Northeast Florida:
CELEBRATING 450 YEARS OF HERITAGE

BY DEBI LANDER

North East Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Visitors driving south on Interstate 95 encounter Northeast Florida as soon as they cross the state line. Welcome to a coastal region that includes two major cities (Jacksonville and St. Augustine), hundreds of square miles of beach, and a sultry climate supporting stately live oak trees draped in Spanish moss. However, the First Coast can get quite cool in the winter, which provides residents a nice seasonal change.

History is big on the First Coast starting with its nautical landmark where Ponce de León came ashore and named the state “La Florida” more than 500 years ago. And every September, Florida Living History, Mission Nombre de Dios and the Diocese of St. Augustine present the historical re-enactment of Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landing in 1565.

Long considered the Renaissance area, the story of black history in America also began here. Fort Mose was the first free black settlement in America. In fact, the first cowboys were black Africans when Spaniards exported cows to America.

Today, St. Augustine enjoys a high number of repeat visitors. Whether you consider it fascinating, original, quirky or experiential, a visit to this historic city is different every time. September 8, 2015, marks its 450th anniversary and establishes St. Augustine as the oldest continually occupied European settlement in America. Celebrations are expected to be the grandest ever and are a must for tourists and residents alike.

While in St. Augustine, don’t miss the hallmark of the town—the US National Park Monument, Castillo de San Marcos, usually referred to as “the fort.” Construction using coquina (shell-stone) rock began in 1672 and the structure is considered the oldest masonry fort in North America.

You’ll also find 36 buildings of colonial origin still standing in the historic district. Begin touring by purchasing a multiple-day, hop-on trolley ticket from Red Train or Old Town Trolleys. Tour the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, the oldest Spanish colonial dwelling, which has been occupied since the 1600s. Children enjoy visiting the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse while adults always hope for miraculous renewal from the water at the Fountain of Youth. The Spanish Military Hospital Museum appeals to anyone interested in medicine. This building on Aviles Street is an authentic reconstruction of a Military Hospital that stood there from 1784–1821. The Ximenez-Fatio House Museum, owned and run by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, dates back to 1798.

Much smaller than the Castillo de San Marcos, nearby Fort Matanzas offers free boat rides out to the uninhabited island named for the massacre that occurred there. The site is also run by the US National Park Service.

Jacksonville’s Fort Caroline at the Timucuan Preserve memorializes the short-lived French presence in 16th-century Florida. You can also explore the grounds at Kingsley Plantation, named for Zephaniah Kingsley, who lived here from 1814 to 1837. This waterfront historic site includes a barn, a plantation house, a kitchen house, slave quarters and an interpretive garden.

At Fernandina Beach, Fort Clinch is one of the best-preserved 19th-century forts in the country. First weekend Union Garrison Days draw crowds to observe artillery and medical demonstrations and soldier drills.

WHAT’S NEW

March is “Florida Archaeology Month” and November is “Native American Heritage Month.” In recognition of these, Ripple Effect Ecotours is offering special kayak tours called “Native People of the Estuary,” led by Joe Woodbury, Park Specialist at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. Joe’s an archaeologist with a passion for the native people of the region, the Timucuans. Participants will learn how the Timucua thrived within this rich landscape, much of it unchanged since they were here. Paddle the backwaters of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve with Ripple Effect Ecotours and see it as the Timucuan people saw it 2,000 years ago. Dates are scheduled for March 14 and 15 and November 21 and 22, 2015.

The new St. Augustine Distillery on Riberia Street offers free tours. The plant began making handcrafted vodka and gin in 2014, by distilling Florida-grown ingredients in small-batch copper-pot stills. The adjoining Ice Plant Bar and Restaurant sells the liquor and features a menu of farm-to-table dishes for lunch and dinner.

The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park recently opened the park’s newest attraction, a 40-foot controlled free-fall adventure. Python Challenge at Crocodile Crossing exposes thrill-seekers to a fast open-air descent from a tower high above the park. It’s the latest addition to Crocodile Crossing, a zip line course with an aerial view of crocodiles, alligators, birds and other animals.

