Cruising slowly along the long tree lined road into Princess Place Preserve, I started to wonder if I was the only one there that day. Grand Spanish moss-draped live oaks forested the landscape on either side of me, and I didn’t encounter a single other vehicle, or an entry-fee toll booth.
Up ahead, I saw a picturesque wooden bridge spanning a wide creek that wound through a golden salt marsh framed by more woods. Two little girls were fishing from the side of the bridge with bait poles, dangling their lines in the peaceful water below. They and their parents, fishing nearby, had the place to themselves. It was such a timeless scene, it almost felt like Huck Finn could show up at any moment.
“It’s beautiful here,” their mother, Tiffany Sykes, said. “It’s not crowded, you can come here and have a spot to fish, and we’ve caught some fish, too.” She told me they lived nearby, and came often. “This is a nice place, I’m surprised they don’t charge,” she said, echoing my thoughts. “This is a hidden gem, for sure.”
Princess Place Preserve is a pristine 1,500 acre Flagler County park, located a short distance south of the St. Johns County line. Admission is free, although there is a charge for camping in one of its wooded campsites, some of which have gorgeous waterfront views of the Matanzas River and Pellicier Creek. Some sites have docks for boaters, while a separate equestrian campsite caters to horse owners, who come to enjoy the park’s many riding trails.
The preserve is named for an American woman who once owned the land and married a Russian prince. It offers something for nature enthusiasts with a wide range of interests, including exploring its many hiking trails, canoeing, kayaking, or even just picnicking.
Since I was there on a weekday, few other people were around, although a ranger told me its campgrounds are popular on weekends. It’s not often that you find yourself in a place so quiet that you’re acutely aware of the sounds of your footsteps crossing a grassy field, of crickets singing in the forest behind you, or of the soft breeze brushing past your ears.
A short distance past the bridge I came upon a sign that said, “Eagle’s Nest,” with an arrow pointing to the right. Following it, I came to the edge of a wide field, where another sign pointed towards an eagle’s nest in the distance. A pipe on a pole, below the sign, served as a spyglass directing your eye toward the nest if you looked through it.
I found a perfect spot for lunch, a picnic table overlooking the Matanzas River, which is also the Intracoastal Waterway. After, I toured the historic hunting lodge that Princess Angela Scherbatow once lived and entertained in. Two rangers gave the free regularly scheduled tour, and when we started out, I was the only one on it.
I could ask as many questions as I wanted, and I learned the park’s history is as fascinating and rich as the place is beautiful. I could see why Tiffany Sykes and her family return again and again.