Northeast Florida:
CALLING ALL EXPLORERS

BY DEBI LANDER

North East Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Sink your toes into Northeast Florida’s sandy shores. Explore the waterways, play golf, shop, dine or relax poolside. From ecotourism and professional sports to the arts and local history, the “First Coast” thrives. Visitors driving south on Interstate 95 first encounter Northeast Florida as soon as they cross the state line. The area includes two major cities (Jacksonville and St. Augustine), hundreds of miles of beaches and warm sunshine. However, Florida’s northernmost coast can get quite cool in the winter, which provides residents a nice seasonal change.

History is huge here, dating back more than 500 years ago at the nautical landmark where Ponce de León came ashore and named the region “La Florida” in 1513. 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 near St. Augustine in 1565.

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 delights visitors every time. September 8, 2015, marked the 450th anniversary of the city’s founding, establishing it as the oldest continually occupied European settlement in America.

While in the Old City, 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 your tour by purchasing a multiple-day, hop-on trolley ticket from Red Train or Old Town Trolleys. Visit the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, the oldest Spanish colonial dwelling, which has been occupied since the 1600s. Children enjoy the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse while adults always hope for a miraculous renewal from the water at the Fountain of Youth. Even if you don’t find eternal youth, the archaeology at the site is authentic. The Spanish Military Hospital Museum that covers the Second Spanish Period (1784-1821) medical practices should appeal to anyone interested in medicine. This building on Aviles Street is a reconstruction of a military hospital that was originally constructed in the late 18th century. Learn about life in a boarding house at the circa-1798 Ximenez-Fatio House Museum, owned and run by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America.

Much smaller than Castillo de San Marcos, nearby Fort Matanzas offers free boat rides out to the uninhabited island named for the massacre that occurred there. That event ended the 16th-century settlement in Fort Caroline (Jacksonville) where the French tried to gain a foothold.

You can also explore the notable 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

Known internationally as a leader in historic preservation, the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum will launch a new exhibition entitled “Wrecked” in spring 2016, which tells the story behind a 1782 British Loyalist shipwreck found in St. Augustine.

The Corazon Cinema and Café recently opened in the heart of St. Augustine’s historic district. The cinema distinguishes itself from other movie houses by providing an intimate theatre setting where guests can relax and enjoy food and beverages while they watch the movie. The Corazon also serves lunch daily starting at 11:30 AM.

The St. Augustine Outlet Mall has completed an extensive US$7-million interior remodel and has added new stores and merchandise, including H&M, Old Navy, Papaya and Christopher & Banks. Meanwhile, St. Augustine Premium Outlets opened two new stores—Torrid and Swarovski.

“Florida Stories,” a new walking-tour mobile app available on iTunes, brings the drama of St. Augustine’s history to life. The 10-stop, self-guided, illustrated audio tour is a free download to mobile phones or online for listening and downloading to computers.

In Jacksonville, Downtown Zip Tours features new rolling tours that highlight the history, architecture, art and interesting details about the city’s downtown area.

ARTS AND CULTURE

The First Coast is proud of its variety of museums, symphony orchestra, which has its own orchestral hall, Broadway Artists Series and annual Jacksonville Jazz Festival. Major attractions, such as the annual Monster Jam of big, big 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 68-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.

From 5 to 9 PM on the first Friday of each month, serious collectors and casual browsers stroll along St. Augustine’s brick-lined streets and pop into more than 20 galleries exhibiting their wares. 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 visit. Rather not walk? Take a free ride, literally, compliments of Sightseeing Trains by Red Train Tours 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 flow north instead of south, has always played an important part in the region’s development. While Clay County, situated west of the river, is primarily known for its numerous lakes and pine-forested interior, it also hosts a variety of visual and performing arts at the Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts located on the grounds of St. Johns River State College. Special events, such as the annual Northeast Florida Scottish Highland Games & Festival held in Green Cove Springs every February, take place throughout the year and both historic and military museums document the rich history of the county.

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), the Museum of Science & History (MOSH), and the Cummer Museum all participate in the Bank of America Museums on Us program, which provides free admission to Bank of America and Merrill Lynch cardholders during the first full weekend of every month. MOCA features contemporary art exhibits of all kinds and programs for families. Its popular on-site Café Nola is open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner on Thursday evenings and the first Wednesday evening of the month during Art Walk, and for Sunday brunch. The renowned Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens offers free admission from 4 to 9 PM on Tuesdays, plus the first Saturday of the month. Take time to enjoy its three beautiful gardens that overlook the St. Johns River.

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 on the 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 will also find 20 acres of formal gardens and walking and biking trails. 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 leave from the Marineland Marina and 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 pet-friendly. Take the family picnicking or cruise 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.

At Neptune Beach, Jax Surf and Paddle offers standup paddleboarding (SUP) and surfing lessons 365 days a year. Private or group lessons are available. The shop can outfit you with board and gear in addition to swimwear, beach apparel and accessories. Lighthouses are favorite 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 popular, but you can also fish from piers in Flagler, St. Augustine, Jacksonville and Amelia Island. Fort Clinch, in Fernandina Beach, makes an excellent fishing spot because artificial reefs (installed by the Corps of Engineers 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 and shopping between Ripley’s Museum and the Mission Nombre de Dios, the latter of which provides free parking.

