Jacksonville, Florida: Where Big and Beautiful Intersect
As seen in the Winter 2016 Ideal-Living magazine By Jamie Penn
By now, we all know that the state of Florida has some serious perks. Many of us would name warm winters, white sandy beaches, and pristine golf courses as top attractions, and we’d be right. Retirees and vacationers flock to the panhandle for all those reasons. Florida may not be the first place one would think to find an abundance of culture buffs, naturalists, or outdoor enthusiasts. This would be where the stereotype unravels.
Jacksonville, FL, tucked away in the northeast, is the beacon for a slightly different version of the sunshine state. Jacksonville is Florida’s welcome sign just across the border from Georgia, and has long been a bustling, thriving city bursting with culture and art, and dappled with and surrounded by parks and preserves along waterways, rivers, and lakes. All this, gracefully flanked by Florida’s trademark white sandy beaches and adjacent towns that boast premier golf courses, is offered with average winter and spring temperatures warm enough to offer a reprieve from the cold (with the lowest average high temperature at around 55 degrees), but cool enough for crowd control.
Jacksonville Facts and Tips
While Jacksonville reigns as the most populous city in northern Florida with as many as 850,000 residents, it also gets the gold medal for having established the largest number of parks and land preserves in the state. Whether you step outside the city center into some of these natural and historical havens or slip deeper in to explore charming neighborhoods like Five Points and San Marco, it’s easy to discover the root of the Southern pulse that keeps the big city vibe in check and sets the stage for the hospitality and culture for which we all head south.
Jacksonville is the headquarters for several Fortune 500 companies and does the skyscraper thing really well. It’s also considered one of the most culturally and art-conscious cities in the state, with far fewer tourist attractions than other Floridian cities. While it sprawls out a bit (over 885 square miles and three rivers) covering the largest area of any city in the U.S., it runs conveniently into 22 miles of decadent beaches on the east coast, including those along ever-popular Amelia Island and Ponte Vedra.
Zipping across the Main Street Bridge and into downtown’s metropolis at night is a sight not to miss. Colors wash and sparkle along the St. Johns River from bridge and city lights setting the stage for a city that comes alive at night with people buzzing in and around some of the top restaurants on the east coast, making their way through art galleries, First Wednesday’s art walk, through the Spark district or one of many other downtown districts. Whether by Skyway (Jacksonville’s public transport system), or water taxi, one can easily jet to and from Jacksonville’s north and south bank and from one happening spot to another.
Jacksonville and its beaches, from Ponte Vedra in the south to Fernandina Beach in the north, are the best-kept Florida secrets in winter and spring. When everyone heads to 80-degree days in southern Florida, Jacksonville and surrounding areas are a haven for those who don’t have a need to get their head wet in Janurary, but would rather enjoy far less crowded greens and beaches and a city bursting with culture in those months built for taking a sweater along.
When spring has sprung, the city and surrounding towns come alive with one festival after the other. Jacksonville Beach kicks things off in March with the Great Atlantic Seafood & Music Festival. Zydeco, jazz, and blues prove to pair nicely with the coast’s finest seafood. Then, it’s the Springing in the Blues Festival that keeps the spring festivities moving in April with a laid-back, family-friendly celebration of a musical genre that spans generations.
The Jacksonville World of Nations injects the city with an annual dose of food, dance, music, and traditions from more than 30 countries each April. The fun makes all the noise at the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival in Fernandina Beach in May, with mock pirate invasions, shrimp boat races, contests, and craft and food vendors. Jacksonville Jazz Festival caps off the spring season with performances by world-renowned jazz artists every Memorial Day weekend.
Whether it be golfing at the PGA’s pick of tournament-worthy courses on bustling Ponte Vedra in the south or at one of five courses on luxury-surrounded, well-preserved Amelia Island State Park in the north, Jacksonville is a golfer’s paradise.
The list of other outdoor activities is endless. Horseback riding on the beach at Amelia Island and exploring nearby parks and preserves are favorite Jacksonville-area pastimes. Kayaking, paddle-boarding, and surfing are other typical Atlantic coast favorites. Hiking through one of the many parks and preserves can take visitors on a journey of the unique flora and fauna of the northern coast.
As for sports fans, when you’re in Jacksonville, you’ve arrived. The Jacksonville Jaguars make a lot of noise with area football fans, and the women’s football team, the Jacksonville Dixie Blues, keep things interesting with a progressive spin on the game. Baseball, hockey, and basketball fans will have plenty to cheer and yell about as well at area games featuring local teams.
The Art Scene
The artist in all of us will be delighted with a tour of Jacksonville’s fine and funky art collections. The Art Institute of Jacksonville keeps the art scene lively and MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) and the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens have exquisite collections from artists around the globe. For a taste of the local art scene, head over to CoRK Arts District to experience an artist’s cooperative at its finest.
However you choose to explore—through a book on a hammock near the beach, cruising in the Atlantic, meandering along a path through a preserve, a path on the green, or in and out of historical sites, galleries, and art museums—know that in this northern Floridian mecca, exploration is endless.
Depending on where one wanders in the North City, there are restaurants that can satisfy and delight every palate.
Moxi Kitchen + Cocktails is fairly new to the city and has won awards that give it its place at the top of the list. Chef Tom Gray (two-time James Beard nominee) is rooted in the South, but through extensive travel has been inspired to integrate flavors from coast to coast and in between into his American-inspired cuisine. The exquisite cocktails are a major bonus.
Matthew’s, in beautiful San Marco, has been an award winner for over a decade. Chef Matthew Medure aims to please and surprise with menu options shifting daily. Keep an eye out for shows at San Marco’s historic Theatre Jacksonville or pop over to one of seven local breweries in the area before or after dinner.
Beach restaurants abound as well. North Beach Fish Camp in Neptune Beach has a way with seafood that most visitors write home about. 29 South is a Fernandina Beach favorite with seafood and fresh local food at the center. Azurea is situated in One Ocean Resort and Spa in dazzling Atlantic Beach, offering mouth-watering sea-inspired cuisine proven to please the most discerning palate. Salt matches the Ritz-Carlton experience, where it’s located, on Amelia Island, and it meets and exceeds the bar that’s set. The chef’s nightly Adventure Tasting Menu has a knack for spicing up the dining experience.