By Sandra Friend
With its storied history and idyllic setting along the St Johns River, Orange Park's Club Continental allows visitors to enjoy the tranquility and comforts of a bygone area.
Sheltered beneath a canopy of live oaks, Club Continental in Orange Park is invisible to travelers along U.S. 17. The Club is listed as a bed and breakfast in many places, but the 27-acre property feels like a lodge: Statuary and niche gardens; sparkling pools and tennis courts; and the River House, rescued and restored by Frederica Massee, a relaxed pub with decks that look out over the St. Johns River.
The history here is as thick as the trees. In 1923, the property was called the Mira Rio, a retirement estate built for Palmolive Soap Co. heir Caleb Johnson for nearly $700,000. Twelve bedrooms and six baths were wrapped inside a Mediterranean Revival fantasy, the favored architecture of the first Florida building boom. Fresh from their European travels, guests would sweep in during the winter months to enjoy fine dining and cruise the river.
MaryAnn Adkison has worked at Club Continental for two decades. "Did you know Joe Kennedy stayed here?"
During the 1940s, the Massee family called the mansion "Azaleana Manor" and rented rooms to aviators from the nearby Naval Air Station.
"Frica" and her husband Jon developed Club Continental as it is today.
"She was an incredible lady," said Sheldon Harris, general manager for the past 15 years. "She would pick the turtles up (out of the courtyard pond) and hand-brush them to get the algae off, with a little fingernail brush. We'd sit in the kitchen and look out the window and watch her taking care of the turtles, on hands and knees – really, really neat."
Jon and Frica launched the private dinner club, developed surrounding properties and brought the adjoining 1870 estate of Winterbourne, the home of Jon’s grandmother, back into the family.
"She was a historian, and felt everything should be historically accurate," said Adkison.
Winterbourne is on the National Register of Historic Places and provides a venue for weddings and events.
In the courtyard of Club Continental, the ironwork, manicured gardens and Mediterranean architecture are reminiscent of private estates in Palm Beach and Coral Gables. Inside, the dining hall is panoramic, with high ceilings and views of the river.
Menus change monthly and may include specialties like Oysters Bienville, with lump crab and mushrooms in a spicy sherry cream sauce, topped with provolone and scallions.
"The owners have allowed me to be as creative as I can be," said Harris, who also serves as executive chef. "Our food is ever-changing. It's pretty much Continental cuisine, but we'll experiment. We serve only prime beef and the best seafood available, as much local seafood as possible."
Upstairs, seven rooms themed for classic travel destinations – England, Mexico and Italy among them – overlook the oak-shaded lawn with the St. Johns River sparkling beyond. Each is an intimate 1920s space. An elegant antique bed, a family heirloom, is the focal point of the French Room, which has a private porch. The River Suites – 15 suites with European décor, many with fireplace and Jacuzzi, directly on the St. Johns River – were added in 1992. Guests have access to all amenities, including the private dining room.
The family tradition continues. Karrie Massee, daughter of Jon and Frica, is now the owner.
"Orange Park grew up around Club Continental," Harris said. "We have a lot of longtime employees, proud to be a part of this legacy and to help keep it going."
If You Go
Club Continental is located off U.S. 17 at Milwaukee Avenue and Astor Street in Orange Park, two miles south of I-295. Rates range from $95 for a historic room to $200 for a large River Suite, and include club privileges, Wi-Fi, business center and an expanded continental breakfast.
2143 Astor Street
Sandra Friend is a Florida author who writes guidebooks to authentic and natural places in Florida, including for the Explorer’s Guide series. She lives in Ocala.