelia Island see the area come to life with festive twinkle lights and evergreen. Try the Amelia Island Cookie Tour visit historic homes, sip on mulled wine and hot cocoa, and sample a different kind of cookie at each spot. Take home a recipe from your favorite stops to recreate the sweets at home.Florida’s Atlantic coast towns certainly boast a common thread—that gorgeous blue water. But that’s where the similarities end; you’ll find a different Florida at each stop on your seaside sojourn.

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Read the original story: By the Sea: A Road Trip up Florida’s First Coast by Holly Kapherr, who is a regular contributor to Marriott Traveler