Beat the heat out on the Intracoastal Waterway in a new 18-passenger airboat. Venture where regular boats can’t—through marshes, creeks and streams to view dolphins, manatees, bald eagles, otters, herons, pelicans, and even an occasional alligator. Airboat tours leave Tuesday through Sunday from the Old Florida Fish Camp and Seafood Shack (formerly Crazy Fish) in Jacksonville Beach. 

ARTS AND CULTURE

The First Coast thrives with a variety of museums, a symphony orchestra, which has its own orchestral hall, a Broadway Artists Series and the annual Jacksonville Jazz Festival. Major attractions, such as the annual Monster Jam trucks and the circus, take over the Veterans Memorial Arena while pop performers fill the seats at the St. Augustine Amphitheater.

Historic tours of Flagler College highlight the architecture of the former Hotel Ponce de Leon, a National Historic Landmark in St. Augustine. Built by railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler in 1888, the complex is considered one of the finest examples of Spanish Renaissance architecture. Tours begin in the courtyard leading into the grand lobby with its magnificent 80-foot domed ceiling supported by eight hand-carved ornate oak caryatids. Visitors also see the dining room where 79 Tiffany stained-glass windows stream light onto beautiful murals, the walls and ceiling. Tours include original hotel furniture and art, as well as personal photos and mementos from Henry Flagler and his family.

The first Friday of each month, from 5 to 9 PM, serious collectors and casual browsers stroll along St. Augustine’s brick-lined streets and pop into more than 20 galleries exhibiting fine art photography to funky gifts. Some galleries offer free refreshments, artist receptions or live music. Even parking is gratis at the San Sebastian Winery on King Street, another great spot to tour. Rather not walk? Take a free ride, literally, compliments of St. Augustine Sightseeing Trains and Old Town Trolley Tours.

A free series of concerts in the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Augustine presents classical music including internationally acclaimed guest artists. Built between 1793 and 1797, the Basilica is considered America’s first parish.

The St. Johns River, one of the few rivers in the world that flows north instead of south, has always played an important part in the region’s development. Visit the Jacksonville Maritime Heritage Center, which showcases river artifacts from the earliest French to current times.

Explore Jacksonville from “Top to Bottom” on a walking tour that takes guests to the top of the city’s tallest skyscraper down to a subterranean secret underground filled with tunnels and bank vaults. Learn about Jacksonville’s history, architecture and culture along the way. The tours, presented by AdLib Luxury Tours & Transportation, depart every Tuesday and Thursday.

Downtown Jacksonville features a free monthly First Wednesday Art Walk covering more than 15 blocks and includes more than 40 galleries, museums, cultural venues, restaurants, bars and businesses. There are dozens of artists in Hemming Plaza, street performers and live music from 5 to 9 PM, rain or shine.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville (MOCA) and the Museum of Science & History (MOSH) both participate in the Bank of America Museums on Us program, which provides free admission to Bank of America and Merrill Lynch cardholders to the nation’s finest arts, cultural and educational institutions during the first full weekend of every month. Housed in an historic building built in 1924, the MOCA features contemporary art exhibits of all kinds, as well as a number of programs for families. Its popular on-site Café Nola is open for lunch and on Thursday evenings for dinner. Also in Jacksonville, the renowned Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens offers free admission from 4 to 9 PM on Tuesdays, as well as on the first Saturday of the month. Take time to enjoy its three beautiful Cummer Gardens that overlook the St. Johns River and its Café at the Cummer, which is open daily for lunch and on Thursday evenings for dinner.

BEACHES

Plunge into the Atlantic Ocean, then stroll along any of Northeast Florida’s beaches searching for sharks’ teeth, a favorite pastime in the region.

Washington Oaks State Gardens preserves 425 acres of coastal scenery along State Road A1A in Palm Coast. The Park’s eastern boundary holds a large outcropping of coquina rock, creating a picturesque boulder-strewn beach especially favored by photographers. Visitors also find 20 acres of formal gardens. Pellicer Creek in Faver-Dykes Park is a popular site for birding with more than one hundred bird species seen during spring and fall migrations.

Environmentally friendly boat tours, which leave from the Town of Marineland Marina, teach visitors about the natural and cultural history of this fascinating, diverse and biologically rich region. Ride on Ripple Effect 1, the only vegetable-oil-powered ecotour boat in Northeast Florida.

