When the only sounds you want are seagulls calling, distant laughter, and waves crashing. And later maybe some chill acoustic guitar, the clink of glasses, and even later the nostalgic love-calls of the cicadas outside your bedroom window. When you want to stroll down a quiet street past whimsical beach cottages and only see one other couple, smiling around just like you are. When you want to sip your morning coffee in the lush tropical courtyard of a modern/retro mom-and-pop whose colors match your wardrobe. (Well, maybe that’s not top of your list!)
Atlantic Beach, Florida is a dichotomy of a town, giving you both a placid old-timey feel like when you were a kid and could ride your bike to the corner market that served fresh warm donuts, but also a revitalized, walkable downtown bristling with upscale shops and gourmet restaurants. You can have it all; the best of both worlds, in a little beach town not far from busier, partying type beaches abundantly populated with tourists – in case you want that kind of experience. We don’t.
Atlantic Beach started out eons ago with a story that involves, YES, Henry Flagler. Not that we’re not grateful to him, he did tons to get this state percolating. Just about every one of the towns we visit had old Henry at the helm, but we’re happy to introduce another mover-and-shaker, key to the development of Atlantic Beach: Harcourt John Bull.
One of thirteen children (wow), Harcourt was practicing law in New York in the late 19th century, married to a socialite, Alma, a concert pianist who rubbed elbows with powerful people like the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts. Life changed drastically when Alma died in a fire and Harcourt married her niece, Florence, twenty-nine years younger than he (wow.) She quickly popped out three children in three years, during which time Harcourt ripped her away from her social position, female companions – all that she knew – to move to a podunk outpost of a town, Atlantic Beach.
Harcourt became deeply involved in the development of the town and invested in Henry Flagler’s enormous Continental Hotel, as well as The Atlantic Beach Corporation which tried to get things going with financial backing for developments. Harcourt became the town’s first mayor in 1926, when Atlantic Beach was first incorporated. You can find a very long, detailed history here, which chronicles a whole bunch of colorful financial debacles: bankruptcies, people suing each other, and arguing over who did what to whom and who lawfully owns what.
The Continental Hotel, courtesy of Florida Memory, click here for more info and to go to the site
It’s a little confusing but I do know this: The Continental Hotel was renamed The Atlantic Beach Hotel, and it burned down in 1919. Fires, sad to say, figure largely in the history of Atlantic Beach, starting with poor Alma. The first Town Hall burned down in 1932, and Florence, Bull’s second whipper-snapper of a wife, caused her own death by accidentally setting fire to her bed while smoking, in 1960 (and so, no longer a whipper-snapper.) Harcourt John Bull had left the scene years earlier – not by fire but an auto accident while driving around in the pitch dark during the enforced blackout of World War II.
Colorful! To say the least. I’ve only just touched on the vast and twisting history, so do set aside some time, kick back, pour a glass of wine, and read all about it at The Historical Text Archive.
After that you’ll deserve a nice long sit on the gorgeous, vast Atlantic Beach whose soft white sand squeaks under your feet as you putter down to the sea.
- PARK/WALK: There is free parking in Atlantic Beach, that sometimes fills up quickly, so we advise you check into your hotel first and leave your car there. There are some parking spaces on 18th St. as well as a shower, and some parking on other side streets as well. If you’re lucky you can find free parking along the downtown streets near the shops and restaurants, mainly along Atlantic Blvd. There is also a paid parking lot in this area.
- GO/RINSE: Some beach access points in the town have showers. Once again, check into your hotel and use the facilities in your room! There are public restrooms at the Bull Memorial Park and Adele Grage Cultural Center, 716 Ocean Blvd. at 8th St.
- CROWD FACTOR: Blissfully uncrowded during our visit. We’ve read that the beach does get crowded during spring break, but mainly with families and not “spring breakers.”
- GUARDS: Lifeguards are stationed 7 days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
- IMBIBE: No you may not bring alcohol onto the beach.
- BEST FRIEND: Dogs on leashes are allowed at all times.
- WE LOVE: The vast spaciousness of this beach, the lack of crowds.
