Northeast Florida:
WHERE EXTRAORDINARY IS Ordinary

BY JUDY WELLS

North East Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

A snowy egret lifts into the air as a kayak slips under its perch while a great blue heron continues its freeze-frame stalk in the marsh. Just across a strip of coastal oaks and the dunes that line A1A, a squadron of brown pelicans glides in single file above the beach lapped by the Atlantic Ocean.

To visitors it is an extraordinary sight, but to residents of Florida’s First Coast it’s morning as usual. In Northeast Florida, superlatives, firsts and memorable moments are as common as oak trees draped in Spanish moss. The list includes:

  • First shared meal between Europeans and Native Americans (1564, Fort Caroline, Jacksonville);
  • First permanent European settlement in America (St. Augustine);
  • State’s oldest bar (Palace Saloon, Fernandina);
  • Largest park system in the country (Jacksonville);
  • World’s longest river race for sailboats (Mug Race, Palatka to Jacksonville);
  • World’s oldest operational private skate park (Kona Skatepark, Jacksonville);
  • Florida’s first in-ground pool (Princess Place Preserve, Flagler County);
  • First free African settlement in North America (Fort Mose, St. Augustine).

WHAT’S NEW

The Colonial Quarter in the Oldest City has been recreated to capture St. Augustine’s different eras with period crafts, contemporary takes on period cuisine and an evening revue on weekends.

During 2014’s 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the First Coast will highlight its role in the struggle for equality. Jacksonville-born lawyer, poet and activist James Weldon Johnson composed Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, the movement’s national anthem, and St. Augustine was a refuge for escaped slaves, as well as the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s frequent visits and protests.

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens turns 100 on May 12, 2014, and celebrations begin on March 3 with the grand opening of Land of the Tigers.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

Wealthy northerners who followed Henry Flagler’s example found Flagler County the perfect retreat for fishing, hunting, boating and restful getaways. Princess Place Preserve and Washington Oaks Gardens State Park give us insights into their lives.

2014 marks the 450th year since the French and Spanish began colonizing Northeast Florida with events scheduled throughout the region, while Fernandina Beach commemorates its pirate era, commercial shrimpers and all the flags under which it has been ruled with the 51st Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival in May.

Jacksonville, the region’s urban heart, is also the cultural center. The 64-year-old Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra is one of the few American orchestras with its own orchestral hall and the Jacksonville Jazz Festival is the second largest in the country. Three major museums—the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, the 90-year-young Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville (MOCA) and the Museum of Science & History (MOSH)—provide impetus for creativity and a lively contemporary arts scene while the Jacksonville Maritime Heritage Center showcases artifacts from the earliest French to current time.

Theater fills stages from the Times-Union Performing Arts Center to Theatre Jacksonville, the oldest continuously operating community theater in the country. Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Artist Series brings in Broadway productions. Major acts take over the Veterans Memorial Arena and the Ritz Theater spotlights African-American talents. One Spark, a crowd-sourced festival and competition, debuted in 2013, attracting creators from around the country vying for attention, recognition and a portion of $300,000.

The location of Fort Caroline remains one of Jacksonville’s mysteries, however the Spanish-built Castillo de San Marcos has protected St. Augustine since the 17th century and Fort Clinch has watched over Fernandina since the 1800s. Both fascinate today’s visitors with re-enactments and tales galore.

Towns with significant architecture and a rich history attract colonies of artists, such as those in St. Augustine and Fernandina who are inspired by the ambiance.

Jacksonville may have the University of North Florida, Jacksonville University and Florida State College, however in St. Augustine, Flagler College has taken over and restored the historic Flagler Hotel, which, with its glamorous Tiffany windows and elaborate carvings, was a magnet for well-heeled tourists who started the first Florida land boom.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Venture into the marshes and waterways to view the wildlife. Plunge into the Atlantic Ocean then dry off strolling along wide beaches as you search for sharks’ teeth.

Wander St. Augustine’s back streets with camera in hand; it’s a photographer’s haven.

In the middle of Jacksonville, Tree Hill Nature Center gives children the opportunity to interact with nature.

