By Janet K. Keeler
Sometimes, the bigger the city, the easier it is to explore it in an environmentally friendly way. That seems counterintuitive with all those highrises, highways and traffic.
However, metro areas often have more creative public transportation and quick ways to leave the hustle behind for more natural havens.
That is all true in Jacksonville, Florida’s largest city in both population (about 850,000) and landmass (888 square miles). Add another 20,000 or so in nearby Jacksonville Beach and another who knows how many people when the balmy winter months bring the snowbirds.
Respite from city life comes from the roaring Atlantic Ocean to the east of the city and the St. Johns River, which runs through the middle of the city. Parklands, wetlands and fishing holes also bring plenty of serenity.
The following suggestions should be high on the list of anyone hoping to enjoy Jacksonville and nearby areas with stewardship for the environment in mind.
Preserves and Parks
The Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve is a sprawling 46,000-acre compound of coastal wetlands and waterways. New construction in “Miami Vice” colors is the state’s outdated reputation around the globe but locals know that the roots of Florida run much deeper. The Timucuan preserve represents 6,000 years of ecological history. There is much to do there, and also in adjacent Big Talbot Island and Little Talbot Island state parks, but hikers will especially like the trails that lead through the unique landscape, where hardwood hammocks, coastal dunes and salt marshes intersect. The trails follow the footsteps of the Timucuan Indians, who were nearly all wiped about by 1800. The trails can also be a place of reflection as they were also used to march slaves to the fields. The preserve includes Fort Caroline and the Kingsley Plantation, both rich with local history.
Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens
The Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens is yet another place to celebrate nature in the midst of the city. If you’re fortunate enough to be visiting in March, set out on the half-mile Live Oak Trail and catch the riotous azaleas in full bloom. This trail is one of seven in the urban woodland oasis and it connects to the Lake Loop and Sand Ridge trails, so the half-mile hike can become a longer trek. The trails are graded “easiest,” “moderate” and “more difficult” and the description of each on the website explains why. You might consider timing your visit to late May for the annual butterfly release. Keep up with the happenings at the arboretum on Facebook where photos are posted regularly.
Get to know Jacksonville while walking the streets of the city with a guide from Ad Lib Tours. The Jacksonville Walking Tour explores the underground tunnels downtown and the guides tell the stories of River City, including the dramatic tale of the Great Fire of 1901. And did you know that before the movie industry took hold in Los Angeles, it was centered in Jacksonville? Some 300 movies were made there in the early 1900s. There’s also an evening ghost trek during which the guide leads walkers by lantern through streets, alleys and “haunted” buildings.
North Guana Outpost is an outfitter that specializes in paddelboarding and kayaking. Visitors can rent equipment and strike out on their own in the Guana River Wildlife Management Area south of Jacksonville. But an eco tour in the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve might be the ticket for visitors who want a guided experience. The reserve meanders through more than 73,000 acres and is home to a multitude of wildlife (birds and fish) and plant life. For those who want to explore the reserve on foot, there is parking, a visitor center with information and maps and walking trails.
FOOD AND DINING
The Murray Hill section of Jacksonville is not far from downtown and has drawn residents with its charming homes, many built in the 1930s. The Murray Hill Preservation Association seeks to maintain the area’s authentic vibe. The area is now home to many murals and a varied menu of restaurants, among them Community Loaves. The organic bakery specializes in sourdough breads made with as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. Bread (blue cornmeal and caramelized onion; olive and thyme; sunflower seed, and even baguettes) can be purchased for a picnic or patrons can dine on tomato soup and grilled cheese, avocado toast or a veggie bowl topped with marinated tempeh in the bakery dining room.
Jax Farmers Market
The Jacksonville Farmers Market has been selling produce to city-dwellers for more than 100 years, long before the outdoor market became trendy. Some 1 million people visit the market every year but it’s also a place where restaurants and other markets get their daily goods. Besides produce, you’ll find artisan cheeses, local honey, seafood and herbs. The indoor-outdoor market has recently undergone improvements to the walkways and awnings. This is a great place to stock up on local produce for the kitchen of a rented home-away-from-home condo or to while away a few hours, grab some fruit and get the flavor of Jax.
The St. Johns River Taxi serves a couple of purposes. One, of course, is transportation across the St. Johns River to various points downtown. This is a fun, low-impact way to get to Everbank Field, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars. There’s also a stop on Saturdays at the Jacksonville Zoo. With hotels on each side of the river, the water taxi is a convenient way to leave traffic and parking hassles behind. A detailed destination map helps visitors plan their trips. The second bonus is pure sightseeing. The water taxi is a great way to see the city skyline.
Two-wheeled, people-powered transportation is another way to see Jacksonville. Possibly most memorable for many visitors is a bicycle tour on the beach. The hard-packed sand is perfect for bikers. If you’ve arrived at the beach without your own two wheels, there are places that rent them including East Coast Sports Rentals or Open Road Bicycles. Some hotels and B&Bs have bikes to lend and you should inquire about that when you book.
If you’re driving an electric or hybrid vehicle, you can plot your course for charging stations on Plugshare.
Besides the bike trails, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park has 300 camping sites for RVs and tents and also six small log cabins. The park fronts about 1.5 miles of the Atlantic and is a popular spot year round because of its proximity to downtown. There is a boardwalk over the coastal dunes for easy access to the beach. The beach there is one of the hottest spots for surfing in the state so it’s a fine place to roll out of the sleeping bag and watch the surfers ride the waves.
Green Lodging Program
In Florida, the Certified Green Lodging program encourages hotels, motels, resorts and B&Bs to be sustainable and environmentally aware. You can peruse their list to find accommodations that do this.
Doing good work while on vacation is on the mind of many eco-travelers. This is a special category of volunteering and there are places that welcome help for a limited amount of time. It’s a good idea to call ahead if you have a place in mind and find out how best to contribute.
Habitat for Humanity
Habitat for Humanity is widely known for its efforts to build affordable homes to provide shelter for people who need a hand. The non-project organization relies on volunteers for all its construction projects. The Jacksonville chapter is no different. Contact them to find out if they need help on projects while you are visiting or maybe you’ll want to make a special trip to Jacksonville to work on a house. This could be a good voluntourism option if you have worked with Habitat in another location or have special skills in construction.
Dog Day Out
The Dog Day Out program of the Jacksonville Humane Society seeks people to take pups out for the day. The Humane Society provides leashes and a list of dog-friendly places to visit. This program allows the dogs to interact outside of the shelter. There’s a $20 suggested donation for taking one of the dogs on a mini-vacation. Of course, all the dogs are available for adoption. Maybe you’ll fall in love with Jacksonville and a furry friend.
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