Northeast Florida:
History meets luxury

BY ALISSON CLARK

North East Florida Visitors Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Red tile roofs and Moorish arches aren't typical images of colonial America, but in St. Augustine, centuries of Spanish history give the city a decidedly Mediterranean flair.

In 2013, St. Augustine—the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the United States—will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon's arrival. Visitors can explore de Leon's landing site, stroll cobblestone streets lined with historic buildings, and tour the opulent Gilded Age resorts that have long drawn visitors from colder climes. Leading up to the anniversary, look for re-enactments of pirate raids, daily living-history exhibits in the Colonial Spanish Quarter, even a masked ball in the style of the 16th century.

St. Augustine is just one gem in the crown of the northeast coast, which also includes Jacksonville, Florida's largest city with a cruise port, cultural attractions and plenty of nightlife. Atlantic Ocean beaches beckon, along with inland waterways where kayaking, fishing, birding and hiking opportunities abound.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

From swimming with dolphins in Marineland to taking in a concert under the stars on Jacksonville Beach, the northeast coast revels in activities that make the most of its temperate climate. After exploring St. Augustine's Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, a stone fort dating from the 1670s, soak up the sun in style, with beach options ranging from wilderness preserves to oceanfront resorts.

Golfers can enjoy pro-quality courses year-round. Music lovers can groove along with top artists at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, while outdoorsy types can get back to nature in Jacksonville's 111,669 acres of parks, the largest urban park system in the United States. Whether your ideal adventure is to set sail on a sunset cruise from historic Fernandina Beach or ride horses on the shoreline of Amelia Island, the northeast coast awaits.

Some of the most spectacular scenery in the region is found in the seven Talbot Islands State Parks. Little Talbot Island boasts five miles of white sandy beaches and top-notch fishing, while Big Talbot draws photographers to Boneyard Beach, where picturesque salt- and sun-bleached skeletons of fallen trees line the beach.

Romance and history come together in Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island, often ranked among the top 10 North American islands in Condé Nast Traveler. This village of Victorian homes and inns has a tumultuous past, changing hands so often that it earned the name "Isle of Eight Flags." Today the atmosphere is decidedly tranquil: artillery still fires at Fort Clinch, but only during monthly historic re-enactments.

BEST DRIVES

For an iconic trip down the coast, cruise the A1A Scenic and Historic Coastal Byway, 72 miles of storied highway from Jacksonville Beach south to Flagler Beach. Jacksonville's William Bartram Scenic & Historic Highway follows the St. Johns River beneath a canopy of moss-draped live oaks.

HERITAGE & CULTURE

In the museums of the northeast coast, visitors can admire cultural treasures as well as pirate's treasure. The new St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum holds thrills for all ages, while art aficionados definitely won't want to miss Jacksonville's Museum of Contemporary Art and Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. For history buffs, St. Augustine's Castillo and the nearby Fort Matanzas National Monument offer glimpses into the past.

FAMILY ATTRACTIONS

Families can swim with dolphins in the oceanfront Marineland Dolphin Adventure, while the St. Augustine Alligator Farm offers up-close views of crocodilians from all over the world. Hop aboard one of St. Augustine's trolleys for a narrated tour of the historic town, a convenient way to navigate the Old City and its kid-friendly attractions.

The Jacksonville Zoo and Museum of Science & History are also can't-miss spots for families. For an outdoor adventure, head to Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, where beaches and camping cabins meet more than 20 miles of biking trails and a lake with fishing and boat rentals.

SPORTS & OUTDOORS

Football rules in Jacksonville where the Jaguars National Football League team as well as college games play at the riverfront EverBank Field. Golfers congregate at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa in Ponte Vedra Beach and World Golf Village in St. Augustine. Paddlers have their choice of ocean, river and estuary outings in the company of shorebirds, manatees and dolphins. In Clay County, campers can sleep in an enclosed treehouse at Camp Chowenwaw, a former Girl Scout camp dating from 1933.

State parks abound in the area, from the profusion of azalea blooms at Palatka's Ravine Gardens State Park to the four miles of beaches at Anastasia State Park, which offers paddleboard, kayak and sailboat rentals. Explore the bass-fishing paradise of Lake George, set sail on the Amelia River at sunset or rent a houseboat on the St. Johns.

SHOP 'TIL YOU DROP

St. Augustine's outlet malls offer high-end goods at discount prices, while antique shops, art galleries and boutiques in the historic district provide ample opportunity for browsing.

In Jacksonville, visitors comb the funky Five Points area for vintage finds, swing by the San Marco and Avondale neighborhoods for upscale boutiques or hit the St. Johns Town Center for shops from Coach to Louis Vuitton.

RESORTS

From golf and tennis to gourmet cooking classes, Northeast Florida's resorts have activities to suit any taste.

Amelia Island gems include the Omni Amelia Island Plantation and the Ritz-Carlton, noted in Travel + Leisure magazine's 2011 World's Best Awards. Farther south are the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa and Ponte Vedra Inn & Club.

St. Augustine's historic Casa Monica dates from 1888, while Renaissance World Golf Village offers more than links: at Spa Laterra, unwind with a treatment in an outdoor cabana.

NIGHTLIFE

The riverfront bars, restaurants, hotels and shops of Jacksonville Landing pulse with life year-round, while craft brewers dominate the Riverside Brewery District. Big-name acts perform at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre and Jacksonville's Freebird Live.

For a family-friendly evening, head to Jacksonville Beach for moonlight movies and concerts at the oceanfront Sea Walk Pavilion.

Florida Keys
Florida Southern College
Holiday Inn Club Vacations
Daytona Beach
Northwest Florida
Crystal River
Martin County
Sebring
Royal Shell