Eyes on Jacksonville, Off the Beaten Path
Updated: 1 day ago
Some of the main attractions of Jacksonville such as the Zoo, Cummer Museum and MOSH will be on our return list, this trip was about the Beaches, Parks, and layout of the diverse neighborhoods. I REALLY enjoyed my riverside walks at the end of my days, which one day surprised me with very engaging dolphins flipping all the way out of the water and coming quite close to where I was walking.
Every trip has some different goals. This trip I just couldn't wait another single second to visit Fort Clinch State Park. Have you ever had a place that sat on your bucket list too long? That was this for me. It's a bit out of the way, and the few times we attempted to visit we were having rare white out rainstorms. I was happy to finally explore the real native Florida gem!
**Underlined text link to the accompanying website for your convenience.
Eyes on Jacksonville
Living in Florida we tend to make a circle around us touching everything from the closest point outwards. Then we looked at some of the points farther out we haven’t reached yet. Then we realized we’d explored all the corners and somehow managed to overlook the most populated city of Florida, possibly just driving right by on our way out of Florida! That’s right, Jacksonville has more people than any other city in the state, twice as many as Miami, and three times more than Orlando! It also has the most parks, so I was eager to see how it balanced!
Located right off of I-95, Jacksonville is in the northeastern corner of Florida, it’s big - more than 840 square miles, making it the largest city by size in the USA! AND Jax runs the nation's largest urban public parks system. It entails more than 335 locations and covers more than 80,000 acres. This includes 7 State Parks, 2 National Parks, a National Preserve, 400 City Parks and Gardens and an Arboretum. The Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve covers 46,000 acres. WOW! What I am saying here, is Jacksonville is big, spread out and both people and nature are here in droves!
Florida is known for being the sunshine state but the weather in March can be any range of temperatures. Our trip started in the 40's and ended in the 80's.
Our trip to Jacksonville was inspired by my work trip, which was scheduled to take place one week during March 2023. I came a day early to treat my family to some of the fun. The 3-hour drive from home took forever on the last day of our Spring Break and we took our time with some good music and conversation for the ride.
Our first stop was Fort Clinch, and while I was excited about it, the unusually cool weather was not the best for the activities I had planned (if you ask my kids) however I didn’t mind at all!
Fort Clinch State Park:
Driving in and following the 3-mile road down to the Fort was spectacular. The Live oaks create a tunnel overhead and nature just holds you all the way to the shore! Amazing trees. We parked by the Visitor’s house and went inside to pay $2.00 /person. Entry is through the side door by cashier to the museum. From there the trail behind leading out to the Fort.
Built during the American Civil War, this fort was never finished, but was used through World War 2. Re-enactments happen on the 1st Saturday of the Month with horses, uniformed actors etc. We missed that, but still really loved exploring the empty hallways and winding staircases. Visitors feel like they are on an adventure back in time! It was fun to wander through and just explore what’s around each bend. I enjoy the engineering of brick masonry and can imagine how it functioned when it was full of soldiers. Looking through small windows in the brick walls I could get a glimpse of the Atlantic out there and was wondering if there would be a way to get through to the water. There was not. After exploring the various housed and rooms, we went out and around to walk the trail down to the beach. Rooms of ammo and supplies show you what life looked like for that time, and the walk-through history is always eye opening. Makes for great conversation with the family.
The historic fort is only one aspect of this diverse 1,400-acre park. Maritime hammocks with massive arching live oaks provide a striking backdrop for hiking and biking (and photos) on the park’s many trails. Both the river and ocean border this park and the camping here is truly fantastic. My plan to come here originated from a friend who RV'd here for three days at a time, and I believe that it's a big enough park to spend all of that time exploring. Shark's teeth and seashells can be found when you really comb the beaches, and some just come to take advantage of the biking trails.
We took time to walk the Willow Pond Nature Trail. A collection of ponds create a 0.6-mile loop trail that is easy to walk. There are two options for the hike, Magnolia or Willow, they both meet at some point. Signs warn about alligators and the still water seemed like the perfect place for a gator, but we didn’t see any. We did see lots of tree roots and winding branches, pretty vegetation with Spanish moss and palms. The sign predicted either 25 or 45 mins for each loop however they can be completed much quicker if walking with any decent pace. Still a beautiful place for some tranquility. We did not see any other people along our walk.
Unwinding & Dining
13 miles long and two miles wide, with preserved parks at both northern and southern ends, this is a unique place worth exploring. Surrounded specifically by the Atlantic Ocean, Intracoastal Waterway, Nassau Sound and one of the deepest inlet, the Cumberland Sound. Natural Appalachian quartz beaches line this historical area with memories of Spanish, French, British and American rule. Now it’s a destination known for luxury resorts, golf courses and rolling dunes of sandy beaches. Main Beach Park has a boardwalk, public sports, and recreation facilities.
