Northeast Florida:
LAND OF BEAUTIFUL Discoveries

BY JUDY WELLS

North East Florida - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Visitors have been discovering Florida's First Coast since Ponce de León spotted its shores on Palm Sunday, April 2, 1513, claimed it for Spain and dubbed the land Pasqua de Florida—Feast of Flowers.

French Huguenots sailed to what became Jacksonville for religious freedom; Spain settled St. Augustine (and wiped out the French Huguenots) to protect its treasure ships; and African slaves fled plantations in search of freedom, making Fort Mose near St. Augustine the first free African-American settlement in North America.

Pirates found booty sailing its seas and sanctuary in the coastal bays, rivers and inlets, and at one point took over Fernandina. Yanks and rebels alike decided it was a good place to live, returning and settling at war's end.

Northerners found relief from winter's cold; the Bartrams, father John and son William, found botanical treasures; movie-makers used the scenery for films before Hollywood had a name; and literary lights from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and John Grisham were inspired.

Today's visitors will find whatever they seek.

WHAT'S NEW

In 2013, St. Augustine/Ponte Vedra celebrates the 500th anniversary of Ponce de León's landing with an exhibit of works by Pablo Picasso January 12–April 19; re-enactments; a Native American Gathering and Healing Ceremony; and an International Spanish Food & Wine Festival in October.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

Collections spanning the centuries from pharaohs to Florida Highwaymen painters, innovative programs for children, idyllic riverfront gardens—one Italian, the other English in style—make The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens a must-see in Jacksonville's Riverside area.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in downtown Jacksonville focuses on the art of today. Together with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, they form the city's cultural core. Surrounding them is a vibrant arts scene, which puts Jacksonville in AmericanStyle magazine's top 15 big cities for art. Artists flock to cooperative spaces from CoRK in Riverside to the Art Center Cooperative and Studio 121 downtown.

Theatre Jacksonville in San Marco is the oldest continuously operating community theater and nearby MOSH, the Museum of Science and History, entertains children and parents alike. Florida State College at Jacksonville's Artist Series brings the excitement of Broadway to the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, and small, but no-less talented, performers take the stage at the Florida Theatre, St. Augustine's Amphitheater and Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. Major acts regularly fill the Jacksonville Veteran's Memorial Arena while the Alhambra Theatre and Dining mounts consistently good productions, often with nationally known performers.

With their quaint streets and rich history surrounded by natural beauty, St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach/Amelia Island have long attracted artists, galleries, writers and literary groups. Actors find outlets recreating historic characters from native Timucuas and conquistadors to pirates and captains of industry.

The Ritz Theatre and La Villa Museum hosts traveling exhibits, the popular Amateur Night and a permanent display of African-American history in Jacksonville. The Black Heritage Trail includes nine sites in Nassau, Duval and St. Johns counties and highlights significant locations in the struggle for civil rights. Get the free ACCORD Freedom Trail Audio Tour from the Visitors Center in St. Augustine.

Football is not just part of the culture, it's a passion on the First Coast. From the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL and Sharks of the Arena League through college and high school to peewee leagues, pigskins rule. Then come the Jacksonville Suns, our boys of summer.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Belly up to the bar at Fernandina's Palace Saloon, the state's oldest, and mingle with the locals the way barons of industry—guests of the Carnegies at Cumberland Island—once did.

Hit a waterway for a different perspective. Kayak along rivers or through estuaries; go to sea on a fishing boat, take a sunset cruise or just hop on a water taxi at the Jacksonville Landing to get from one side of the St. Johns River to the other. Take a dip in the Atlantic and walk the wide beaches in search of shells and sharks' teeth.

Wander the narrow cobbled streets of St. Augustine's historic district and tramp the battlements of Castillo de San Marcos, named a national monument the same year as the Statue of Liberty.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

St. Johns Town Center has the monopoly on major chain restaurants from upscale to family budget.

Prefer locally owned, locally sourced? For upscale contemporary try Blue in Flagler Beach; Salt at The Ritz-Carlton or PLAE on Amelia Island; Matthew's, Bistro Aix, b.b.'s, Biscotti's, Café Nola at MOCA or Corner Bistro in Jacksonville.

For breakfast, try to snag a table at Metro Diner in San Marco or dine with the politicos at The Fox in Avondale. Meet the neighborhood at The Brick in Avondale, Taverna or The Grotto in San Marco; Burrito Gallery in downtown Jacksonville; Uptown Market in Springfield, Pele's Wood Fire in Five Points; Ragtime in Atlantic Beach; and Slider's in Neptune Beach.

Ethnic picks: For Thai, Indochine downtown. Asian fusion? Definitely Blue Bamboo. French cuisine stars at Orsay in Avondale, JJ's in Jacksonville and Ponte Vedra Beach and Bistro de Leon in St. Augustine. Shoes and shirts of almost any kind will get you in for seafood at Singleton's in Mayport, Lulu's Waterfront Grille in Palm Valley or Salt Water Cowboy's in St. Augustine.

The parking lot is always full at Latitude 30 with its mix of upscale bowling, live music, food, bar, banks of TVs and arcade games. Freebird Live in Jacksonville Beach keeps the Lynyrd Skynyrd vibe humming with live performances in a variety of genres. On Wednesday nights, join the locals at the Casa Marina Hotel for good bar noshes, live music and a great view.

