Northeast Florida, known as the First Coast for its historical significance, may be the state’s best-kept secret. But you won't want to miss it: from the urban charm of Jacksonville to St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest city, this region boasts a fascinating blend of natural wonders, pristine beaches and laid-back lifestyles.
Follow Heckscher Drive (A1A) toward Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach, which predates all but a handful of Florida towns and cities. The drive takes you past a diverse mix of fish camps, exclusive homes and natural settings for bird watching or other peaceful pursuits. As you make your way to Fernandina Beach, stop by Little Talbot Island State Park or Big Talbot Island State Park for more oceanfront vistas, or take a kayak tour of the myriad waterways connecting the tidal marshes with the Atlantic.
Past Amelia Island, one of the state’s most exclusive resort destinations, lies the town of Fernandina Beach, with Victorian homes festooned in gingerbread trim. The Palace Saloon is one of the state’s oldest extant bars, and still serves food and drink. The Annual Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival in early May jams the streets with artists, craftsmen and celebrants. The visitor’s center is housed in an old railroad depot that marked the northern terminus of Florida’s first cross-state railway to Cedar Key. Just a mile or so from downtown is Fort Clinch, built in 1847 and perched at the mouth of the St. Mary’s River. From here, you’ll sometimes see the massive black Trident nuclear submarines silently gliding in the St. Mary’s to and from their base at Kings Bay Naval Station. The annual Amelia Island Concours d’ Elegance in March is one of only a handful of gatherings of some of North America’s most historically significant automobiles.
Green Cove Springs
Just south of Jacksonville on U.S. 17 is Green Cove Springs, first settled in the mid 1800s and whose sulfur springs, or “boils,” drew throngs via steamboats and trains for their legendary therapeutic value. While the steamboats are no more, and the huff-puff of the steam trains has given way to modern diesel-electric locomotives, the springs are still celebrated today. The 78-degree water flows at a rate of 3,000 gallons per minute and feeds the nearby municipal pool for a relaxing natural bath.
Jacksonville’s earliest civilized history dates to the 1562 landing of French explorer Jean Ribault on a point high on a bluff above the St. Johns River. Ribault was greeted by Timucuan Indians, who thrived on the area’s plentiful game and fish and shared their stores and knowledge with these visitors. Jacksonville was named in 1822 for Andrew Jackson, Florida’s first territorial governor and later U.S. President.
Today’s Jacksonville boasts a modern skyline of downtown condominiums and corporate towers. The urban core is bounded by eclectic villages and stately neighborhoods shaded by oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. One of the oldest such trees, the enormous Charter Oak, is on the city’s south bank. Here, legend has it, Indians and white settlers signed a charter outlining terms of peaceful co-existence. Not far from Charter Oak is San Marco, guarded by fierce, sculpted lions.
Restaurants abound, as do shops selling everything from used and antique books and housewares to upscale clothing. Make time for a visit to the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens.
The Jacksonville beaches are comprised of three towns, each with a distinctive feel, while the entire stretch provides plenty of space to spread out a beach towel. Atlantic Beach includes Town Center, a quaint shopping and dining district. Rent a bike in Neptune Beach to cycle the hard-packed sand at low tide. Jacksonville Beach has been undergoing an aggressive restoration, and though the boardwalk and Crazy Mouse ride are no longer there, they have been more than adequately replaced by a fishing pier and plenty of eateries. Visit the pier to see what the anglers are pulling up or to spot a right whale migrating north in early spring. Visitors and natives alike are delighted by dolphins rolling just outside the surf line. Surfers are drawn to the area by some of the best waves in the region.
Mayport and Fort George Island
Mayport has a certain nautical charm backed by the nearby Mayport Naval Station, South Atlantic home port to some of the Navy’s mightiest fighting vessels. The village’s dockside restaurants offer some of the region’s freshest seafood. After lunch, drive onto the St. Johns River ferry for the 10-minute crossing to Heckscher Drive, otherwise known as A1A, the coastal highway. Here, on Fort George Island directly across from Mayport, lies the Kingsley Plantation, the circa-1780 indigo- and sea island cotton-producing estate of Zephaniah Kingsley Jr. Kingsley took a teen-aged African princess as his wife, and Anna Kingsley, a courageous woman and mother of four, eventually became a central figure in a free black community. Huguenot Memorial Park at the mouth of the St. Johns River offers a commanding view of the naval station and lumbering container ships.
Nestled on the banks of the St. Johns River, Palatka was an early tourist destination as visitors sought its temperate climate and visitor amenities. Today, that relaxed pace is still evident with a variety of recreational activities, including bass fishing and boating among the most popular. Palatka’s marinas are a frequent stop for the rented houseboats plying south from Jacksonville, and if you’re tired of shipboard life, a comfortable riverfront motel beckons. One of the area’s highlights is Ravine Gardens State Park, offering picnicking, jogging and biking on 59 acres. The park is part of the setting for the annual Azalea Festival, held the first weekend in March, when nearly 100,000 plants cultivated by the Works Progress Administration flower in an array of colors.
Ponte Vedra Beach and St. Johns County are home to the PGA Tour Headquarters, THE PLAYERS Championship (the so-called fifth major and home of the acclaimed 17th island green), World Golf Village and World Golf Hall of Fame. St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest continuously settled city, was founded in 1565, 55 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and 52 years after Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon first laid sight on this shore.
The city boasts a plethora of historically significant structures, perhaps none as famous as Castillo de San Marcos, built between 1672 and 1695. The fort guards Matanzas Bay, and cannons often boom as guides in period costume describe the structure’s unique coquina walls. Seminole Indian Chief Osceola was among the prisoners of war held here, and it was later occupied by Union soldiers during the Civil War.
Today, St. Augustine celebrates its storied past amid contemporary restaurants and lodging. Railroad pioneer Henry Flagler, who built a line from Jacksonville to Key West and is credited with putting Florida squarely on the tourism map, originally envisioned the city as a winter resort. He established fine hotels and contributed to the building of several churches.
His magnificent hotels remain today in a square block area – one is the former Ponce de Leon Hotel, built in 1888 and now Flagler College, while another houses the Lightner Museum. Still another, the Casa Monica, has been restored as a luxury hotel. While Flagler eventually moved south to build other resorts, it is easy to imagine how he fell in love with St. Augustine. Here you can visit the city’s old gate, Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse in the U.S. and a rare albino alligator at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. The St. Augustine Lighthouse on Anastasia Island offers spectacular aerial views. Spanish- and French-influenced food abounds, with spicy Minorcan clam chowder and fresh seafood among the culinary delights.