The 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 farm-to-table menu and artisanal cocktails.

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.

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 appetizing selections in its 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 Tavern Seafood & Grill remains a hip drinking and dining spot while Zeta at Jacksonville Beach is new to the list. Its microbrewery 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 Japanese Restaurant. Peruvian calls for Ceviche Jax at the corner of Atlantic Boulevard and Seminole Road.

Jacksonville’s 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. While in Jacksonville, the Jax Ale Trail offers a self-guided tour of eight craft breweries around the city. Visitors receive a Jax Ale Trail Brewery Passport, which can be stamped at each of the local craft breweries to receive cool free prizes.

On Amelia Island, stop in at the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge, an award-winning bed and breakfast, which is open to the public for breakfast and lunch. The Verandah Restaurant at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation upholds a reputation for outstanding fresh seafood. For something truly spectacular and special, Salt restaurant at the Ritz Carlton, Amelia Island, offers delicious four- to five-course tasting dinners, each paired with a wine of the chef’s choosing. Later, enjoy 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.

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

Teens won’t complain about the frightful experience 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.

Kids of all ages like to ride the antique J&S Carousel at Davenport Park, just north of the historic district. And you don’t want to miss three stories of odd and unusual exhibits collected from around the world at the interactive and educational Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium.

St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park’s Crocodile Crossing features a zip-line course with an aerial view of crocodiles, alligators, birds and other animals.

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

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is home to 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 and the Land of the Tiger, which opened in 2014 and features five tigers. The zoo recently introduced RiverQuest: Airboat and Kayak Ecotours. Visitors can explore the Trout River via an exciting airboat ride and learn about the native wildlife of the region or opt for a more relaxing self-guided ecotour via kayak.

Tree Hill Nature Center occupies 50 acres in the center of Jacksonville and is the perfect place for kids and adults to connect with nature.

East of Jacksonville International Airport, Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary 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, bobcats 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.

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, temperate winter weather and sunny skies.

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

SHOP

Located off I-95 at exit 318, the newly remodeled St. Augustine Outlets showcases more than 75 brand-name retailers selling everything from shoes to handbags and home goods to tools at savings of up to 65 percent.

Nearby, St. Augustine Premium Outlets offers exceptional discounts ranging from 25 to 65 percent at more than 85 stores, including Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, Calvin Klein, Coach, J.Crew, Nike, Ralph Lauren, Reebok and a huge Gander Mountain outdoor store.

Pedestrian-only St. George Street in St. Augustine’s historic district holds some unusual finds. Explore the Women’s Exchange 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. Stop in at the Spice & Tea Exchange, an 18th-century-like trading post with displays of teas and spices that evoke a sense of yesteryear. Goldsmith Joel Bagnal designs custom-made pieces from his shop on Aviles Street.

Discover hidden gems at Bluetique, an upscale Goodwill resale shop in upscale Ponte Vedra Beach.

Find trendy art and pricier clothing in the numerous galleries and boutiques of San Marco, a neighborhood located south of downtown Jacksonville across the St. Johns River. 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 Nordstrom. The Town Center also includes bargain stores such as DSW Shoes.

Minutes away from downtown, 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 for crafts and handmade goods daily from dawn to dusk.

SPAS

The new Moroccan-inspired Poseidon Spa at Casa Monica in downtown St. Augustine offers ocean-inspired healing treatments in St. Augustine’s historic district. The 3,000-square-foot spa features a Fountain of Youth treatment using botanical products to brighten, soften and refresh the skin. The spa’s design is reminiscent of a Moroccan villa with sweeping arches and intimate spaces.

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

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

Just footsteps from the sea on Amelia Island, the spa at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort lists a selection of treatments, using “clean and green” organic products from local “family-owned” businesses dedicated to protecting the environment.

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 iconic landmark features 138 guest rooms and suites and boasts the look and feel of a Spanish-style hotel renowned for its old-world charm.

The St. Francis Inn may be St. Augustine’s oldest bed and breakfast, but it remains up to date by offering complimentary high-speed Wi-Fi and a battery-charging station for Teslas. Guests also enjoy complimentary snacks and drinks, use of bicycles and free tickets to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum.

Casa de Sueños means “House of Dreams” and it 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.

At Beacher’s Lodge in St. Augustine, the rules are simple: relax, unwind and enjoy. Located on Crescent Beach, all oceanfront suites at this condo-hotel have a patio or private balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and kitchenettes make cooking an option.

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 definitive destination, which honors golf’s greatest players through 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 a fabulous rooftop lounge. The Casa Marina is a favorite for weddings and receptions.

Seaside Amelia Inn, a boutique hotel on Amelia Island, offers 46 newly-renovated rooms. Discover this hidden gem conveniently located steps from the beach via a private boardwalk.

Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, provides the highest standards of lodging and service at a family-friendly resort. Holidays are big at the Ritz. All 446 rooms have ocean or coastal views as well as private balconies. The aquatic arena features a tiered pool with stunning views of the dunes and ocean as well as an adults-only pool, an outdoor terrace and boardwalks.

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