Take a guided kayak tour, led by a professional naturalist guide, and paddle the backwaters of the 40,000 acres that have been preserved at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM-NERR) in the Ponte Vedra area, voted the best place to kayak in Northeast Florida.

During the summer months, jump aboard Jacksonville Beach’s convenient Beaches Trolley to explore all the beach neighborhoods and attractions for just US$1.50.

Jacksonville’s Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, near Mayport, is the perfect outdoor playground for everyone, including pets. Take the family picnicking or use the biking trails. Go swimming or surfing at the premier surfing spot in Northeast Florida, The Poles. Surfers also hang ten at Mickler’s Landing in Ponte Vedra Beach and at Flagler Beach.

Jacksonville’s Huguenot Memorial Park features 71 campsites at the mouth of the St. Johns River and all water sports. The park is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail where a wildlife area for nesting terns and shorebirds is roped off to protect them in season. Lighthouses are popular attractions. Visitors can tour the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum (open daily) or the Amelia Island Lighthouse, which has limited-access viewing on Saturdays from 11 AM to 2 PM.

Charter fishing boats, with guides, are plentiful, but you can also fish from piers at Flagler beaches, St. Augustine, Jacksonville and Amelia Island. Fort Clinch, in Fernandina Beach, makes an excellent fishing spot because artificial reefs (created entirely by accident by the Corps of Engineers while trying to fight beach erosion) produce an ideal underwater habitat for sea creatures. The half-mile-long fishing pier calls to anglers ready to cast a line. Don’t tell too many, but Fort Clinch’s isolated beaches make an ideal getaway for those wishing to avoid crowds.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

There are no chain restaurants in St. Augustine’s Old Town—only independent establishments serving local seafood and produce.

On the last Saturday of each month, St. Augustine’s Uptown Saturday Night brings locals and tourists together for live music, refreshments, book signings, antique stores and shops between Ripley’s Museum and the Mission Nombre de Dios, the latter of which provides free parking.

Walter’s Reef Café, operated by First Coast Technical College’s award-winning School of Culinary Arts, is one of St. Augustine’s hidden culinary gems. The café prepares students for careers as culinary professionals while providing a dining experience for the public. Located on campus, the café is open to all for lunch from 11 AM to 1 PM, Tuesday to Thursday, when classes are in session.

Are you a hot shot? See if you can make it onto the Wall of Flame at the Hot Shot Bakery n’ Café by tasting a chocolate-dipped locally grown datil pepper treasured by the Minorcan community.

Cool down with an Elvis popsicle made with peanut butter, banana and honey at The Hyppo Gourmet Ice Pops.

Whetstone Chocolates on King Street offers free tours and tastings.

Stop in at the Spice & Tea Exchange in St. Augustine’s historic district. Following the framework of an 18th-century trading post, displays of teas and spices evoke a sense of yesteryear.

Next, tour the handcrafted operations at the St. Augustine Distillery. Be sure to check out the Ice Plant cocktail bar and restaurant.

The Murray Brothers Caddy Shack Restaurant ranks as a casual dining favorite at World Golf Village with plenty of memorabilia from the pop movie.

Cap’s on the Water and Aunt Kate’s are two popular waterfront eateries in nearby Vilano Beach.

Near Jacksonville, Royal Palm Village Wine & Tapas in Atlantic Beach serves wine and beer in its retail shop and there’s also a restaurant. Choose from 1,200 bottles of fine wine and 14 rotating drafts to pair with creative tapas made from farm-to-table seasonal fresh ingredients. Year after year, Ragtime remains a hip drinking and dining spot while Zeta at Jacksonville Beach is new to the list. Its brewery draws a crowd that appreciates handcrafted beer.

In Jacksonville, the Riverside Arts Market, open every Saturday from March through December, includes live entertainment, a farmers’ market and artists selling their wares. See Jacksonville from the water aboard the Foxy Lady while noshing on brunch, lunch or dinner menu items. Hungry for sushi and Japanese? Try Tomo. Peruvian calls for Ceviche Jax at the corner of Atlantic Boulevard and Seminole Road. The San Marco Dining District features some of the best chefs in the city; try Matthew’s, Taverna or Bistro AIX.  In Riverside and Five Points, climb the stairs at Black Sheep Restaurant for one of the hottest rooftop bars in the city or make it a progressive dinner with stops at The Mossfire Grill & Lounge and O’Brothers Irish Pub.

