Northeast Florida:
A "Got Everything" Playground

BY CHELLE KOSTER WALTON

North East Travel Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Big-shouldered Jacksonville, Florida's most populated metropolis, throbs at the heart of Northeast Florida. The region's historic towns, important ports, and Atlantic Ocean beaches radiate out from the city that thrives equally on commerce, culture and tourism.

The city of St. Augustine, together with Amelia Island and the beaches of Jacksonville (Mayport, Atlantic, Neptune, Jacksonville and Ponte Vedra), are the main centers of tourism. Amelia Island stretches north to the Georgia border and is home to a variety of resorts and the charming Victorian town of Fernandina Beach. South of Amelia Island, the coastal shrimping and shipping town of Mayport segues into a stretch of vacation land from Atlantic Beach to Flagler Beach.

Atlantic Beach and Ponte Vedra Beach bookend the more frivolous, playful beaches of Neptune and Jacksonville. South of Ponte Vedra, St. Augustine gives credibility to the region's nickname, The First Coast, with its colonial pedigree and well-preserved architecture.

Next along the continuum, Marineland got its name from the first-ever aquarium attraction that opened there in 1938 and continues to operate to this day. Quiet Palm Coast and Flagler Beach remain Northeast Florida's best-kept secrets.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Founded in 1565 by the Spanish, St. Augustine's famous Old City is a not-to-be-missed attraction. Here, in the historic district of the nation's oldest city, cobblestone streets are lined with centuries-old buildings interspersed with quaint cafés, restaurants and shops. Costumed interpreters stroll the avenues bringing history to life in such buildings as the Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum, Florida's Oldest House, Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse in America, Old Jail and Old St. Augustine Village (getaway4florida.com/history).

RECOMMENDED DRIVES

One of America's most treasured drives, seaside Highway A1A is at its most gorgeous along The First Coast. Highlights include the drive south of Amelia Island through Little Talbot Island State Park (floridastateparks.org/littletalbotisland), followed by the Mayport car ferry ride that crosses the St. Johns River and the seven-mile section along Flagler Beach called the Ocean Shore Scenic Highway.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

The Northeast region's enviable shoreline and deepwater ports created an early military heritage with forts reinforcing the stretch from Fort Clinch State Park (floridastateparks.org/fortclinch) on Amelia Island to St. Augustine's mammoth Castillo de San Marcos (nps.gov/casa) together with south-lying Fort Matanzas (nps.gov/foma). Fascinating tours of these fortresses are offered daily. At Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Maritime Museum chronicles the region's naval history (jaxmaritimemuseum.org).

The railroad was an important driving force behind The First Coast's development and St. Augustine reveres a man named Henry Flagler, who not only brought the railroad to town, but also spearheaded the construction of several beautiful hotels and churches. One former hotel now houses the Lightner Museum (lightnermuseum.org) where its varied accumulation of artifacts includes a remarkable collection of Tiffany glass and Gilded Age treasures.

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens (cummer.org) in Jacksonville's historic district and its downtown Museum of Contemporary Art (mocajacksonville.org) assure the town its place among Florida's cultural destinations. Other assets include Theatre Jacksonville (theatrejax.com) and an abundance of dining options that help contribute to the city's lively nightlife and arts scene.

CALLING ALL SHOPAHOLICS

St. Augustine's historic district is an anti-franchise shopping experience. At the Lightner Museum an antique mall occupies what used to be the circa 1889 Alcazar Hotel's indoor swimming pool, the world's largest at the time.

San Marco Avenue at the edge of the colonial district has the largest concentration of antique shops. Some 30 art galleries and studios sell everything from blown-glass items and hand-thrown pottery to Old Masters paintings, fine contemporary pieces, Latin American graphics and the work of well-respected local artists.

For the latest in new goods at discounted prices, St. Augustine's western perimeter is home to more than 150 outlet stores offering everything from fashions to household products, jewelry, cosmetics, sports equipment and more.

FUN FOR FAMILIES

Ninety-some miles of First Coast beaches provide days of fun for vacationing families, together with the popular Adventure Landing water park (adventurelanding.com) on Jacksonville Beach and interactive dolphin programs at Marineland (marineland.net).

Even off the beach, Jacksonville drums up the family factor with its Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens (jacksonvillezoo.org), interactive Kids Kampus educational park and playground (904-630-KIDS), and hands-on Museum of Science & History (themosh.org).

SPORTS SCENE

The golf resorts of Ponte Vedra Beach and St. Augustine's World Golf Village nail the region's reputation for the woods-and-irons set (florida-golf.org). Football fans can get their fix in Jacksonville, home to the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars (jaguars.com). The city also hosts the Gator Bowl, the annual college football playoff (gatorbowl.com).

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Much of Northeast Florida's outdoor sports scene relates to recreation on, in or near the water. Throughout the region, there are ample opportunities for fishing, boating, kayaking and swimming.

The Atlantic coastline is known for thrilling surfing, especially during the winter, and would-be windsurfers can take lessons in the waters at St. Augustine's Anastasia State Park (floridastateparks.org/anastasia). Kiteboarding and stand-up paddling are the latest extreme sports to hit the area, plus Amelia Island is one of the few places in Florida that offers horseback riding in the surf.

For the ultimate rush, Adrenaline Alligator Adventures offers visitors the chance to spend a day with one of its licensed trappers capturing nuisance gators (adrenalinealligators.com).

FAMILY-FRIENDLY RESORTS

Amelia Island Plantation—one of Florida's first kid-friendly resorts—defines family vacationing in the Northeast (aipfl.com). In addition to programs for every age group, including tough-to-please teens, it offers both junior tennis and golf clinics and camps, and will even teach children how to ride a bike.

Amelia Island Plantation pleasures adults with its holistic spa while the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island incorporates the ultimate icon of seaside relaxation into its zero-gravity hammock treatment (ritzcarlton.com). At One Ocean Resort Hotel & Spa at Atlantic Beach, the Seashell Massage is its signature treatment (oneoceanresort.com).

ECOTOURISM

Right whales, manatees, pink roseate spoonbills and loggerhead sea turtles are just some of the wildlife visitors can see in the region. Washington Oaks Gardens State Park is a prime site for spotting whales during the winter months and viewing roped-off turtle nests in summer (floridastateparks.org/washingtonoaks). Kayaking the salt marshes of Amelia Island provides eye-level sightings of a variety of sea birds.

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