What Ragtime Tavern & Seafood Grill in Atlantic Beach started with its brewpub almost 30 years ago has grown like yeast, filling the area with microbreweries and brewpubs: A1A Aleworks in St. Augustine; Café Karibo and Karibrew Brew Pub in Fernandina Beach; Pinglehead Brewing in Orange Park; Green Room and Engine 15 Brewing in Jacksonville Beach; and River City Brewing Co., Intuition Ale Works and Bold City Brewery in Jacksonville, to name a few. Dahlia's Pour House in Riverside with 85 taps is the latest spot to taste their wares.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

With 111,669 acres of parks—the country's largest—within Jacksonville's 848 square miles, outdoor activities are always nearby.

Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park in Atlantic Beach and the 46,000-acre Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, a national park that encompasses parts of Jacksonville, Fort George and the Talbot Islands, are the stars. The Timucuan Trail State and National Parks is a unique co-op involving city, state and national park services to preserve one of the last unspoiled coastal wetlands on the east coast. Boating, swimming, fishing, camping, birdwatching, ranger talks and historical sites, such as Kingsley Plantation, attract thousands to the parks' ocean, lake, river and stream shores.

Washington Oaks Gardens State Park in Flagler Beach features gardens to its west, unique coquina rock beaches to the east. Ravine Gardens in Palatka is spectacular January through April when the azaleas, Chickasaw plums, dogwoods and camellias are in bloom.

Fish from piers on Amelia Island, Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Flagler beaches. Palatka is the Bass Capital of the World.

Kayak Amelia will lead or direct you through the marsh trails; Kelly Seahorse Ranch will mount you on a horse for a beach ride; and Ecomotion tours will take you for a Segway tour.

Surfers head to Hanna Park, the area around the Jacksonville Beach Pier, Mickler's Landing in Ponte Vedra and south of the Flagler Pier. Cyclists pedal along Hanna Park's 20 miles of bike trails and Jacksonville's Kona Skateboard Park is famous among the wheeled-board set.

Between the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, TPC Sawgrass The Players Stadium and Pete Dye's Valley courses, and the LPGA courses in Palm Coast, golfers are in hole heaven. In all, more than 1,000 holes of golf await the balls of duffers or scratch shooters.

Tennis fans will find worthy courts at the resorts on Amelia Island, Ponte Vedra Beach, Sawgrass and Palm Coast.

BEST PLACES TO SHOP AND STAY

St. Johns Town Center has the lock on national stores from Abercrombie & Fitch and the Apple Store to Tiffany's and Luis Vuitton. You'll find bargains at the St. Augustine Outlets, but if you prefer the unique, seek out boutiques: Five Points for young, cutting-edge fashions at Edge City; San Marco, especially designer Linda Cunningham's; the Shoppes of Avondale; and the stores in Fernandina's and St. Augustine's quaint downtowns.

Stay or just take some spa time at a Northeast Florida resort: The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, Ponte Vedra Inn and Club, Sawgrass Marriott, World Golf Village or Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast. For relaxation, Elizabeth Pointe Lodge on Amelia Island ranks ninth in Travel and Leisure's "World's Best Awards."

SCENIC DRIVES

Winding roads canopied by giant oaks mark the Bartram Trail/Mandarin Road drive.

Follow the ocean, mansions and maritime forests along A1A from Fernandina to Flagler Beach.

Drive along the river, through the neighborhoods of San Marco, Riverside–Avondale and Ortega, where "Dangerous Dan" McGirt is said to have buried treasure.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

Kids of all ages love the award-winning Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens on the banks of Trout River—especially the Range of the Jaguar and Great Apes exhibits, feeding the giraffes, riding through the Plains of Africa on the train or going around in circles on its carousel. On rainy days, head over to MOSH. Heat getting to you? Take the gang to Adventure Landing's water park in Jacksonville Beach.

Practice your "arrrghs" in St. Augustine at the Pirate and Treasure Museum and catch the wildlife at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. For a real treat, swim with the dolphins at Marineland.

Let the young ones climb the walls while you soak up history at Fort Clinch, ride horses on the beach or go kayaking in Fernandina Beach. With tractor rides, cracker cattle and horses, and mud-wallowing pigs, the Florida Agricultural Museum in Palm Coast is a lot more entertaining than its name implies.

INSIDER'S TIPS

Join the locals in monthly free Art Walks. Tour galleries and museums after hours, sip a beverage along the way and be entertained by performers. On Amelia Island, it's 5:30–8:30 p.m. the second Saturday of the month; in Jacksonville, 5–9 p.m. first Wednesday; St. Augustine, 5–9 p.m. first Friday; Atlantic and Neptune Beaches, 5–9 p.m. third Thursday; San Marco Avenue, St. Augustine, 5–9 p.m. last Saturday.

Frazzled? Jacksonville's signature oak trees will realign your priorities. Picnic or just spend a quiet moment contemplating the wonders of nature under Jacksonville's Treaty Oak on the Southbank or admire the massive limbs of the Cummer Oak at the museum in Riverside. A stroll along the city's Riverwalks, south or north bank, won't hurt either.

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