A key crossroads for more than 200 years, Jacksonville was once known as Cowford in salute to the place cows were ferried across the wide St. Johns. In its earliest tourism days, Jacksonville lured Northeasterns in search of winter sunshine. Many came; many never left.
History matters here and the city has gone to great lengths and matching expense to retain and restore its oldest homes and earliest settlements.
Tree-lined avenues, lawns that roll down to a rolling river, porch rockers where folks sit "of an evening" waving to passers-by...well, you get the picture, as out-of-Florida rural as it sounds. Such seductive settings are indeed tucked away in the midst of this city billed as the largest metropolitan area in the nation, covering more than 840 scenic square miles.
Living at Riverside
In the late 1800s, those who figured they'd found their place in the sun built homes in the Riverside suburb along the west bank of the wide St. Johns. Stately oaks that grew there then grow there still, shading serenely handsome homes.
As time passed, Riverside spread into a "new" development called Avondale, every bit as posh as Riverside. Now both are listed in the National Register of Historic Districts, not a designation that comes easily to a state that, by residential reckonings, is still quite young. The Riverside/Avondale Preservation Society offers a detailed walking tour brochure of important sites, and five tree-lined parks add to the glories. Shopping is a lure here, and several special annual events give you an excuse to snoop around, including a September Riverside Arts and Music Festival, a Christmas Luminaria celebration, and a Spring Home Tour.
Just south of Riverside, the community of Ortega, occupying a peninsula nestled between the Ortega and St. Johns Rivers, is lined with homes that have won it a ranking among the 50 wealthiest neighborhoods in the nation, and that enjoy spectacular views of water and skyline.
Bridging the gap
Jacksonville's bridges, five of them, streak across the St. John's river, connecting the city to its beaches.
The Acosta Bridge, built in 1921, was the catalyst for development of the river's south bank. Once called the Villa Alexandria estate, the land south of the St. Johns is today called San Marco in salute to its central San Marco Square, where Mediterranean architecture dominates but has been joined by an artsy-eclectic array of shops and restaurants and residential streets. Here, too, an active group, the San Marco Preservation Society, is devoted to conservation of the area's historic architecture. A map available from the organization leads you to primary points of interest, which include River Road Thrill Bridge, Colonial Manor Duck Pond and a variety of pretty parks. Along San Jose Boulevard, south of San Marco Square, is a bevy of showy waterside estates, with a smattering of golf and yacht clubs.
On the first Friday in December, you can explore San Marco while attending the annual Holiday Magic in the Square celebration. In the spring, a garden tour lets you sneak a peek into private gardens and, in the fall, a tour of historic homes offers the same opportunity.
On the east side of the river, south of the downtown area, a little rural community called Mandarin once lured author Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the famed Southern novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, who settled here to raise a son. It also appealed to wildlife artist Lee Adams, who created his paintings here. While Mandarin is no longer strictly rural, it's still a serene small town shaded by massive live oak trees draped in spooky Spanish moss, a gray vine-like air plant that in the dark of night adds a decidedly eerie look to historic trees.
History lives on here in the antique Mandarin Post Office and General Store, built in 1911. A public pier gets you a close-up view of the river, and the community sponsors an annual Mandarin Arts Festival.
Meanwhile, on the west side of the river, Orange Park unites rural settings with subdivisions, shopping malls and a naval air base, while, on the east side of the river, Baymeadows and environs is a complex of office parks inhabited by an impressive array of corporations, many in the banking and insurance industry, but other industries are equally well represented.
Water, water everywhere is Jacksonville's lure and love. Coursing through the center of the city in sparkling style is the wide St. Johns River, while, along the eastern edge of the city, the Intracoastal Waterway stretches from South Florida and continues far north of the state's northern borders.
Water being as vital as it is to life was certainly a deciding factor to the small colonies that formed here. Among the most important settlers were the French Huguenots, who sailed away from religious persecution to establish a tiny Fort Caroline on the banks of the St. Johns River in 1564. Today, that site and its reconstructed fort are part of a community known as Arlington, where you will also find the intriguing 46,000-acre Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, honoring the Timucuan Indians, believed to be the first dwellers along these shores. Today's Arlington offers an array of dining and entertainment spots, waterfront homes, lots of boating access, and public and private golf courses.
All that's not even to mention the Atlantic Ocean, its waves crashing over the hard-packed sands that characterize this part of the state. Add to that lakes and other rivers that glitter through the area.
Across the Intracoastal Waterway and along miles of sand are Jacksonville's beaches. Trimming a barrier island, the sands roll past four communities topped on the northern end by Mayport, which occupies an enviable spot on the sea at the mouth of the St. Johns River. Rustic Mayport is the place to go to chow down on seafood that might well have been harvested by the shrimp boats you'll see bobbing at anchor just feet from the door of the dining spot you've chosen. Among the most popular of these is Strickland's, an epitome-of- casual waterside spot that's been purveying simply prepared, fresh-from-the-sea fish and shellfish for decades. Mayport is also home to the state's last remaining full-time ferry, which boards cars and passengers for the short trip across the water to Jacksonville.
