Sand and Serenity at the Florida Seashore

Debbie and Ken Petersen both work full time at Disney World – she’s an art director for Epcot; he’s an audio-video engineer. So where do you vacation when you work for one of America’s top vacation destinations?

After a long work week, the Petersen’s like to escape crowds and congestion by taking their 32-foot travel trailer to Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area, along the northeastern Florida coastline about 18 miles north of Daytona Beach on historic A1A. Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, the windswept park is named for Florida folk singer Gamble Rogers, who died an untimely death in 1991 trying to rescue another swimmer who had ventured into rough surf.

The Petersen’s love the pristine, no-frills quality of the 144-acre park, which hosts 34 campsites that directly overlook the Atlantic Ocean. Though campsites do not provide any shade, they do feature electric (30-amp), water, picnic tables and grills, a bathhouse offers hot showers.

Daily low tides are great for observing shore birds and exploring tidal pools, while summer months attract a variety of sea turtles, which lay their eggs in the sand after dark. On the Intracoastal Waterway side of the park, nature trails wind through shady coastal forest and palmettos. It’s also a good spot to launch boats and canoes.

But it is the peaceful quarter-mile stretch of sun-drenched beach and frothy surf that keep the Petersen’s coming back – simple pleasures, at their best.

DEBBIE PETERSEN: “I love my job, but it can get pretty intense, there’s a lot of pressure. It’s nice to get away from it all at the park, which is just a really easy weekend getaway for us – about an hour-and-a-half drive from Orlando.

“We’ve been coming here for six years, since before the boys can even remember. The park lies between Daytona Beach and Palm Coast, and it’s really nestled in there; you can barely see it from the road.

“I don’t know what it is about that beach. People in Florida love their sugar sand, that fine white sand. Here, they have what is called a cocino formation, right off shore. The sand is really orange colored and really chunky, like bits of shells, and it sticks to your skin like crazy.

“And it’s not very wide; the beach itself is quite narrow. But for some reason I just love it. It’s serene and uncluttered and still feels very 1950s.

“Once we pull in and have our travel trailer set up – like any family, everyone has their job to do when you pull in, so we have it down to a science – we set out the chairs and just sit and watch the ocean, and that’s enough. The beach is never crowded, and our two boys have spent many years playing in the sand and surf. The kids just live in the waves.

“We often walk up the beach to our favorite restaurant and have our dinner out on the deck. One time, we even saw the space shuttle take off (from Cape Canaveral Air Station) on a night launch, and it was spectacular.

“One day, the kids and I painted some ocean scenes. Just to amuse myself, I got some string and clothes pins and hung them up to dry in the breeze. Our own little art show! With my art background, and the fact that both kids are great at drawing and painting, I try to keep the trailer stocked with paints and watercolor for when we need it. I think it’s important for kids to have that available. It’s so messy to do that, so when you’re camping it’s perfect. You can be messy and it doesn’t matter. Besides, I like to blend those blues and greens.

“I do have one habit. I like to call it playing ‘Queen of the Universe.’ I set a chair on top of the picnic table – it’s the only way I can get high enough – so that I can see the entire ocean. I tell the kids, ‘The drinks are in the cooler; the food is in the trailer. I am the Queen of the Universe and will not be disturbed.’

“We’ll play in the water and go on walks on the hiking trails. You’ll see that people do fish; everyone has their favorite activities. I was looking at my pictures over the years and realized that I took a picture of Ken and the boys on the beach one year and took the same shot two years later. The beach looks exactly the same.

“There’s not a lot of stress, as there typically is with camping, when you know where you’re going. It’s laid-back, so I don’t have to pack a lot of stuff. The boys take four or five bathing suits and cycle through them.

“And it’s generally very quiet, though we’ve never gone over there during Bike Week (in nearby Daytona Beach). I imagine it’s pretty lively during Bike Week. My parents have a winter place in Daytona Beach and a little camper, a lot of times they’ll camp with us in the winter. One January, Kyle and I actually went over there with a tent for his birthday – it was freezing!

“But it’s never buggy because you’re right there with a nice ocean breeze. We’ve taken the trailer all the way up to Michigan, Red Top Mountain in northern Georgia, and the Florida Keys just about every year. But (Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area) is our no-frill weekend getaway.”

Driving Directions: Traveling north or south on I-95, exit 284 (Old Exit 91), travel east on SR100 to A1A (about three miles), go right on A1A south to park (about 3 miles), ranger station on west side of A1A. North from Daytona Beach along A1A (about 18 miles). South from St. Augustine along A1A (about 30 miles).

Reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance and are recommended, especially over holiday weekends and throughout February and March.

For more information about Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area, call (386) 517-2086

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