NORTHEAST FLORIDA:
SUN, HISTORY AND FUN

BY VANESSA CACERES

North East Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Northeast Florida is often called the First Coast or Historic Coast, and with good reason. Spanish explorers first landed here more than 500 years ago, when Ponce de León named the region “La Florida” in 1513. Today, the Historic Coast blends its European influence with Southern hospitality, welcoming beaches and plenty of fun.

Northeast Florida begins where Interstate 95 crosses into the state from Georgia. The area includes the major cities of Jacksonville and St. Augustine as well as the popular areas of Amelia Island, Fernandina Beach, Ponte Vedra Beach and Palm Coast.

ARTS AND CULTURE

Northeast Florida has no shortage of arts and culture destinations. From a symphony orchestra to well-regarded museums, visitors can find something for everyone.

In St. Augustine, tours of places like Villa Zorayda give a glimpse into the past. The building was originally constructed in 1883 as a winter residence and was made of poured concrete and crushed coquina shell. Villa Zorayda is built to one-tenth the scale of a section of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. Tours of the building detail its historical significance in St. Augustine’s history and review the many unique items on display—there’s even a rug called the Sacred Cat that is more than 2,400 years old.

Nearby, Flagler College was built by railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler in the late 1880s originally as Hotel Ponce de Leon. Now a historical landmark, the stunning architecture and sights at the college include a 68-foot domed ceiling, a dining room with 79 Tiffany stained-glass windows, and original hotel furniture and art.

For an in-depth look at St. Augustine’s visual arts, take part in the First Friday Art Walk, which includes more than 20 art galleries opening their doors for the evening. Enjoy refreshments, receptions and live music for free. There’s complimentary parking at San Sebastian Winery on King Street, or catch a free ride on board the St. Augustine Sightseeing Trains and Old Town Trolley Tours.

If you want to take in a show, the St. Augustine Amphitheatre seats 4,100 and is considered St. Johns County’s leading multi-purpose arts facility. Recent performing acts have included the Goo Goo Dolls, Widespread Panic and ZZ Top. St. Augustine’s Old City Farmers’ Market is also held on the grounds of the amphitheatre.

Another place to enjoy music and shows is the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall in Ponte Vedra Beach. It features performing artists from around the globe as well as activities and community gatherings. The concert hall also has convention and meeting spaces.

In February, the town of Green Cove Springs holds its annual Northeast Florida Scottish Highland Games & Festival. For a year-round glimpse at the region’s Scottish connection, just visit its historic and military museums.

In downtown Jacksonville, the monthly First Wednesday Art Walk covers 15-plus blocks of arts and culture. Check out more than 40 galleries, museums, cultural venues and restaurants. The tour connects visitors to the dozens of artists and street performers in Hemming Plaza.

From September to May, the Jacksonville Symphony makes its home in the Robert E. Jacoby Symphony Hall, praised for its great acoustics, at the Times–Union Center for the Performing Arts, and also performs at other venues in Northeast Florida and around the state. The symphony is ranked among the country’s top regional orchestras.

Featuring three stages of live music, local food, drinks and shopping, the annual Jacksonville Jazz Festival is promoted as one of the largest jazz festivals in the US. The festival has been part of the area for more than 30 years and takes over 15 blocks of downtown.

Amelia Island welcomes its annual Chamber Music Festival in February, March and April 2017, with a concert that will feature Itzhak Perlman.

ATTRACTIONS

St. Augustine celebrates more than 450 years of history—in fact, it’s the oldest continually occupied European settlement in the US. The city takes its history seriously and has 36 buildings of colonial origin still standing in the historic district. To get the real skinny on the city’s history without wearing out your feet, take a trolley tour with the Red Train Trolley Tours or Old Town Trolleys. Both sell all-day tickets so you can hop on and hop off as you please.

While in St. Augustine, embrace your early explorer on a visit to Castillo de San Marcos, a national park that began construction in 1672. The structure is considered the oldest masonry fort in North America.

Over at Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, you can drink water from its “fountain”—but you may come away with fun memories more than ageless qualities. It’s located on the actual site of the first settlement in St. Augustine and was founded 42 years before Jamestown and 55 years before Plymouth Rock. Check out the cosmos in the planetarium, visit the Timucua Indian Village of Seloy or marvel at the sound of the Spanish cannon. For all the dog lovers out there, the Fountain of Youth is a pet-friendly attraction.

St. Augustine has plenty of tours to guide you around town, from art walks and a “pup crawl” (a walking tour on which you can bring your dog) to nighttime ghost tours and culinary-focused themes. There’s even the new St. Augustine Scavenger Hunters, where you embark on a quest for treasures while discovering the city’s many great sights.

A visit to St. Augustine isn’t complete without stopping by the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum. Its newly launched exhibit, Wrecked, tells the story of a Revolutionary War-era shipwreck off of the area’s coast. Recently, the museum broke ground on a 2,500-square-foot Maritime Archaeology & Education Center.

In Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens will take you on a world tour of animals without ever leaving Florida. From its Wild Florida area to Monsoon Asia and Plains of East Africa, and more, you’ll view dozens of animals that are hard to spot elsewhere.