Outdoor dining is a big thing here and walking through the cobblestone streets it feels inviting to stay and eat. Music, flavor and fun are offered in a wide variety. Wherever you chose to eat, Check this list here https://www.ameliaisland.com/Blog/March-2023/Top-Spots-for-Outdoor-Dining
Plan to catch a round of family mini golf afterwards! Or check out the area by e-scooters! This is one of our favorite ways to see a city!
Now I love a good historic trolley, and they have a tour of downtown Fernandina and Old Town. Visitors learn how pirates once roamed this area, or how they claimed the title of "Isle of Eight Flags". Riding by the timely mansions and beautiful landscaping made me want to know all the things! Another option is to take a free tour of the Marlin & Barrel Distillery. See (or taste) firsthand how bourbon, rum, vodka, gin, cellos, and good times are handcrafted in the historic district.
I loved being here with my family, but this place was screaming girls' weekend to me!
Amelia Island offers an adult BYOB River Cruise. Viewing the island by water adds a clearer perspective of the beauty in this area and this looked like a fun way to capture the moment.
Another really cool thing I saw was: a floating tiki bar! In Fort Meyers once for my cousin’s bachelorette party we did the peddle tiki bar through the streets with our music and fun! But I’d never seen Crusin Tikis - complete with your own captain, ice filled cooler, sink and Bluetooth sound system. I really want to come back and try that out! We could have chosen any variety of places to eat from but my daughter wanted some chicken alfredo, so Italian it was!
We ate dinner at Arte Woodfire Pizza and Grill. Having our toddler with us and wanting to eat something fast this hit the spot. Service was good and the food was delicious. Great portions! Fun environment, fine for families.
I strongly recommend taking advantage of the mini golf which was right next to our restaurant.
From there we headed back towards Downtown Jax which was about 30 minutes.
I had time to get settled into my spot for the week in the Marriott Downtown Jacksonville.
Walking around Amelia Island, exploring the village streets 🔼
Finding our Dinner location: Arte and getting more food than we could eat! 🔽
Downtown Jacksonville is undergoing some much-needed revitalization. As much as Amelia Island was full of fun I’d love to return to, and a vibe of invitation, Jax itself seemed like “come back later” to me. To be such a big city and have an impressive history, I have to say the foot traffic and vibe of the community seemed nonexistent. Staying in the heart of the historic downtown along the waterfront I expected more people out enjoying the area, yet I could count the people I passed on the road who were out and about. I’d see security, the valet, or a few joggers. The city’s homeless population has made itself at home and are clearly more comfortable than the working class. The majority of the people I saw were actually on the job, working. I didn’t see anyone there just to explore. These are people who are there because that’s their job location.
I was super excited to wake up Monday morning and walk over the Main Street Bridge, to go see the Friendship Fountain. After walking just over a mile, it was under construction. I did see a field trip going into the Museum of Science and History. The river front area there looks like a nice place for a picnic where you could take in the view of the bridges and skyline. However, temporarily the view is obstructed by the mesh fencing of construction and revitalization. I hope the plan makes Jacksonville come back to life, I could almost see it!
Our stay at the Downtown Marriott was good. I had a room on the 8th floor with a decent view of the city. We had a weeklong professional development conference going on and the conference room was well set up for us. The sound and technology were cooperative. There were good spaces around the Hotel to have individual or even private meetings when needed and also good social spaces for eating. Overall, it is a good location, backing up to the river and surrounded by businesses, with a strong banking presence. The things that I look for in a place are good hot running water with strong pressure, comfy bed, room fridge and microwave, and hopefully a decent view. No odors or dirty corners, all that... So my fridge didn't stay cold enough to keep the milk good, and the rooms did not have microwaves. Other than that it was good, definitely in a good location.
I was excited to check out the free metro in Jacksonville, the Skyway.
The automated people mover is operated by the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA). The skyway has three stations in Downtown Jacksonville and makes two routes across 2.5 miles of track, serving eight stations and crosses the St. Johns River on the Acosta Bridge. In 2022, the system had about 1,000 riders per day. As of 2023, the Skyway typically only operates on weekdays, although JTA does operate the system on weekends with special events downtown. I noticed a handful of people getting off the train and did not get to take advantage of it during my stay. Check schedules here: https://www.jtafla.com/ JTAFLA
We ate REALLY well this week. Each weekday food trucks came to park outside. These rotated and gave good options for something close by and different. Lots of people came out of their offices to grab to go boxes and the ordering system was well organized with a Facebook page giving the schedule and QR codes with menus. We ate at the restaurant inside of the Marriott, Juliette’s Bistro. It shares a space with J Bar. There were times while we stayed it was open, and other times it was no open. I believe there were staffing shortages. We ate lunch there one afternoon and the fish sandwich was delicious. The drinks and guacamole in the evening was also good. Highly recommend their guac!