South of Mayport, the sandy villages of Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach are lined with simple seaside homes that sealovers will covet. Atlantic Boulevard and First Street are the epicenters of activity here, with shopping, dining and entertainment rippling from the core. An annual Dancing in the Street Festival is a high spot of summer calendars.
Up here in Jacksonville, summer is the central season, quite the opposite of southern Florida cities where winter sunshine is the allure. From May to early September, you'll find Jacksonville Beach packed with sunseekers, many of them motoring in from nearby Southern states to romp on the beaches, play at festivals and fairs, go surfing, parasailing, swimming, fishing and boating.
More of the same occurs just south of Jacksonville at Ponte Vedra Beach, where many settle in to take advantage of the region's many top golf courses.
Finally, a half-hour's drive south brings you to historic St. Augustine, which is renowned for its historic sites but is equally loved as a beach destination lined with hotels, restaurants and entertainment facilities.
That's Jacksonville and its beaches which, allied with St. Augustine, remain, as they have been since Christopher Columbus and Juan Ponce de Leon dropped in...a destination for explorers.
History of JacksonvilleNowhere else in Florida or in the nation will you be closer to the nation's roots than in this region of Florida which likes to call itself Florida First Coast.
That "First" is a reference to the region's undisputed antiquity, not to mention its spot in history as the first place in the nation to welcome European explorers and the first foreign settlement in the nation.
Historically, Florida was born here, and it was here that the first tiny trickle of tourism flowed into what was to become a flood of visitors to the nation's number one vacation destination. When Jacksonville welcomed its first tourist, Miami was still a swamp. And long before that, when Jacksonville was just a forest of scrub pine and some lonely sand, neighboring St. Augustine was already a thriving colony.
Here on Florida's First Coast, you meet a part of the state that is like no other sector of this sunny peninsula. Its sand is packed hard enough to drive on; its lifestyle is as gentle as its Southern drawls.
Here mists drift over wide rivers, and "piney woods" and giant live oaks drip an odd, epiphytic plant called Spanish moss, that makes an eerie sight on a foggy morn.
This land was in the middle of a battle long before the Pilgrims ever dreamed of sailing off into the sunset. In those early days, the religiously persecuted were the French Huguenots, whose Protestant religion was frowned upon by Catholic Europe. In 1562, they set sail from France, arriving here months later and settling in a tiny colony that was to meet a violent end.
Long before that, in 1493, the region's favorite son, Juan Ponce de Leon, landed here as part of an explorative group led by another intrepid explorer of some renown, none other than Christopher Columbus, the man generally credited with discovering America.
Ponce de Leon, who went on the become the governor of Puerto Rico, must have liked what he saw on the First Coast: he returned here in 1513 on an expedition of his own, landing in nearby St. Augustine. Legend has it that Ponce de Leon was seeking the famed fountain of youth - you can still visit the reputed site of his Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine and see if it works!
Pragmatists, however, claim Ponce de Leon had something much more prosaic in mind: gold. Whatever the truth of it all, the explorer certainly made a most lasting impact on the state: he landed on Easter Day, called Pascua Florida, or Feast of Flowers, in Spanish. He promptly dubbed this new land Florida, a name that, clearly, has stuck.
Ponce de Leon and his Spanish crew were followed by the French, the English and a crowd of rowdy Revolutionaries who called themselves "Americans." This part of the state and quite a lot of territory beyond was horsetraded among those nationalities for 300 years.
Cannons boomed. Men in armor clanked through the streets of St. Augustine. Seminole Indians died in grim battles and those pesky "Americans" kept things in an uproar about as loud as the cannon fire.
Those who sought their fortune here, whether it be gold or a fabulous fountain, have included both those benignly famed and the decidedly infamous. Pirates Jean Lafitte, Blackbeard and Sir Francis Drake pillaged and pirated their way along the coastline, sacking cities that now perversely honor those rogues with an oceanside road called the Buccaneer Trail.
Jacksonville's African-American heritage has long and strong roots here, too, most of them grimly tied to slave traders. Chief among those was Zephaniah Kingsley, a slave trader who built an enormous plantation here from profits in notorious "black gold," then married an elegant African princess and made her a free woman, an exceptionally rare creature in those dark days.
It went on like that, the famous and the infamous making their mark on the region. With them came glorious days when silk gowns rustled across the shining wood floors of great plantation houses, when champagne frothed and money flowed. With them came grim days when cannons thundered, guns roared, fires burned and men died to claim this land.
Great galleons filled with gold have sailed past this coastline, and some of them remain here still, buried forever beneath seas that betrayed them. Massive ships filled with the betrayed also slithered in here, unshackling cargoes of the black gold of slavery that was to leave its own infamous mark here and everywhere in the nation.
Waves of joy and jinx, victors and vanquished have rippled over this land, leaving behind towering fortresses and tiny houses, lacy gowns and gold doubloons, fragments and figments of a past that lives on proudly here in a multi-cultural heritage encompassing French, Spanish, English and African settlers.
Today, Jacksonville, whose urban sprawl has made it geographically the largest city in the nation, covering more than 800 square miles, is a bustling, booming banking and insurance capital where only two French words are now common: mortgage and champagne.
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