On Amelia Island, stop in at the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge, an award-winning bed and breakfast, which is now open to the public for breakfast and lunch. The Verandah Restaurant at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation upholds a reputation for outstanding fresh seafood. Try an after-dinner drink at the state’s oldest bar and popular watering hole, the Palace Saloon in Fernandina Beach.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

Learn about Florida’s rural past with a stop at the Florida Agricultural Museum in Palm Coast. The pioneer homestead gives folks a taste of the bygone era. Take a wagon ride, shell corn, pump water and meet farm animals.

More than 75 years old, Flagler’s Marineland Dolphin Adventure remains the world’s first oceanarium. Today the research facility continues to study dolphin behavior and visitors can view these charming creatures up close. Make reservations ahead for special dolphin encounters.

The St. Augustine Colonial Quarter brings the city’s Spanish and British heritage to life through authentic exhibits including a leatherworking shop, a blacksmith, an 18th-century Spanish home, and an on-site boat construction of a 50-foot caravel. Around the corner, the Pirate & Treasure Museum pleases swashbucklers with one of the world’s largest collections of genuine pirate artifacts. There are plenty of fun interactive exhibits as well. A combined ticket saves money. Join the pirate crew on the Black Raven for daytime family outings or evening cruises.

Teens won’t complain about the frightful fun of a ghost tour, especially popular around Halloween. Explore the darker side of the nation’s oldest city including the town’s most haunted building, the “Old Jail,” for an up-close-and-personal encounter.

St. Augustine’s quirky Lightner Museum showcases American Victorian-era pieces, housed within the former historic Hotel Alcazar.

Narrated horse-drawn carriage rides offer an idyllic romantic or memorable family outing. Many carriages can accommodate up to 12 comfortably.

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens houses more than 2,000 rare and exotic animals and 1,000 varieties of plants. Guests can walk along a 1,400-foot-long boardwalk and observe the herds in a large, open environment called the Plains of East Africa. The new Land of the Tiger (opened in 2014) features five tigers. The zoo also presents ever-changing special events and numerous children’s activities.

Tree Hill Nature Center, 50 acres in the center of Jacksonville, is the perfect place for kids and adults to connect with nature. The Hands-on Children’s Museum, on Beach Boulevard in Jacksonville, has managed to fit an entire town into its 8,500-square-foot space. Servers pour pretend milkshakes at a 1950s-themed café, tellers work at the Kids Mini Bank, and all sorts of townsfolk shop at the Winn-Dixie Lil’ Grocery. Twenty exhibits encourage kids to take on the roles of grown-up workers or use costumes and puppets to enter a world of complete fantasy.

Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary, near the airport in Jacksonville, provides a safe, loving, forever home for endangered big cats. Tours on select days educate the public about the plight of big cats in the wild and captivity. Visit at feeding times for memorable images of tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, bobcat and foxes.

A family outing to the ballpark doesn’t need to break the bank. Sports enthusiasts can cheer for the Jacksonville Suns, a double-A minor league baseball team on Bragan Field at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. Tickets to the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars games at EverBank Field come at a heftier price tag.

ROAD TRIPS

A favorite drive in the Flagler Beach area is the Ormond Scenic Loop & Trail, a 30-mile double loop of winding roads that take you along the Atlantic Ocean and the Old Dixie Highway, past rivers, creeks and marshes, barrier island dunes and beaches, and historic dwellings. Dolphins are commonly sighted and watch for humpback whales during migration seasons.

A day’s drive along A1A from Flagler Beach to Fernandina Beach will help you understand what brings many people to Northeast Florida—the beautiful beaches, warm winter weather and sunny skies.

The Carmelite Monastery in Bunnell offers one of the only drive-through versions of the Stations of the Cross, bronze sculptures depicting scenes of Christ’s suffering and death.

SHOPPING

The St. Augustine Outlet malls provide discount opportunities at more than 85 brand names, including Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, Calvin Klein, Coach, J.Crew, Movado, Nike, Ralph Lauren and Reebok. You’ll also find a huge Gander Mountain outdoor store.