We ate a few times at Bread and Board. They had some beautiful chicken options, and I had a burger which was delicious. I can't lie, the menu was so different that it took me a little time to look it over and be confident in my selection!
In the evenings, we grouped and made fabulous dinner plans. We wanted good food, and to check out the Jacksonville vibe so we picked places that we felt would help us appreciate the area.
There are six main groupings of neighborhoods in Jacksonville: Downtown, Arlington, Southside, Westside, Northside, and The Beaches. Each one has its unique vibe.
Blue Fish Restaurant and Oyster Bar located in Shoppes of Avondale
Declicious! Delicious! Deliocious! We enjoyed our table inside and excellent service, with really good food. We couldn't help but look across the street at some of the shops and saw the places closing while we ate dinner. The Macaroon shop looked fabulous, but we were able to eat some freshly made candy and ice cream at the chocolatier.
Driving from our Hotel to the Blue Fish was the definition of the scenic route. No, it wasn’t the long way, it was just a beautiful drive passing by homes and trees that feel like they are from another era! Our Uber driver was able to shed a little historical light on the drive…. The Neighborhoods of Riverside and Brooklyn saw modest growth until the late 1800’s, when the city of Jacksonville switched things up and established a streetcar line. Then came the Great Fire of 1901, which destroyed most of Downtown Jacksonville, many residents relocated to Riverside. Wealthy citizens built mansions close to the river, while the less well-to-do purchased more modest bungalows and other homes further inland. The neighborhood grew steadily, with development continuing well beyond its original area, until the collapse of the Florida land boom in the late 1920s. During this period, so many architects working in such a wide variety of contemporary styles experimented in Riverside and it is now known for being uniquely architecturally diverse.
We had some friends who ventured over to the River & Post. Reservations are required. The rooftop lounge is also a great choice, having tasty food and drink options available. They were very happy with this choice, enjoying good drinks and delicious food with a view of the city!
We wanted to venture over to the beach and were trying to decide which beach was the fastest or the best for us to see: Jax, Atlantic, or Neptune. We learned they are all right next to each other and each have a good vibe! Jacksonville Beach (the farthest south) has the pier, more nightlife, and lots of places to eat. Atlantic Beach is a well-designed innovative downtown built to serve the locals and expanded for those coming to visit. Upscale eating and drinking, gourmet options and fine cuisine lines the streets offering visitors many choices to explore their tastes. It’s the Northern most beach of these three. Nestled between Jacksonville Beach and Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach is one of the top areas for surfing in northeastern Florida. It's a street over from Atlantic, and while it's along the same road you can appreciate the shift of the zone. The clean, flat, beautiful coastline and natural sand dunes throughout make it a great place for the waves. Not as crowded or developed as Jacksonville Beach this is a more residential area. What I loved everywhere was the mixture of indoor and outdoor dining. We want to take advantage of the fresh warm air when the weather is cooperating, but on the cooler days found great windows and design to give the feeling of being there and enjoying the scenery.
After a walk on the lovely Atlantic Beach and some de stressing from our day, we drove over to Coop 303 which is in Atlantic Beach. Loved the atmosphere and food!
This evening the sliver moon gave a slight glow and the weather had finally warmed up, and people were out walking with their pets enjoying the whole area.
We ate dessert at Whit's Frozen Custard and the line was out the building, telling us it was a hotspot favorite. For good reason. So yummy.
We went back to Atlantic Beach the next day for more eating at The Local, which is a great spot to gather. Brunch was awesome, and our company was incredible. We departed from there to head back to our homes all over the region.
I'd been able to walk around Downtown Jacksonville and see some of the city on foot. When traveling, I greatly enjoy seeing makes a place special and I can say that Jacksonville loves their Jaguars, and I hope to return to take in some of the museums and zoo. All in all I found Jacksonville to have a lot to do. Much of which we didn’t have a chance to explore. Our free day which was Monday, many of the museums were closed, and so much of our time was spend networking over food. I can't complain about the adventure and will definitely be back to see more! Planning a girl's weekend to Amelia Island for sure!!
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New Cities can be amazing, or they can be stressful.
Having a plan can alleviate some of the anxiety associated with being away from home and knowing a few points to looks forward to will help keep focus positive.
Check the weather, plan for the forecast to be wrong, and have comfortable clothes and shoes!
No matter where your travels take you, enjoy the journey!
Don't forget good music in the car and car snacks.
Breathe and be present.
Remember to let go of all the things you can't control.
Enjoy your surroundings, and the people present with you.
And most importantly, make the memories count.
Quality time with quality people is a priority, be a quality person you enjoy to be with!
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