Exploring Florida’s first coast


Before the French and English overwhelmed the New World, Spanish explorers settled what is now the northeast corner of Florida. Bordered by Georgia to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Jacksonville sprawls more than 840 square miles, making it the largest city in the United States and requiring a vehicle to see the sights. This newly discovered destination has something to offer singles, couples and families of any age.

Outdoor adventures

Jacksonville boasts more than 111,000 acres of parks and plenty of ways to enjoy them. Visit Kingsley Plantation in the Timucuan Forest Preserve (www.nps.gov/timu), which houses the oldest standing plantation and remnant slave quarters. The river and park provide visitors opportunities to kayak, fish, hike, parasail, canoe, Jet Ski and more. The park and plantation are located on an island, so access is a fun 10-minute ferry ride across the Ft. George River.

Hanna Park is spread over 450 acres and is considered the jewel of the Jacksonville park system, where nature still rules. Visitors can sun, surf, picnic, hike the dunes or play disc golf without feeling overcrowded. Dolphins are frequently spotted near the shore and the warm waters also draw whales with their calves in the spring. The coastline shelf along this part of the state falls off an abrupt 40 feet, yielding two bonuses: hard-packed sand that makes it easy to ride bikes on the beach and great surf.

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens (www.jacksonvillezoo.org) has over 1,000 species of plants to complement the animal life. Participation is key here. There is a pond in which to touch stingrays, an elevated platform to feed the giraffes and, in one of the three aviaries, nectar to hand-feed the lorikeets. In the year-old Asian bamboo garden, komodo dragons are only steps away from a tranquil koi pond and meditation garden. Festivals and culture

Like most major cities, Jacksonville boasts hundreds of festivals, sporting events, concerts and cultural events. The primary must-visit event is the Riverside Arts Market (www.riversideartmarket.com), which began its second year on March 6. More than 100 vendors gathered under the Fuller Warren Bridge to offer art and crafts while jugglers, magicians, mimes and musicians perform along the river. Keep your appetite handy, as there are plenty of preserves, produce, fresh breads, cheeses and hot sauces, such as Caribbean Gold Mango and Hot Habañera, bottled locally by Mangrove Island Grille (www.mangroveislandgrille.com) to try and foods such as the Filipino eggroll-like fried meat roll lumpia. The market is open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. every Saturday, March through October, rain or shine.

Just a couple blocks from the market is the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens (www.cummer.org), displaying a broad collection of art from ancient Greece and Egypt along with modern art, in addition to local artists. The gardens extend from the museum to the river and offer a haven from the fast-paced city outside its walls. An interactive room where kids can create their own digital art and make rainbows through dance is just as fun and interesting for adults. Notably, a photo and replica of Philadelphia’s Clothespin sculpture by Claes Oldenburg is on display here.

Jacksonville Beach

This beach is a great alternative to staying downtown and is less developed than many of Florida’s other coastal communities. The oldest continuously operating Red Cross lifeguard house is here. An outdoor amphitheater regularly hosts concerts and movies under the stars, while across the street is Freebird Live, a concert venue owned by the widow of the lead singer of native Jacksonville icon Lynyrd Skynyrd.

If spending time on the beach is one of your passions, Rent Beach Stuff (www.rentbeachstuff.com) is your local csupplier, and will deliver and pick up everything to make your stay easy-breezy. You can rent bikes, beach umbrellas, boogie boards, skates, towels and just about anything else for your time on the sand. For an alternate afternoon or evening, head over to Adventure Landing (www.adventurelanding.com), where laser tag, arcade games, miniature golf and a water park provide diversion for any age.

Jacksonville Beach is also home to the oldest gay bar in northern Florida. Bo’s Coral Reef, 201 N. Fifth Ave. (www.bosclub.com) has been at its current location for 30 years, but originally opened in 1968, when local restrictions kept the bars in Jacksonville closed on Sundays. Only one block from the beach, it instantly became a popular respite. A dance floor, regular drag shows, pool tables and a grill make Bo’s a great spot to visit any evening. (The owner, Roverta “Bo” Boen, died March 9 at age 86. Our heartfelt condolences go out to the staff and patrons.)

City number one

We would be remiss not to recommend a day trip to the country’s oldest city, St. Augustine. Just 30 miles south of Jacksonville Beach on Highway A1A, St. Augustine is the home of the Castillo de San Marcos, Lions Bridge and the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum.

The Castillo de San Marcos, completed in 1689, is the oldest masonry fort still standing in the country and is now part of the National Park Service (www.nps.gov/casa). There are tours by guides in period clothing, re-enactments, cannon-firing demonstrations and a fife-and-drum color guard that performs regularly.

The once-walled city is very walkable and boasts shops with everything from handmade soaps, hot pepper sauces and clothing to cigars and jewelry. Also, check out the Lightner Museum (www.lightnermuseum.org), where you can see three floors of antiques from the gilded age, including a sizable collection of Tiffany glass and lamps.

Northeast Florida may not come up much in travel conversation — which makes it the perfect place to visit.