For a different view of Jacksonville, use the Jacksonville Water Taxi in the downtown area. The taxi service also offers tours.

A popular attraction in Fernandina Beach is Fort Clinch State Park, featuring one of the best-preserved 19th-century forts in the country.

BEACHES AND OUTDOOR GEMS

Outdoor gems are abundant in Northeast Florida. Whether you want to take a dip in the Atlantic Ocean, fish in the St. Johns River or take selfies at a park, there are plenty of options.

Marineland Dolphin Adventure in St. Augustine has two new resident dolphins born in 2015 and 2016. Marineland teaches visitors about the beauty of dolphins and provides interactive attractions.

When you’re ready to chill with some beach time, you can’t go wrong with a visit to St. Augustine Beach. In 2016 alone, this popular destination was named one of America’s Favorite Beach Towns by Travel & Leisure Magazine, one of the Best 30 Beaches in the World for Families by the Travel Channel, and a Top 10 Beach in the US by TripAdvisor.

Another way to indulge in the area’s many water attractions is through a guided kayak tour that allows you to paddle the backwaters of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in the Ponte Vedra area. It’s been voted one of the best places to kayak in Northeast Florida.

If you’re visiting Jacksonville area beaches on weekends in the summer, hop on board the Beaches Trolley. For only US$1.50, you can explore all of the area’s beachy neighborhoods and attractions.

For more picturesque adventures on the water, Amelia Island offers Amelia River Cruises and Charters or a privately chartered sunset cruise with Windward Sailing. If you’re looking to reel in fish, Amelia Boat Club & Rentals provides rentals for fishing, cruising or sightseeing. And if you seek something a little more adventurous, the island’s Flying Fish Adventures organizes jet-ski tours.

ENTERTAINMENT

In the mood for family fun? Foodie finds? History? Northeast Florida has a little of all of those things. Foodies will rejoice at St. Augustine’s The Floridian Restaurant where they can enjoy farm-to-table meals with a Southern vibe. The restaurant’s carefully crafted dishes are sure to please meat and non-meat eaters alike.

The big talk in town right now is the St. Augustine Distillery. The distillery opened in 2014 in a former ice plant and uses Florida-grown ingredients to make spirits like vodka, rum and gin. Take advantage of its free tours and complimentary samples. San Sebastian Winery, not far from St. Augustine Distillery, also conducts free tours and tastings.

If you’re all about the food—and let’s face it, who isn’t?—then sign up for the tour at St. Augustine’s Whetstone Chocolates. Of course, you’ll get more free mouthwatering samples. At Kernel Popper’s Gourmet Popcorn on St. George Street, try samples of caramel sea salt, Dr. Pepper or dill pickle popcorn, among its cornucopia of flavors, before settling on your fave.

Golfers and nostalgia lovers will want to dine at The Murray Brothers Caddy Shack Restaurant. It’s a favorite in the World Golf Village with plenty of memorabilia from the classic movie, starring Bill Murray.

In Ponte Vedra, Barbara Jean’s Restaurant and Bar has a great view of the Intracoastal Waterway and outdoor seating. Go for seafood specials like fried shrimp or catfish, or try Southern comfort food such as meatloaf or chicken fried steak.

Jacksonville’s nightlife is filled with bars, pubs and live music venues. Bar hop, dance the night away or buy that happy-hour cocktail—it’s all ready for the taking in vibrant neighborhoods like Riverside, downtown, Avondale and San Marco.

At Jacksonville Landing in the downtown area, attend a show or a festival, view fireworks or simply people-watch. There are more than a dozen dining choices as well as an eclectic array of retail shops. The Landing also hosts special events such as free live music on Friday nights.

Jacksonville is a leader in Florida’s booming craft beer scene. One way to experience all it has to offer is on the Jax Ale Trail, a self-guided tour of the city’s award-winning craft breweries. Grab a Jax Ale Trail Craft Beer Passport, and get a stamp at each of the local stops, which include Bold City, Green Room, Pinglehead and Zeta Brewing.

In downtown Fernandina Beach, The Patio Place provides a comfortable backdrop to indulge in sweet or savory crepes and sit outside after a long day on the beach.

ROAD TRIPS

Get a beachy view at a laid-back pace along A1A between Flagler Beach and Fernandina Beach. This route runs parallel to the much busier I-95, and you get to cruise along the scenic route while stopping off as needed for meals, souvenirs or to snap an ocean shot.

Take in a country view for more than 60 miles along US-17 between Orange Park and Crescent City. Along the way, view the picturesque St. Johns River, enjoy rolling hills (hard to come by in Florida), and stop at places like the Log Cabin Winery.

On the Ormond Scenic Loop & Trail in the Flagler Beach area, take the double loop along scenic roads where you’ll pass by the Atlantic Ocean and Old Dixie Highway. Other highlights include driving past the winter home of John D. Rockefeller, the historic Ormond Beach fire station and sunset views near Granada Boulevard Bridge.

Head off on SR-13 just south of Jacksonville, and leisurely make your way to the small town of Spuds. This route gives you a near constant view of the St. Johns River, and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time as you drive past older homes and trees covered with Spanish moss. Two highlights along the route: the homes of writer Harriet Beecher Stowe and composer Frederick Delius.