363 Atlantic Blvd.
You wouldn’t exactly gravitate towards a “beach bar” that is named in honor of Edgar Allen Poe, but CH’s daughter, who lives in Jacksonville and so knows this area like she knows The Law, told us there is a bar right on the beach in this town, but it’s “a little crazy.” She told us “If you’d rather have chill, it’s Poe’s Tavern.” And as CH and I are no longer 25 (saw that decade decades ago) we knew Poe’s was for us. And if his daughter, Angela, can take time from her law practice she’d be an excellent tour guide!
Poe’s Tavern is just a block and half to the beach, and therefore, in our minds, a beach bar. Poe’s is located in Beaches Town Center.
- VIBE: Popular, bustling, extremely friendly.
- ARRIVE: By car only as it is not on the water. There is parking behind and beside Poe’s, also on the street free of charge. Free valet services (tips appreciated!) are also available.
- SIT: Outside under the umbrellas overlooking the lovely sidewalk, or just inside on the porch. Plenty of seating inside though it’s a little dark.
- SIP: Happy Hour specials all day every day!
- NOSH: Known for their gourmet burgers, ground in-house and cooked to order, we had to have the Amontillado (guacamole, jalapeno jack cheese, pico di gallo, chipotle sour cream, oh, my, god) the Black Cat (go there and find out) and the House of Usher (bunless, so it’s healthy, right?)
- LISTEN: Wait, what? We chose a beach bar that doesn’t have live music? Oops. Well, we’re sticking to our choice, it was that enjoyable!
- WE LOVE: The literary theme (in the restrooms someone spooky-sounding is reading Poe over the speaker!) and the especially friendly, knowledgeable, and attentive servers.
28 Sherry Drive
Just three blocks to the ocean and a block-ish to the vibrant downtown – Beaches Town Center – is The Palms Retro, a peaceful oasis full of whimsy and original creativity. Each room at The Palms hearkens back to the cheerful fun of the 1950’s and has its own unique theme. We stayed in The Divas (Marylin Monroe, Bridget Bardo) (Hm… was there a reason they gave us this one?) and other fun rooms pay tributes to The Bad Boys (James Dean, Marlon Brando); The Dudes (John Wayne, Clark Gable); The Cool (Ray Charles, BB King) and more.
Have you ever arrived in a place where you know you’ll be well taken care of but not asked a million questions? Kind of like staying at your favorite, cool aunt’s house, in her guest room with the good sheets, full of artistic touches, and a chilled bottle of wine at your elbow. We brought the wine but otherwise The Palms Retro is our new favorite, cool-aunt-place to stay.
- VIBE: Intimate and quiet, so much like the old Florida motor-court days of travel yet modern and comfortable.
- WALK: Yes! You can walk everywhere; the beach, the bars and restaurants, shops, the quaint surrounding neighborhoods. Or rent one of the Palms’ beach cruisers, another great way to see the town.
- DECOR: As mentioned above, unique and fun! You’ll smile, you’ll connect; everyone remembers I Love Lucy! We guarantee you’ve never stayed at a place like this one.
- SLEEP: Oh-so-comfortable bed with luxurious sheets and pillows. Heaven!
- EXTRAS: Tons of amenities, including complimentary Wi-Fi, complimentary Continental breakfast in their groovy “diner,” tea and coffee makers, outdoor fireplace, umbrella tables and BBQ grill, and more, check out the full list on their site.
- RATES: Check their site for frequent specials. The rate during our visit was around $130.
- WE LOVE: The creativity, the quiet shaded courtyard, and the high level of comfort.
And of course you’ll want to explore the town, and the downtown:
North Beach Fish Camp in Beaches Town Center
Pete’s Bar – a classic dive bar right downtown
Lillie’s Coffee Bar – has live music!
And just some cool cottages in this low-key/upscale coastal town:
A cute cottage and a shop within – DRIFT
As always I could keep you here all day regaling you with how much we loved this town with its yin and yang of shady/quiet and bright/bustle, but instead I want to ask you to help me with this question: A reader recently asked me “What is your favorite beach town on the east coast?” YIKES! I truly have no favorite. They all bring their unique fab-ness to the table. But Atlantic Beach is now absolutely in our top 10!
What is your favorite beach town on the east coast, and why? Comment below; I can’t wait to hear the answers!
Atlantic Beach is on Florida’s east coast, 42 miles south of St. Augustine, and 3.5 miles north of Jacksonville Beach.