Book an Amelia Island River Cruise to view Fort Clinch and see dozens of wild horses that call Cumberland Island home.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

Flagler has a split personality. To the north, Palm Coast sprang up as a planned community and now houses the majority of the county’s population, as well as the Hammock Beach Resort and its famed golf course. To the south, Flagler Beach is the town that time bypassed. Small and quaint with unobstructed beach views along A1A, the family atmosphere is hard to beat with free parties in the park on the first Friday of every month.

St. Augustine is a small town with a big history. Downtown you can walk through the centuries, from 16th to early 20th. Cross the Bridge of Lions and you’re on the way to the beach and definitely into the 21st century. Special events galore, costume galas, good restaurants and an amphitheater that brings in major performers fill the year with entertainment. A stay at the Hilton St. Augustine Historic Bayfront puts you right in the middle of all the historic sites, shops and restaurants.

Drive 30 minutes from St. Augustine to Green Cove Springs to explore the banks of the St. Johns River in serene, pastoral surroundings or to relax in the sulfur-scented spring water. The town is part of a consortium that markets itself as Florida’s First Coast of Golf. It’s also on the Great Florida Birding Trail and offers off-road cycling trails and freshwater fishing. While there, check out Camp Chowenwaw’s jungle trails, tent camping, tree houses and walking trails. Treat yourself to a stay at the historic River Park Inn.

Jacksonville is a huge area joined and divided by the St. Johns River, 500-plus neighborhoods and passions for business, water sports, Southern rock, golf and football. It’s big enough for both nature and urban sophistication, yet small and friendly. As one visitor described it, “Locals converse with you.”

Mayport, Atlantic, Neptune, Jacksonville, Ponte Vedra and Vilano beaches segue from the north end of a barrier island to its south. Each has its own personality. Jacksonville Beach attracts families while Ponte Vedra appeals to resort goers and golfers.

After rowdy beginnings, Fernandina and Amelia Island settled into a timber and shrimping community until tourists discovered the charm of Victorian homes, broad beaches, shallow marshes and oak-canopied roads. For accommodation, don’t pass up the Fairbanks House, a bed and breakfast conveniently located in the Historic District of Fernandina Beach, or, on a grander scale, book the newly renovated Omni Amelia Island Plantation.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

The First Coast is rapidly becoming the Foodie Coast. Fresh, local and organic are the current bywords. When in doubt, ask the locals.

Even St. Johns Town Center, home of major chain restaurants from quick burgers to elegant dining, now has a local. Chef Tom Gray, who brought Bistro Aix to multi-star status, has opened Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails.

Chefs are growing their own herbs and vegetables. Chef Joshua Agan at b.b.’s in Jack-sonville grows his on the rooftop (don’t miss the duck wontons). Chefs at The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island plant theirs, too, and harvest honey from their own hive.

Although most fine-dining establishments are stand-alones such as Matthew’s in Jacksonville and David’s in Fernandina, hotels have become competition. Azurea at One Ocean Resort & Spa in Atlantic Beach and 95 Cordova Restaurant at the Casa Monica Hotel in St. Augustine serve food to match their white linen settings. Salt in the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, even throws in an education on its namesake.

The shrimping industry originated in Fernandina but the “best fried shrimp” debate is hottest between Singleton’s Seafood Shack in Atlantic Beach and St. Augustine’s Barnacle Bill’s and O’Steen’s.

Kicking back and watching boats go by is a favorite pastime. Creative combinations and a comfortable adult atmosphere are behind Marker 32’s success. Gather the family for reliably good fried seafood and a parade of boats from runabouts to yachts at Lulu’s Waterfront Grille in Ponte Vedra Beach or Cap’s and Salt Water Cowboy’s in St. Augustine.

For after-dark enjoyment, sophisticated Dos Gatos in downtown Jacksonville and the classic dive, Pete’s Bar in Neptune Beach, were both named to the “Top 10 Bars in Florida” by Great Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

Jacksonville’s Latitude 30 with its mix of upscale bowling, music, food, bar, TVs and arcade games is popular with all ages. Freebird Live in Jacksonville Beach keeps the Lynyrd Skynyrd vibe with live performances. Nearby, on Wednesday nights, join the locals at the Casa Marina Hotel for good bar noshes and a great view.

