Starting with Jacksonville’s white sand beaches on the Atlantic coast as the perfect anchor for a couple of days exploring this beautiful northeast corner of Florida, the Casa Marina Hotel & Restaurant is the perfect place to rest and regroup. It is like no other. Its ninety-year history alone transports its visitors into a different league, a different frame of mind. Built in 1925 and now celebrating its 90th year, this Landmark Historic Hotel ushered glamorous guests such as Jean Harlow, Charlie Chaplin and Al Capone through its doors. Situated on the beach with a sweet view of the Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier, this is the place to begin. To end. To see and experience the pleasant surprises that are Jacksonville.
The stage having been set by the historical Casa Marina Hotel, I am primed to discover the history other cultures have left behind as I head north on A1A to the Kingsley Plantation. From Mayport, the St Johns River Ferry crosses over to Fort George Island where the National Park Service administers the Kingsley Plantation. Still intact, although closed to the public, is the main plantation house, facing the St Johns River. Constructed in 1798 it is the oldest standing plantation house in Florida. There is also a kitchen house, a barn and the ruins of 25 of the original slave cabins. Zephaniah Kingsley operated the property from 1813-1839 under a task system which typically allowed slaves to keep proceeds from their own crafts or tend their own gardens once they had completed their assigned tasks for the day. It is a pretty location and the time spent here a pleasant interlude.
Kingsley’s saga is an interesting read. He purchased his wife, Anna, at a slave auction in Havana, Cuba in 1806 and married her. When freed by Kingsley in 1811 Anna Kingsley successfully managed property, acquired land and her own slaves. However, once Florida became an American territory the family was harshly impacted by its unfavorable laws discriminating against free blacks. In the late 1830’s the family relocated to Haiti, now the Dominican Republic, where they would conduct their own brand of plantation life successfully. For labor on the Haiti plantation, Kingsley freed many of his Florida slaves, contracting them as indentured. He also maintained property and slaves in Florida, continued to travel, claiming in his writings that he had seen “almost all parts of the world.” He was in New York when he died in the fall of 1843. In 1846 Anna Kingsley returned from Haiti to Jacksonville and died in 1870 at age 77.
About a thirty minute drive from the Beaches is downtown Jacksonville. First on the agenda is a two-hour “Top to Bottom Downtown” walking tour with Ad-Lib Tours which acclimates visitors to this wonderfully clean city that curves itself neatly along the St. Johns River with a mix of new and historical buildings. The tour group is a mix of visitors and locals and as such the conversation sparkles with remembrances and curious local lore. We learn. We ask. We enjoy the knowledge and the camaraderie as we look first up – then down from stations way above the street. The river. The bridges. From the top of the Bank of America Tower, bridges command our attention as they reveal three steel slices across the blue-grey river. With a topper of coastal cotton clouds woven onto an impossibly blue backdrop, this finally puts into perspective, into reality, the disjointed pieces of the city as I had previously experienced it. No longer will I think of this city only as “the airport”, a shopping destination, a bewildering maze of bridges over water that seem to meander everywhere. I experience the lovely symmetry of Jacksonville.
The next discovery is especially welcome and delightful. A lively arts community exists here. Street art. Museums. Gardens. Music. Theatre. Well planned squares and walkways weave color and delight the senses. It is phenomenal and all within reach. All walkable. Vibrant and active, this community is visibly proud of their heritage and their future. Museums such as the Museum of Contemporary Art – MOCA – and the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens are alive with attractive exhibits. Gracious staff. Intriguing places to stop and to stay in the moment for awhile. To feed the senses. The mind. The intellect. To marvel at the imagination that others, both past and contemporary, have been driven to create and to share. To inspire.
Then there are the gardens of the Cummer Museum. Be watchful because minutes and hours slide by unheeded within in the shade and quiet of these gardens. Pools reflect beautiful photographers’ clouds, lined by graceful greenery and punctuated by stately stone benches and fountains. Wandering is encouraged. I take pictures because that’s what I do, but others stroll, quietly conversing. I hear a little girl’s voice quietly talking – reading aloud, perhaps? – from somewhere the other side of a greenery hedge. Unexpectedly secluded. Pleasant summer sounds. And yet, so near the city.
Dining in Jacksonville is easy and fun. Lots of great places, as well as the popular Jax Ale Trail, a thriving craft-beer scene with at least eight local breweries, tours and Jacksonville’s own Brew Bus. One-of-a-kind food trucks are exploding in popularity, offering everything from the simple and casual to the gourmet-to-go. Locally owned and grown, fresh coastal seafood and classic Southern fare are interspersed with a dash of international flair.
One of the newest and brightest stars of Jacksonville’s eclectic dining experience is the Candy Apple Cafe, voted “Best New Restaurant” in Best of JAX 2015. The Candy Apple Cafe is located in an historic building, The Seminole Club, now occupied by Sweet Pete’s, an all-natural candy store. The Seminole Club, just off of Hemming Plaza, was completed between 1902 and 1903. One of the oldest social clubs in Jacksonville, the site was known for its bar and indoor basketball court.
Getting lost in the visual and delectable here is a given. Bright colors abound, anchored by crisp black and white, clear turquoise and hot oranges. Choose inside or porch dining. Explore the heavenly candy aisles. Spend a fortune or an hour or two. It’s a unique place. A place that says, “Come back. There is always more here to see and enjoy”. Just as Jacksonville, Florida, a beautiful city by the St John’s River, has much to offer. Surprises. Events. Arts. Dining. Natural wonders and historical offerings. Do plan to visit Jacksonville.
Photos by Nancy Kirkpatrick Photography
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