How many of you, before today, had ever heard of Vilano Beach Florida?
(Don’t you just love it when a public speaker uses the old “Show of Hands” trick to get the audience engaged? I fall for it every time, “I have, I have!” waving my hand high.)
But I hadn’t. Ever heard of Vilano Beach. I’ve lived in Florida for 12 years, never heard of it, and the group of Florida friends I polled (admittedly a small cross-section) had never heard of it either.
So, how PERFECT! A hidden gem! Unspoiled Florida! A respite from the crowds! A small-town, old-timey, little-known, off the beaten path coastal Florida town for me to explore and tell you about.
Here is the crazy thing about Vilano Beach: It is infinitesimally off the beaten path. It is microscopically off the beaten path. If you are on your way to one of the most popular tourist destinations in Florida, and the person riding shotgun reaches for another french fry and bumps your elbow and barely tweaks your steering wheel, you are just about right in the center of Vilano Beach.
I know! Weird, that we hadn’t heard of it before, with it being right next to St. Augustine!
As you know we seek to be travelers, not tourists, and so we tend to run like the wind away from the crowded must-visit top hot spots. But if you want to do the St. Augustine thing – and everyone should, at least once, it is very cool – do it. Get your buggy ride, your history lesson, your ghost tavern bar crawl. Then, go a little north, a little east, and park it in the little slow-down town of Vilano Beach.
Back in the day Vilano Beach was used by Henry Flagler (a founder of Standard Oil, along with some Rockefellers and others we’ve never heard of) to attract northern tourists down to his St. Augustine hotels. He’d ferry them over to the beach as part of the package to get them to want to stay forever and buy land from him. Vilano Beach also has a storied past of a giant casino that featured vaudeville acts and dances, and had a mammoth salt water swimming pool. You can just picture those cats doing the Lindy Hop and The Black Bottom, downing their Highballs and Sidecars.
Until high winds in 1937 dashed it all away.
Do you have a favorite t-shirt (here we go again with a Show of Hands question) that isn’t a night shirt, but you wear it to bed because it’s so soft and worn, and you once sent it to the kennel with your poor dog so he’d have the scent of you to comfort him, and you even wrote his full name on the back in black Sharpie so that you’d get it back and even though the shirt screams “FLUFFY Q. VAN OTTENBURGER” you still wear it around town?
You can wear this shirt in Vilano Beach and no one will care. This is not Palm Beach, South Beach, or any uppity beach town you can think of where you feel trailer-park if you don’t have Louboutin shoes. There will be no celebrity sightings or invitations to high tea, and you won’t run into your old boyfriend here because he’s never heard of Vilano Beach either.
But you will have FUN in Vilano Beach, and you can find some of the best R and R you’ve ever sought out. Vilano Beach has the PERFECT TRIPLE-B SET-UP (I know I’m shouting a lot with all caps today, but that’s just because I know you will LOVE Vilano Beach) which of course is having the Best Beach, the Best Bar, and the Best Bungalow all WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE. (Not just so you can drink and relax and not have to get in the car after a drink or two, but mostly so you can drink and relax, etc.)
The little downtown of Vilano Beach is all bright and fixed-up and happy – there is even a mascot on their fishing pier called “The Bluebird of Happiness.” You walk down the street and see tons of revitalization – cool light fixtures, bright speckly tiled sidewalks – which feels so fresh and optimistic, yet still has an old-timey small town Florida feel. I read that the renewal of Vilano Beach is styled in “the art deco moderne along with Florida vernacular.” Whatever, it has a great vibe!
Me and the revitalized Bluebird of Happiness, on the Vilano Beach fishing pier, along with my new little buddy whose parents kept walking until they realized I might scoop him up and keep him…
And here are the reasons to go visit Vilano Beach, and brag to your friends as if you were the one who discovered it:
3070 Coastal Highway
- PARK/WALK: Free parking in a fairly large lot, right on the beach.
- GO/RINSE: Newly renovated restrooms and showers.
- CROWD FACTOR: Very uncrowded. We visited in May, which is after the “snowbird” season, but I’m pretty sure Vilano Beach is NEVER crowded!
- GUARDS: Lifeguards are staffed seasonally at the “driving beach” at the end of Vilano Road, a few blocks south of Surfside Park.
- IMBIBE: No you may not.
- BEST FRIEND: There are areas where leashed pets are allowed.
