Some beach towns feel like places where you’d love to play tourist, with their ample beachside parking and the sort of commerce you don’t have back home: surf shops, souvenir stores, bike rentals, concession stands.
But Vilano Beach feels like home, the sort of place where just renting a hotel room makes you want to change your ZIP code.
“A lot of Florida communities abandon the core of their town and give it up for tourism, and then they don’t have any “there” there, for the locals,” says Vivian Browning, president of Vilano Beach Main Street. “We want a town that sustains itself for the locals, but also welcomes the tourists.”
Vilano Beach is in St. Johns County, just two miles east of St. Augustine, the oldest continually occupied European settlement in the United States, which hosts five million visitors each year and is known for its historic downtown and its famous fort at its center, the Castillo de San Marcos.
What downtown St. Augustine doesn’t have is a beach. But while most beach-lubbers who visit the historic town follow the masses across the Bridge of Lions to the beaches of Anastasia Island, home to St. Augustine Beach and Anastasia State Park, lesser-known Vilano Beach is actually closer.
Vilano Beach is situated between the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Intracoastal Waterway on the west, which separates it from St. Augustine. The unique location gives it an appeal that is hard to find on Florida’s East Coast, where sunrises are easier to find than sunsets: From the Vilano Beach Pier, lined with picnic tables for easy lounging, visitors can watch the sunset over downtown St. Augustine. Both the Castillo de San Marcos and the 208-foot cross of the Mission of Nombre de Dios are visible from this vista.
On the beach side, motorists are permitted to drive their cars right onto the beach.
“People may not realize that on our pier, at the end of the old bridge, we have the best view of sunset over water in St. Johns County,” Browning says. Nearby restaurants, such as Beaches at Vilano, also offer sunset views. Just north of Vilano Beach, before Highway A1A begins snaking toward Ponte Vedra Beach, expansive water views are available at Cap’s on the Water.
In a nod to the residential nature of the place, on the first Saturday of each month, Vilano Beach hosts a “Sunset Celebration” from 3 p.m. to sunset at the Vilano Beach Pier, where families can celebrate from land or from water.
Another advantage for Vilano: The Francis and Mary Usina Bridge, which is part of the A1A Scenic & Historic Coastal Byway, connects Vilano Beach to the mainland. Named for a family whose roots reach back more than 100 years in Vilano history, the bridge is a fixed-span—not a drawbridge like the Bridge of Lions—and always open to vehicle traffic.
At a different moment in Vilano history, the bridge was not viewed so positively. The community built up as a tourist destination in the post-war years. Highway A1A delivered visitors right through town and into St. Augustine. But it was torn down and replaced in 1995, effectively bypassing Vilano Beach businesses and stifling the tourism business.
“Vilano Beach is actually undergoing a rebirth or renaissance or revitalization, if you will,” says Sallie O’Hara, byway program administration for the scenic highway. “After the A1A bridge was rerouted, the state built a beautiful new bridge—but it truncated the economic development, and the old town center went into ruin for several years.”
Today, Vilano Beach isn’t just on the rebound—it seems to have already bounced back. A new Publix, which was constructed in 2012, is now a neighborhood gathering place and gives locals one less reason to venture over the bridge to the mainland. Other businesses, such as the popular Puccini’s Pizza, are popular among visitors and locals alike.
Increasingly, water taxi tours through Jax Water Tours are connecting the mainland to Vilano Beach, though that schedule is still evolving as the Vilano market becomes steadier.
Folks like Earl and Remy Jensen, who came to Vilano Beach four years ago when their daughter was planning to attend Flagler College just over the bridge in St. Augustine. She changed her mind and returned home to New Jersey, but the Jensens remained in Vilano.
Today, besides a home in Vilano Beach, they own and operate two hotels, including the newly refurbished Magic Beach Motel, located across the street from Vilano’s largest hotel, the Hampton Inn & Suites. The art deco-styled former home to the Vilano Beach Motel takes its new name from the television series “Safe Harbor,” which was filmed in Vilano Beach in the 1990s and starred Rue McClanahan of “Golden Girls” fame.
In the series, McClanahan’s family owned the motel in fictional Magic Beach, Fla., and some scenes were filmed outside the motel. The Jensens have invested some $1 million in upgrades, making the little mom-and-pop a big hit with visitors who appreciate Vilano’s unexpected charm.
“It’s connected to the ocean, and to the Intracoastal Waterway, so you can fish on one side and go to the beach on the other,” Jensen says. “My neighbors live here year-round; it’s not really a place that’s just lived-in in the winters.”