A writer makes a nostalgic return to Atlantic Beach near Jacksonville, FL. Will her memories outshine the reality?

By Terry Ward

Visiting a place where I once lived and loved is an emotional experience.

As I pedal my rented beach cruiser in Atlantic Beach – the beach town I called home before moving to central Florida – being back feels, well, like riding a bike. When I lived here nearly a decade ago, I enjoyed seeing the look of surprise on the faces of visiting family and friends as we’d tour my neighborhood.

To the rest of the country – and for most Floridians, too – this quintessential northeast Florida beach town has remained off the radar. Drive less than a half an hour east of downtown Jacksonville, and people are amazed to find a residential seaside community with beach bungalows along wide sweeps of empty sand – nary a high-rise in sight.

Atlantic Beach is the northernmost of Jacksonville’s three beach communities; the other two are Neptune Beach and Jacksonville Beach. In 1899, railroad tycoon Henry Flagler purchased the local railroad and extended it north to the seaport village of Mayport, at the mouth of the St. Johns River. Atlantic Beach was established as a depot and given its straightforward name for its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.

People passing through were impressed by the coastline’s natural beauty, and before long, prestigious northern families, including the Vanderbilts, were heading south to Jacksonville, FL's Atlantic Beach to soak up the Florida sun and fresh ocean breezes.

Heading north along residential Ocean Boulevard, it’s easy to see why people are continually drawn to this place. Bikers and lollygagging couples far outnumber cars on the narrow roads overhung by live oaks and lined with houses with mellow monikers like “Idyll Hour” and “Sandstill.”

Most streets end in a discreet public beach approach that passes between stately homes. On the boardwalks leading to the beach, surfers gather to scope the waves and neighbors chit chat. Shells decorating mailboxes and surfboards as lawn art add to the eclectic appeal of what is undeniably a well-to-do neighborhood.

I turn onto the beach and head south to pedal back to town along the hard-packed sand. The ocean dunes billow majestically, and the willowy grass blanketing them shimmies like a magic carpet. Tasteful homes peek from behind the dunes, and I notice widow walks and Victorian-style gables. The beach itself is hard-packed where it meets the ocean – perfect for biking or jogging.

Soon enough, I spot Atlantic Beach’s only high-rise on the beach – the eight-story One Ocean Resort & Spa, which is where I’m staying. Its arrival on the scene in May 2008 was big news for both residents and visitors.

The hotel is awash in creams, blues and greens and adorned with modern art. Personal docents here do everything from steaming your garments free of charge to restocking the beverages and snacks in your complimentary mini-bar.

The spa offers sea-inspired treatments such as the Seashell Massage, a beachy take on the hot stone version. But the real centerpiece of One Ocean is its signature restaurant, Azuréa, where incredible seafood dishes are served in a setting that oozes big-city sophistication, minus the snob factor.

Travelers looking for a more affordable option for lodging need only look across the block in Neptune Beach at the Seahorse Oceanfront Inn, where comfortable oceanfront rooms in a two-story melon-colored building give a lovable tropical touch of kitsch back to what’s ultimately a barefoot kind of beach town.

I push my bike up the street from the beach to visit the Beaches Town Center, just a block from the One Ocean Resort and right across from the Seahorse. “The Corner,” as locals call it, is where Jacksonville, FL's Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach share a bricked streetscape of colorful restaurants, two hotels, nightlife and shops that include a bookstore, art gallery, fashion boutiques and gourmet chocolatier. The fact that this bricked area is literally just a few steps off the sand itself makes it all the more appealing.

Restaurants here range from the fine dining and martini sipping variety at Ocean 60, to New York-style pies at family favorite Al’s Pizza, to Cajun eats at local microbrewery Ragtime and lighter fare at Lillie’s Coffee Bar.

After my meal, I venture to nearby Red Daisy, a boutique gift shop specializing in classic, home, fun, with a heavy emphasis on vintage and antique items for the home.  They carry locally made jewelry and letter pressed cards along with many other items .

I cross Atlantic Boulevard to pop into one of my favorite Florida bookstores, The Bookmark, and ask the young woman behind the register for information on the area. She points me to the regional section, stacked with tomes on Jacksonville homes, local authors, the beach and Florida railroad history.

The Bookmark features author signings with local writers, the woman says, and she speaks with the ease of someone proud of her town. She later tells me she returned home to Atlantic Beach of Jacksonville, FL after finishing school at Florida State University. And I tell her I used to live here, too.

Feeling nostalgic, I decide to detour past my old pad. I catch a glimpse of the outdoor shower where I used to rinse off after a day on the beach. Out front, there’s a for-rent sign. Now that’s something I’ll have to consider.

Jacksonville’s Urban Attractions

Jacksonville is only about 30 minutes away from Atlantic Beach. While you’re in the area, take a ride inland to see what the city has to offer, including the historic Five Points District (funky shops and cafés).

Other favorites include the pretty town center in San Marco (upscale shops and restaurants), the Museum of Science & History and the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens.

Northeast Florida’s Natural Highlights

Feel like exploring the outdoors? You’ll find several natural attractions within a short drive of Atlantic Beach, including Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park (a mountain biking Mecca), Little Talbot Island State Park (accessed by car or ferry from nearby Mayport – good for camping, fishing and water sports), Fort George Island Cultural State Park (with Segway tours and kayaking trips available) and Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve (kayaking, hiking and biking) in Ponte Vedra.

If You Go

Visit Jacksonville, 800-733-2668, www.visitjacksonville.com
Al’s Pizza, 904-249-0002, www.alspizza.com
Azuréa Restaurant, 904-249-7402
Beaches Town Center, www.beachestowncenter.com
The Bookmark, 904-241-9026, bookmarkbeach.com
Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, 904-356-6857, www.cummer.org
Five Points District, www.5pointsjax.com
Museum of Science & History, 904-396-6674, www.themosh.org
Ocean 60, 904-247-0060, ocean60.com
One Ocean Resort & Spa, 904-249-7402, www.oneoceanresort.com
Ragtime Tavern, 904-241-7877, www.ragtimetavern.com
Red Daisy, 904-339-0137
Seahorse Oceanfront Inn, 904-246-2175, www.seahorseoceanfrontinn.com