Brewpubs are still growing in popularity in Jacksonville. Aardwolf Brewing in San Marco is the latest addition.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

In an area blessed with 90 miles of oceanfront, 101 miles of St. Johns River plus its 12 tributaries and 104 miles of Intracoastal Waterway, water activities rule. Outfitters will equip and guide you through the marshes and rivers where you share the views with egrets, herons, even eagles. Urbanites can board a water taxi in Jacksonville or St. Augustine. Environmentalists love the “veggie boat,” a new vegetable oil-powered craft operated by Ripple Effect Ecotours in Flagler.

While charter fishing guides are plentiful, you can also fish from piers on Amelia Island, Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Flagler beaches.

Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park in Atlantic Beach and the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, a national park encompassing parts of Jacksonville, Fort George and the Talbot Islands, are treasures. Boating, swimming, fishing, camping, cycling, hiking, birdwatching, ranger talks and historical sites such as Kingsley Plantation attract thousands to the ocean, lake, rivers and marshes.

Surfers head to Hanna Park, north of the Jacksonville Beach pier, and hang ten at Mickler’s Landing in Ponte Vedra Beach. In November, Flagler Beach is aglow for the Tommy Tant Memorial Surf Classic night-surfing event.

Golf is the other passion with more than 1,000 holes to play. Located between St. Augustine and Green Cove Springs, World Golf Village is a mecca for duffers, with its World Golf Hall of Fame, the Murray Bros. Caddy Shack restaurant, PGA Tour Golf Academy and two unique golf courses—Slammer & Squire, co-designed by Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen, and King & Bear, co-designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Other stand-out signature courses are The Players Stadium and Dye’s Valley courses at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Golf Club of Amelia Island, the two public courses at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort and the Hammock Beach Ocean Course in Palm Coast.

BEST PLACES TO SHOP

Nordstrom’s cements St. Johns Town Center as the mall to hit whether you’re searching for bargain shoes or Tiffany glass. St. Augustine’s outlet malls keep shoppers in bargains as does Bluetique, an upscale Goodwill resale in Ponte Vedra Beach.

For individual chic in Jacksonville, try designer Linda Cunningham and San Marco Square, Edge City in Five Points and the Shoppes of Avondale. Check out Beaches Town Center in Neptune Beach, the stores along A1A in Ponte Vedra and the shops on the historic streets of Fernandina and St. Augustine.

RECOMMENDED DRIVES

Take a trip along A1A from Flagler Beach to Fernandina to survey what brings so many people to Northeast Florida. Follow the St. Johns River to view stately homes and oak-canopied roads.

FAMILY ACTIVITIES

Witness what it took to live in Florida about 150 years ago at the Florida Agricultural Museum, a working farm in Flagler County. Shuck corn and feed chickens, pigs, ducks, horses and cracker cattle amid historic farm buildings during a two-hour tour.

Meet Nellie, a dolphin with an honorary PhD. Marineland, the world’s first oceanarium, is where Nellie was born in 1953, making her the world’s oldest dolphin in human care. She’s passed so many tests that Jacksonville University awarded the degree.

In St. Augustine, discover gems in the Pirate & Treasure Museum and explore Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, the original site of the nation’s oldest city. Take an old-fashioned carriage ride through Old Town.

Develop a new skill with a beach-fishing class from Amelia Angler Outfitters on Amelia Island or a bubblegum-making seminar at Sweet Pete’s in Jacksonville.

INSIDER’S TIPS

In St. Augustine, catch a hop-on hop-off trolley tour with Red Train Tours. The adventure begins at the original Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Come evening, book a ghost tour with Ripley’s Ghost Train Adventure, named the best three years in a row. Historical tours of Flagler College are offered daily. Tickets cost $10 at the door and $8.50 when purchased elsewhere.

Cross the river in downtown Jacksonville the inexpensive way by using the elevated Skyway. The 2.5-mile fully-automated monorail system crosses the St. Johns River to Kings Avenue on the Southbank.

Martin County
Florida Southern College
Northwest Florida
Royal Shell
Holiday Inn Club Vacations
Crystal River
Gainesville
Okeechobee
Franklin County