- WE LOVE: The peaceful and laid back vibe. Note that the sand is mixed with lots of small shells as you can see in the photo. I read online that some people feel the need for shoes and/or water shoes to swim in, but we didn’t find the sand to be a problem.
254 Vilano Road
At the Inlet Marina, next to the Vilano Pier
- VIBE: “Come on in and let us happily serve you while you enjoy the view!” Lots of different age groups here, and everyone is enjoying themselves. And you can bring your dog!
- ARRIVE: There is a large parking lot for arriving by car, as well as the marina with a dock leading up to beaches, to come by boat.
- SIT: Your choice of inside, or outside on the deck or the white sand beach, or the tiki bar.
- SIP: Happy Hour Monday through Friday 3 – 7 p.m. Try their signature Beach-a-rita!
- NOSH: We enjoyed the Beaches Fish Tacos and the Island Jambalaya. They were both great.
- LISTEN: Live music all weekend.
- WE LOVE: The upbeat, island atmosphere, the view, and our super attentive and funny bartender, Adam.
50 Vilano Road
A quintessential mom-and-pop! This place has a history (I love a good back-story! We all have them ;) It was built in 1951 and was one of a few mom-and-pops for years. In the late ’90’s it became part of the set for a Warner Brothers TV series called “Safe Harbor,” starring Rue McClanahan and Gregory Harrison. The series was about a sheriff of Magic Beach, Florida, a made-up town, and the “owner” of the hotel had been a magician.
And the name, and the deco, stuck.
- VIBE: Retro old Florida. Renovated, clean, affordable mom and pop.
- WALK: One building from The (driving) Beach, an enjoyable five minute walk to The Bar. There is also a nice new Publix a block away.
- DECOR: A little bit funky, a little bit old Florida. Nicely done murals (you know how some murals look kind of like your kid painted them?) on the walls, and the original tile in the bathroom, which we love.
- SLEEP: Comfortable bed, soft sheets. I admit I’m a bit of a sheet-aholic. I can’t sleep if they’re rough or don’t breathe.
- EXTRAS: A very nice, clean little pool. There is free Wi-Fi but it is a little weak. There is a simple continental breakfast.
- RATES: Right around $100.
- WE LOVE: being so close to the beach AND the bar.
And here is some more around the town coolness:
I confess I did exclaim “What in the hell…?” which may sound offensive to the Castle Ottis people, sorry guys. castleotttis.com
Cap’s on the Water, supposed to be widely recognized for its incredible location and views, but it wasn’t open yet when we went to check it out. capsonthewater.com
Aunt Kate’s Restaurant originated over 100 years ago! Very cool. aunt-kates.com
You can tell we enjoyed the hell out of ourselves (there I go again, with my pirate self) in this hidden gem, barely off the beaten path little town. I’ll let the nice man who sat beside me at Beaches sum it up for you:
Overheard*, as I happily settled in a the bar with just about the biggest pour of Kendall Jackson I have ever been gifted with, the very large man to my right belched politely into his fist, leaned back and laced his hands across his belly.
“I have to tell you, there isn’t a hell of a lot to do in Vilano Beach.”
I can’t really see over him to see if he’s talking to a friend, or to me.
“You’ve got this bar. It has a beach. A marina, a bait shop. There’s the pier. You can fish from it.”
“You can go eat at about three other restaurants that sit on the water. There’s a pizza place. Chinese. A biker bar. A surf shop. You can gas up your car, your boat…. You can go to the beach, I’ll have to give you that. You can drive on it if you want, and there are porta-potties down at the end if you can’t walk to the restrooms. You gotta go, those potties are right there.”
Good to know.
“You love to fish, boat, surf? Have at it. You want to relax, sit on your ass, maybe even read a book,” a derisive snort, “then, well okay, you might be happy staying in this town. But other than that, there really isn’t a hell of a lot to do in Vilano Beach.”
I may have tried to defend my love of reading at this point, but I was too busy scribbling down what he was saying in the little notebook I carry in my purse, channeling my inner Harriet the Spy.
*Here is my disclaimer for the fact that it seems like eavesdropping is my avocation: Bars are just fertile grounds for hearing a kaleidoscope of conversations, and I can’t help but write them down!
And there you have it, folks. A candid, unbiased, unsolicited review of Vilano Beach, Florida from my large friend at the bar. My work here is done.
Oh, and let me know if you’ve ever heard of Vilano Beach, Florida!