A Dog’s (Beach) Life

Picture your ideal beach vacation: what do you see? Are you reclining on a chaise lounge on the sand, tropical drink or summer novel in your hand? Who do you see? Your family? Spouse relaxing next to you, kids building a sand castle…and your dog playing in the surf?

Our dogs are important members of our families, so of course we want to take our fur babies along on vacation. According to the American Pet Products Association, 40 percent of pet owners take their dogs with them when they travel.

Luckily for us, it’s just a scenic 90-minute drive from downtown Ocala to Flagler Beach, a fun, vibrant beach destination that has kept its small-town vibe—and is super dog-friendly!

Not many beaches allow pets, but quaint Flagler Beach, just 35 miles south of historic St. Augustine and 20 miles north of Daytona Beach, welcomes our doggos with dog-friendly beaches, oceanfront dining, lodging, parks and trails.

“More and more visitors are bringing their pets along on their vacations,” explains Amy Lukasik, the interim tourism development director for Visit Flagler. “The good news is, Palm Coast and the Flagler Beaches are pet-friendly! You can take your pups virtually everywhere you go—in the parks, in a variety of accommodations, restaurants and even on our beaches.”

Sure, you can grab a map, but it’s fairly easy to figure out which beaches allow dogs. Basically, they’re the ones north of North 10th Street and south of South 10th Street. This keeps dogs out of the most populated areas around the pier in the center of town, but to be honest, these dog-friendly sections are just as beautiful and are likely to be less crowded.

On a sunny summer weekday afternoon, walking north from the pier, as the beach blankets and umbrellas thinned out, I notice a trail of footprints in the cinnamon-colored sand: one set human, one canine, side by side. Penny, the exuberant, 7-month-old “dorkie” (a mix of dachshund and yorkie) yips excitedly, hopping into the surf with her tail wagging, playing with her owner, Sharon Hardee.

“She loves the beach,” Hardee says. “She likes water and she likes to dig in the sand and lay and roll in it.” Sharon and her husband Randy regularly make the 40-mile drive to Flagler Beach from their home in New Smyrna Beach, where the beaches don’t allow dogs. Sharon and Penny love to take long walks together while Randy stakes out their spot, ready to dole out dog treats when they return. The couple adopted the rescue dog on Christmas Eve last year, when she was just five weeks old, and they’ve been enjoying the beach together ever since.   

Circle Your Sleeping Spot

There are no chain hotels in Flagler Beach, which leaves far more unique lodging options.

For an easy, traditional motel option, check out the cute and kitschy Si Como No Inn, right across the street and over the dunes from the ocean, where owner Marti Leavines and innkeeper Monique Futch don’t just tolerate dogs, they’ve gone the extra mile to make sure fur babies and their pet parents are comfortable.

“Come enjoy the sun, sand and surf! Don’t forget the pups!” they enthuse. All eight rooms in this colorful, quirky Old Florida-style motel are pet-friendly, and dogs on leashes are welcome in the public courtyard, which features a large tiki hut with a bar, full-sized refrigerator and cooking utensils for guests to use. Thoughtful amenities like cornhole and horseshoe games, grills and hammocks make this a great family lodging option, and Futch says many family groups return year after year to enjoy a laid-back beach getaway.

Other lodging options include vacation rentals, and both A1A Vacation Rental Pros and Tropical Bird & Bee Apartments advertise pet-friendly accommodations. If you’re traveling in your own RV, both Gamble Rogers State Recreational Area and Flagler by the Sea Campground offer dog-friendly campsites.    

Bring Your Supper Dish

Quaint Flagler Beach also has a conspicuous lack of chain restaurants, which allows authentic, locally owned establishments to shine. Options for dog-friendly dining, while limited to outdoor seating areas, are plentiful and diverse.

For a dining experience that truly caters to canines, there’s no place finer than High Tides at Snack Jack. This locally owned waterfront eatery known for fresh seafood and local fare has been a favorite since 1947. The current menu features coastal favorites like conch fritters, steamed shrimp and crab legs as well as innovative seafood twists on the classics, like the ahi tuna club sandwich, redfish Reuben sandwich and salmon tacos. Plant-based options pop up throughout the menu, like the slightly sweet, organic curry kale salad that can be substituted for any side dish, and the organic veggie platter and housemade organic hummus.

On the sunny, dog-friendly patio just steps from the sand you’ll also find the dog menu: doggie hot dog, doggie hamburger, doggie grilled chicken or an organic doggie popsicle. Owner Gail Holt is not just a dog lover, she has created her own line of clean canine skincare products called Love Yer Dog, which includes a fragrance- and chemical-free dog wash and a hot spot treatment. Both products are sold at the restaurant and at local gift shop Flagler Surf Art and Stuff.

Another landmark, the Turtle Shack Café, is known for fresh, local food and homemade specialties. Delicious seafood options include the Irish stout-battered mahi, seared scallops and surf and turf. The dog-friendly outdoor patio is known for cool cross breezes that make it a comfortable place to enjoy the ocean view, its full selection of domestic, imported and craft beers, wine list and live music most weekend evenings.

For the hottest happy hours and nightlife, you and your doggie BFF should head to the oceanview deck at Johnny D’s Beach Bar & Grill, where happy hour specials last from 11am-7pm and menu specials include taco Tuesdays, pizza Wednesdays and bar bites like chicken wings, and chips and queso, as well as sandwiches and salads. They often feature live music or karaoke, and guests can enjoy darts and cornhole.

One more dog-friendly dining option is Java Joint Beachside Grill. Yes, they have all your favorite coffee drinks including cappuccinos and specialty lattes—but this joint offers much more than java. After your sunrise beach run, stop in for a full cooked breakfast with hearty fare like breakfast burritos, specialty scrambles or the crab cake eggs benedict. If you and your fur baby would rather sleep in, enjoy mimosas with a full brunch and lunch menu served until 2pm on weekdays and 3pm on weekends. Diners even report spotting dolphins in the surf from the second-story, dog-friendly deck.

Shop A Canine-Chic Boutique

Whether you forgot to pack a dog essential like a collapsible water dish or you’re looking for some swanky souvenirs for Fido, stop by Flagler Surf Art and Stuff, just a block and a half from the pier. Owner Carla Cline, a native Floridian and surfer chick, curates the cutest “beach dog” bandanas, tie dye dog shirts and accessories.

“Clearly we’re a niche market for dogs, since we’re a dog beach and we have dog-friendly restaurants,” Cline explains. In addition to her own art and crafts created by 10 other local artisans, she sells custom T-shirts for humans and dogs, including the shirt that started it all:  her catchy “Don’t make me cross the bridge” slogan—an homage to visitors’ reluctance to cross back over the intercoastal waterway to head inland when their vacation ends.

After 35 years in Flagler County, Cline is obviously proud of what she calls their “special little place that we need to protect and preserve,” explaining that except for one convenience store, all the businesses in Flagler Beach are locally owned, and that while the town depends on tourism, they’ve taken great care to attract the kind of visitors that keep the beaches clean, respect wildlife and support local businesses. She says she’s noticed more customers over the last few years who insist on purchasing locally produced goods, and she believes they are helping the town maintain its cozy, small-town feeling.

“The lifestyle is slow paced but you’re not far from being able to be busy,” she shares. “The people and this place, it’s gorgeous. You know everybody. It’s still special.”

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