How to Experience Jacksonville’s Local Waters
By Jennifer DeCamp
Water surrounds Jacksonville -- a visual heartbeat of tides coming and going, a life source of trade and commerce, a symbol of outdoor adventures – from the Atlantic Ocean to the east, to the St. Johns River which cuts through the heart of downtown.
Here are some ways to experience it.
The Sunshine State’s west coast boasts the best sunsets, but sunrise at Big Talbot Island State Park’s Boneyard Beach is breathtaking. Watch the sun split the horizon, marking the border between sea and sky, while walking through the maze of salt-washed trunks and limbs of petrified, beached cedar and live oak trees. The path to beach is bordered by saw palmettos and live oaks dripping with Spanish Moss and is a short trek from The Bluffs parking lot. Birders will also find the beaches a haven for black skimmers, ospreys, piping plovers, terns and brown pelicans. In the winter months, American bald eagles have been spotted cruising the shoreline or hanging out in the pine trees at Spoonbill Pond.
Head north on A1A into Fernandina Beach for a quick breakfast at Beach Diner. The Jacksonville-based breakfast and lunch spot serves up traditional fare like fluffy pancakes, stuffed omelets and eggs benedict in plentiful portions. Opt for the grits and fresh-squeezed OJ on the side.
Now that you’ve fueled up for the day, backtrack along the coast to the northern tip of Big Talbot Island for a leisurely paddle. The knowledgeable team at Kayak Amelia will outfit you for your adventure. The outfitter rents kayaks and stand-up paddle boards plus all the necessary gear for your time on the water. Based on the day’s tides, the direction of your paddle will change. One option takes you on a twisting path toward the Atlantic Ocean along Simpson Creek with Florida-style, tree-lined sandy cliffs. You’ll eventually reach a secluded island to beach your boat for a break. Take advantage of this opportunity to stretch your legs with a solitary walk along the shore. Chances are you’ll have company of the feathered kind. The inland paddling route meanders toward the Fort George River and Kingsley Plantation. If the tides are right, you’ll pass at least one sandbar that’s a stopover for local boaters indulging in a day sun and fun. Stop and join them. Both routes are ideal for fishing (think flounder, redfish and speckled sea trout), so bring your pole and hope Lady Luck pays you a visit.
Ferry for food
Now that you’ve worked up an appetite, it’s time to eat again, right? Luckily you’re a hop, skip and ferry ride across the St. Johns River to Mayport’s haven for seafood lovers, Safe Harbor Seafood Market and Restaurant. Yes, the most direct route is to head south on A1A and hitch a ride on the St. Johns River Ferry from Fort George Island. Safe Harbor is a short walk from the ferry’s dock, so park your car and enjoy the journey as a round trip walk-on passenger.
A late seafood lunch
Locals are used to Safe Harbor’s long lines (sometimes out the door), but you should miss the heart of the lunch crush. Even if the line is long, it moves quickly and you’ll have a killer view of the day’s fresh haul lined up in the glass-front coolers. Lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops and tuna are usually a given and the cooking team behind the family-owned and operated restaurant is always willing to prepare anything in the market specifically to your taste. Three things to note when placing your order: most menu items come with two hushpuppies (score!), there’s a cooler by the register stocked with cans of iconic Jacksonville local brews and the key lime pie is divine. Grab one of the tables ringing the restaurant’s outdoor deck with a riverfront view and hope that you’ll catch one of the massive international container ships with its deck loaded with cargo or a Carnival cruise ship headed either to or from sea while you dine.
The river at night
After a crowd-free day along the Atlantic coast, shower off the dried salt and sand and head toward downtown’s south bank to take in the beauty of the St. John’s River at night. The 1.25-mile stretch of the city’s river walk, from River City Brewing Company to the Duval Public Schools headquarters, has been reimagined and updated and includes public art and killer views of the Jacksonville skyline. Friendship Fountain, one of the largest, self-contained fountains, pumps 3,500 to 6,500 gallons of water each minute in dozens of streams up to 100 feet in height. Although beautiful during the day, the changing hues of the 265 lights ringing the fountain turn it into a showstopper at night, setting the scene for families at play, couples on a date night and many a marriage proposal. Jax Trivia: At 310 miles, the St. Johns River is longest river in Florida and flows south to north through 12 counties in the state. Less than 30 rivers in the country flow northward like the St. Johns.
Thanks to your late lunch, drinks and light fare with a view seems the way to wind down the day. Long before the craft beer scene exploded, River City Brewing Company has been using traditional European brewpub techniques to craft its longtime hits (Red Rooster Ale and Jackson Pale Ale) and seasonal rotation (Nutty Floridian Pecan Brown Ale). RCBC does have fine dining, but its brew pub has a lighter menu and outdoor seating with a view.
Or, head to Intuition Ale Works, which proved it was no longer the new kid on the block in the Jax brewing scene when it moved to its larger, two-story downtown location near the Jaguars home at TIAA Bank Field and the city’s entertainment center, which includes the Baseball Grounds, Veterans Memorial Arena and Daily’s Place Amphitheater. You’ll want to claim a seat along the rooftop bar overlooking the river and a beer sampler. Yes, locals know that nothing tastes better than a Jon Boat after a long day in the sun, but the brewery has tap with 15 or more options and you’ll want to try more than one. As for food, the team behind Five Points’ Black Sheep created an upscale bar menu that showcases restaurant favorites like its poutine and also serves classic sandwiches with a twist like a brisket topped with collard green kimchi and Korean white BBQ sauce.