SHOPPING

The newly remodeled St. Augustine Outlets right off of I-95 carries more than 75 brand-name retailers, offering discounts up to 65 percent.

Nearby, St. Augustine Premium Outlets advertises 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 Gander Mountain outdoor store.

Ready for some unique finds? Then head on down to the pedestrian-only St. George Street in St. Augustine’s Historic District. Find a bohemian piece of jewelry at Earthbound Trading Co. Nearby, stop by the Spice & Tea Exchange, an 18th-century-like trading post with displays of teas and spices that will stimulate your taste buds. At Bath Junkie, you can personalize bath and body products with customized scents. Find a gift for the artsy folks in your life at any of St. Augustine’s 20 galleries located in the historic district.

The Old City Farmers’ Market, held at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre on Saturdays, welcomes vendors from local farms, bakers, seafood merchants and artisans.

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. For more market exploration, check out Jaxsons Night Market, a craft market held on the second Thursday of each month at Hemming Park. There’s also Riverside Arts Market, hailed as Florida’s largest open-air market. Held on Saturdays, find local arts and crafts, food galore, a free yoga class, children’s activities and live entertainment. The view isn’t too shabby, either—it’s right beside the St. Johns River.

SPAS

There’s no shortage of spa relaxation time to be found in Northeast Florida.

Small Indulgences Day Spa in St. Augustine offers quaint charm with its Victorian décor blended with 21st-century approaches to beauty and health.

Debby’s Day Spa & Salon in St. Augustine has an extensive menu of massage, custom skin-care treatments, and hair and nail care services.

St. Augustine’s Hopcraft & Company helps brides, residents and visitors relax and look their best. The spa features eco-friendly treatments and an eclectic selection of products, including gluten-free treatments. Anyone up for a papaya, macadamia and argan oil body scrub or a Biore rejuvenating facial?

In downtown Jacksonville, Natural As I Wanna Be is a locally owned destination for organic spa treatments. It’s operated by a registered nurse with more than 20 years of experience in healthcare and was voted one of Jacksonsville’s top spas by USA Today.

Need to breathe in some aromatherapy to relax? Then Natural Body Spa and Shop is on your spa bucket list. Located in St. Johns Town Center, the spa welcomes guests with its large aromatherapy collection as well as its luxurious body treatments.

Pampered & Polished leaves visitors feeling, well, pampered and polished, with its traditional spa treatments as well as specialties like the Ormedic Lift (a non-chemical blend with pineapple, papaya and mango), Wrinkle Lift, Teen Facial and the Eye Rescue.

Frenchy’s Wellness Spa in Jacksonville Beach focuses on body treatments as well as microdermabrasion and lash extensions.

Amelia Island is known as a laid-back destination, so the island’s spas fit right in with that theme. There’s Park Avenue Natural Day Spa, which aims for a relaxing, Zen-like atmosphere while visitors enjoy massages and other treatments. Then there’s the Dome Healing Center for a full holistic experience. There are not only massages and facials; attend a community yoga and meditation class. The Dome’s signature massage combines Swedish, deep tissue, reflexology and aromatherapy.

At Magna’s in Fernandina Beach, refresh with full-body treatments like a sea salt body polish and salon services.

ALL IN A DAY

AMELIA ISLAND

Start with a sunrise SUP outing along 13 miles of scenic Atlantic shoreline, or settle into a kayak and enjoy a guided tour through the marsh and surrounding waterways. Plan an afternoon at Fort Clinch, followed by a shopping stroll in downtown Fernandina Beach to uncover the history and charm, which keep the destination a top island favorite among Condé Nast Traveler’s readers. Spend your evening savoring culinary delights at one of the nationally acclaimed chefs’ tables.

JACKSONVILLE

Welcome a new day with a sunrise beach walk, then fuel up your morning with fresh biscuits at Maple Street Biscuit Company and a local coffee at Bold Bean. Grab your board, or rent one, and learn to surf in Jax Beach, one of the best spots in Florida! For lunch, enjoy the locally caught Mayport shrimp at one of the fish camps. In Riverside, explore the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, then enjoy dinner and a craft beer in the famous Five Points district.

ST. AUGUSTINE & PONTE VEDRA

Step back in time at the historic Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. Take a legendary sip of water at the Fountain of Youth. Keep little hands busy at the interactive Pirate and Treasure Museum. See every species of crocodilian at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Find your perfect spot on the shore along 42 miles of beach. Challenge your golf game at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. Enjoy the spicy Datil pepper in the Minorcan Clam Chowder at Barnacle Bills.

PALM COAST AND THE FLAGLER BEACHES

It’s become a local ritual to greet the day with a morning sunrise best viewed from the Flagler Beach Pier. Be sure to fuel up with a plate of lobster benedict at The Funky Pelican conveniently located at this historic landmark. Head north on scenic A1A to get up close and personal with the friendly bottlenose dolphins at Marineland Dolphin Adventure. After a long day, treat yourself to a nice glass of wine ice cream (yes, really) at the Flagler Beachfront Winery as you watch the sun set.

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