Story by Jennifer Merrick
JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA — Here’s to beach vacations, and the surf, sand, flip-flops, water sports and lounge chairs they entail. But, then again, urban getaways are appealing, too, with their cultural attractions and the city buzz of nightlife, markets and trendy neighbourhoods with chef-driven restaurants.
So why choose? Jacksonville (aka Jax), located in northeastern Florida, is the largest city by land area in the United States at 848 square miles (2,196 square kilometres), has the state’s youngest population and, best of all, is blessed with 22 miles (35 km) of beaches and a hip urban vibe.
Hit the Beach
Jacksonville, Neptune and Atlantic Beaches: These hot spots join together in the northeastern region of the city. Though connected, each has its own character. Jacksonville Beach is active, fun and the most touristy with lots of restaurant options, lively nightlife and chain hotels. Atlantic Beach is the local favourite with boutique shopping, oceanfront homes and a cozy seaside vibe. Neptune Beach is more residential and relaxed, although it also has a collection of shops and some good dining options, including North Base Fish Camp, where I enjoyed out-of-the sea-and-into-the-frying-pan fresh fish and refreshing cocktails on the restaurant’s outdoor patio. Fortified we strolled along the wide ocean beach, enjoying the sight of people of all ages basking in the sun and cooling off in the waves.
Kayaking at Talbot Islands State Park: “If there’s no path, we’ll just make our own,” said our guide at Kayak Amelia. Forging your own trails is not something you normally do when you’re paddling a kayak. But this is no ordinary place. The marshy waterways are part of the Timucuan Preserve Estuary, and the twist and turns of tidal streams create habitat for herons, osprey and an abundance of fish, which use this environment as their nursery grounds. We paddled slowly through the grasses, stopping often to look at the birds. Afterwards, we made our way into the open water and then to an empty beach for a cool swim. We felt worlds away from the city, though it was only a 15-minute drive from Gainesville.
Shopping in the City: The Saturday Riverside Arts Market is terrific. Live music, food trucks, local crafts, and stalls, where you can find made-in-Jax products from honey and spices to beef jerky and hot sauces. Though I adore markets, I’m not a fan of shopping malls, and so I was reluctant to visit St. Johns Town Center. I was pleased to discover that this 200-acre retail complex is more like an outdoor shopping village than a megamall and has some fab restaurants, including MShack, one of the best burger spots in the city.
Sights: Find out why Jax was voted one of America’s top 25 arts destinations with visits to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the Cummer Museum of Arts and Gardens. The latter houses nearly 5,000 works of art in its permanent collection, including pieces by Peter Paul Rubens, Winslow Homer, Thomas Moran and Norman Rockwell. Equally impressive, and works of art in and of themselves, are the historic gardens on the museum grounds representing English, Italian and American landscape traditions. A wilder botanic experience awaits at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, home to gorillas, lions, giraffes and 2,000-plus other species.