Pedestrian-only St. George Street in the historic district of St. Augustine presents some unusual finds. Explore the Women’s Exchange of St. Augustine gift shop in the historic Pena-Peck House. The Gifted Cork on Hypolita Street offers daily wine tastings based on a theme, seven days a week. Goldsmith Joel Bagnal designs custom-made pieces from his shop on Aviles Street.

Discover hidden gems at Bluetique, an upscale Goodwill resale shop in Ponte Vedra Beach. Find trendy art and clothing in San Marco’s numerous boutique and galleries.

The St. Johns Town Center in Jacksonville is the place to hit for the latest upscale merchandise from shops, such as Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Apple and Swarovski Crystal. A new Nordstrom’s department store opened in October 2014. The Town Center also includes bargain stores such as DSW Shoes. Nearby, visit 1st Place Sports, which was named one of the “50 Best Running Stores in America” in 2013.

The Jacksonville Farmers’ Market is the oldest, still-operating outdoor farmers’ market in Florida. Since 1938, vendors have offered fresh produce, herbs and local favorites, such as Mayport shrimp. Browse crafts and handmade goods by local artisans daily from dawn to dusk. The market is minutes away from downtown. 

SPAS

For wellness getaways, consider the Spa at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. The 30,000-square-foot facility, the region’s largest, combines peaceful surroundings and ultra-modern facilities. Choose from more than 100 beauty and therapeutic services including the spa’s signature service, Ponte Vedra Retreat.

Bask in a seductively beautiful environment at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, which offers its 25,000-square-foot sanctuary with 19 private treatment rooms; or at the calming The Spa at World Golf Village featuring 11 treatment rooms.

Visiting yoga enthusiasts are welcome to drop into classes at the Yoga Den in Mandarin, Big Fish in Jacksonville Beach and MBody on Southside Boulevard in Jacksonville.

UNIQUE PLACES TO STAY

The Casa Monica Hotel is St. Augustine’s only AAA Four-Diamond accommodation and a top-of-the-line choice among locals, visitors and celebrities. Fully restored in 1999, the interior of the iconic landmark boasts the look and feel of Granada, Spain. The 138 guest rooms and suites transport visitors back to old-world charm and Spanish-style romanticism.

  The St. Francis Inn may be St. Augustine’s oldest bed and breakfast, but it stays up to date by offering complimentary high-speed Wi-Fi throughout and a solar-heated pool. Guests also have complimentary use of bicycles in the Old City, free tickets to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum and 50 percent discounts for tours of the Oldest House.

Casa de Sueños means “House of Dreams” and is just that. This five-bedroom bed and breakfast in the heart of St. Augustine’s historic district surprises guests with modern decor and eclectic touches.

The Renaissance World Golf Village Resort boasts not one, but two championship golf courses. Adjoining the resort is the World Golf Hall of Fame, the ultimate destination for the celebration of golf’s greatest players, with fun interactive exhibits and historic golf artifacts.

The Casa Marina Hotel & Restaurant in Jacksonville Beach stands gracefully poised on the dunes of the Atlantic Ocean. A member of Historic Hotels of America, it offers 23 guest rooms and suites, plus fabulous rooftop dining. The Casa Marina is a favorite for weddings and receptions.

INSIDER’S TIPS

If you plan to visit St. Augustine, July, March, April, June, February and May are the busiest months, in that order. September and October are slow and the weather is perfect, and it’s also a good time for cultural and historical events. Hotels in the downtown core are usually sold out Thursday to Sunday, but deals are available midweek so plan accordingly.

Take a biplane ride over St. Augustine with St. Augustine’s Biplane Rides just like the barnstormers did in the 1920s and ’30s. View the San Marcos Fort, Bridge of Lions, Flagler College, the Lighthouse and beaches. The biplane is a 1935 “Model” WACO YMF-5C, but was built in 2011.

Every February through May thousands of photographers and birdwatchers descend upon the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine. They go, not to see the ’gators—though they are cool—but to get an up-close view of the hundreds of egrets, roseate spoonbills and wood storks that come to nest. It’s a feast for the eyes.

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