Yes, it’s an island, but not in the tropical sense. Aging oaks shade narrow roads in this natural paradise, so much of which is preserved within a collection of state parks. Ride horseback from the forest to the Atlantic beaches of Amelia Island State Park. Surf fishing is popular here, as is casting from the George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier over Nassau Sound. Marshy nooks inside Big and Little Talbot Island State Parks offer paddling and birding, though Big Talbot Island is distinguished for its photogenic Boneyard Beach, so-called for the tree “skeletons” dotting its shore. Golf courses at area resorts play off of Amelia’s natural beauty. With fine dining, spas and shops, these family-friendly properties create an air of sophistication, with a seaside Southern flair, about the island.
Fernandina Beach is part of Amelia Island, and a host of history lessons and merry diversions occupy the town. Reserve a spot on a themed walking tour offered by the Amelia Island Museum of History or on a horse-drawn carriage ride operated by a local. Either way, you’ll hear all about the area’s rule under eight different flags since the 16th century, and you’ll get a feel for its 50-plus-block National Register Historic District, including shop- and café-lined Centre Street and Victorian-era homes-turned-B&Bs. Centre Street ends at the Amelia River: Board a fishing charter or river cruise along the waterfront, and watch trawlers haul in shrimp (May’s Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival celebrates Fernandina Beach’s significance to the industry). Not far from downtown, Fort Clinch rises above the St. Mary’s River and Cumberland Sound, well-preserved in its 19th-century, bricked grandeur.
Green Cove Springs
This is a river town in so many senses: Spring Park offers a gleaming vista of St. Johns River, and the whole place seems to mimic the water’s easy flow. The fishing is fine (Spring Park offers a handy pier and boat slips), the history is walkable (a map pinpoints significant homes and churches) and the recreation is refreshing at the community pool fed by the local spring. In the mid- to late-1800s, talk of the spring’s therapeutic power brought visitors by steamboat to Green Cove Springs. Across the street from the spring boil, the circa-1887 River Park Inn B&B speaks of area history, as does the Clay County Historic Triangle, where you can view the 19th-century courthouse and jail, as well as a railroad museum.
Jacksonville represents all that’s good about the big city: culture, nightlife, good eats and a signature accessory – the riverfront. The river is the St. Johns, and whether you’re strolling the riverwalk or floating in a water taxi, you’ll notice the reflection of the industrial skyline in the rippled water. Jacksonville Landing provides another memorable vantage point, and it also offers shops, restaurants, bars and live entertainment. For culture, visit the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville or the Ritz Theatre Museum, celebrating Jacksonville’s African-American community. For all of its urban appeal, Jacksonville also is home to eclectic neighborhoods brimming with original restaurants, galleries, boutiques and historic buildings. See parks blooming with magnolias, crepe myrtles and roses (inside Landon Park) in San Marco. Shop at San Marco Square and catch a movie at the Art Deco-styled San Marco Theatre, built in 1938. In Riverside-Avondale, you’ll see pocket parks, a view of the river and a mix of architectural styles from Victorian to Prairie. The Riverdale Inn, constructed in 1901, serves as a B&B and reminder of “The Row,” a string of 50 mansions that once lined Riverside Avenue. Two of these historic mansions still stand today, giving visitors a glimpse into the area's luxurious past. The Jacksonville-Baldwin Trail offers quiet from the hum of the city, navigable wetlands and woods full of wildlife with a trailhead at Camp Milton, former East Florida military post for the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Twenty miles of Atlantic Coast belong to the communities of Atlantic, Neptune and Jacksonville beaches. Atlantic Beach’s Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park shakes up the salty scene with a 60-acre freshwater lake that begs for picnics and paddleboats. Fish or walk trails around the lake; then explore the boutiques and restaurants of Town Center. Head south to Neptune Beach, which sounds a low-key vibe and a call to surfers and cyclists (the hard-packed sand creates an effortless ride). Jacksonville Beach marks the southernmost, and the most spirited, shore – beach volley-ball, surfing and fishing from the Jacksonville Beach Pier stage a nearly non-stop party. Listen to live music at Sea Walk Pavilion, and visit the Beaches Museum & History Park.
Mayport and Fort George Island
Mayport was born to be a fishing village. Early Native Americans to modern fishermen have based their livelihoods on the surrounding St. Johns River and its bays (sample the bounty of area waters at any of Mayport’s dockside restaurants). In 1942, the Navy shipped into town, and Mayport Naval Station is now the third-largest Naval facility in the continental U.S. The village’s 1859 lighthouse still stands on station grounds. Across the river, Fort George Island Cultural State Park shares 10,000 years of stories through exhibits inside the Ribault Club. The club represents the island’s “modern” history, past the days of the Timucuan Indians and warring colonialists to the 1920s, when its reputation shifted to “millionaires’ playground.” Cotton production also earns a page in area history: Segway tours lead visitors from the Ribault Club to the Kingsley Plantation, built in 1798; original slave cabins are on the property.
Palatka, along the St. Johns River, promises bass fishing and boating. But the city is equally in touch with its creative side, its downtown a canvas for more than 30 murals illuminating local history and landmarks (the chamber of commerce publishes a walking and driving tour). The Florida School of the Arts, Larimer Arts Center and the Historic Tilghman House – which is not open to the public other than for special events and as part of the Chamber of Commerce Tour – provide additional outlets for visual and performing artists, and Ravine Gardens State Park showcases a full spectrum of color inside its flowering ravine. Bike, hike or drive the surrounding trail for an eyeful. During the Annual Azalea Festival, Palatka’s signature shrub paints the town in shades of pink and white. And the annual Florida Blue Crab Festival features a seafood cook-off and an arts and crafts show.
St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra Beach
You can’t avoid history in America’s oldest city (“the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental U.S.,” if you want to get technical). But there are plenty of diversions. Golf, for example. The PGA Tour is headquartered in Ponte Vedra Beach, and THE PLAYERS Championship unfolds each year at TPC Sawgrass. World Golf Village, with its own respected courses (plus the World Golf Hall of Fame) makes its home in St. Augustine.
Accommodations and amenities here stitch a luxury label into the towns’ fabric, particularly along the dune-covered shores of Ponte Vedra Beach, where spas, shops and classic resorts prevail. But back to the history: You can’t miss 17th-century Castillo de San Marcos (literally – its cannons and coquina construction lord over Matanzas Bay – which, by the way, makes a scenic venue for a fishing charter or cruise). Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse in the U.S. (said to date to at least 1716) and the 18th-century Gonzalez-Alvarez House help tell the story of the city’s Spanish, British and American occupations. Opulent hotels commissioned in the late 1800s by railroad pioneer Henry Flagler persist today as a museum (the Lightner), a college (Flagler) and a luxury inn (the Casa Monica).
There’s no shortage of restaurants – from no-frills authentic to upscale and atmospheric – or eccentricities (gawk at the albino alligators at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park or visit the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum). Still, strolling through narrow streets nearly half-a-millennium old is fairly awe-inspiring.