I’m busy, you’re busy, we’re all busy. So when I decided to take a “chill weekend” to recharge, I decided to try someplace new: Jacksonville Beach – a relatively small beach community on Florida’s northeast coast. And we were not disappointed.
Hands down, the best place to stay is at the utterly charming Casa Marina Hotel. Opened during the 1920’s and celebrating nearly a century of romance, the boutique hotel is Jacksonville’s only historic hotel with a designation from the Historic Hotels of America. The hotel has hosted a multitude of famous – and infamous – celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Al Capone, Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and Jerry Lewis.
The hotel seamlessly combines its Spanish/Mediterranean exterior with 23 spacious ocean-view bedrooms and parlor suites that have been renovated and decorated in keeping with its glamorous history. The hotel also hosted an assortment of businesses…a tearoom, clothing store, an apartment building, and restaurant.
Mark Vandeloo, the hotel’s friendly General Manager, was frequently seen around the premises, insuring that guests were well taken care of. Vandaloo, one of the youngest in the U.S. to run a historic property, first came to the Casa Marina as young bartender and worked his way up.
“I took a huge interest in the Hotel as I met people who walked in the door,” said Vandaloo. “They had fond memories or a story of its history and what it meant to them.”
Under Vandaloo’s supervision, the penthouse bar and restaurant were created. My favorite spot at the Casa Marina was the rooftop which provides the best panoramic view of this stretch of Florida coastline.
One favorite spot was in the crashing waves… Our second day began cloudy, but with the weather still mild in autumn, a swim was still an option. A friend and I walked the few steps down to the beach in mist, but when the dewy precipitation formed into drops, I changed my mind and returned to the cozy room. More than an hour later, my friend returned, grinning like a schoolboy.
“That was the most fun I’ve had in a long time,” he beamed. “It was like I was in a washing machine!” Visions of this fun-loving, larger-than-average man frolicking thrashing about in the waves flashed before my eyes, and at-once I understood why Jacksonville Beach is a favorite with surfers.
In addition to great surfing conditions, the beach is gorgeous, and was proclaimed in every 1920’s postcard to be “the world’s finest beach.” A short walk from the hotel is a fairly long pier for fishing or just a stroll to try and catch a glimpse of playful dolphins on the horizon. The boardwalk is lined with small, one-of-a-kind bistro-type restaurants where you can grab a bit to eat while looking out at the ocean.
Founded in 1978 by local residents, the Beaches Museum and History Park is dedicated to preserving the history and heritage of Jacksonville Beach along with Mayport, Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach, Ponte Vedra Beach, and historic Palm Valley. The museum features exhibits of early river pilots, fishermen, and pioneers, and glamorous gilded-age photos of the seaside boardwalk.
The History Park
Even if you are not a history buff, I’d recommend taking the guided “history walk” tour. The history park reminded me of a diminutive version of Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, featuring a restored 19th century house used by the Florida East Coast Railroad Section Foreman, a railroad depot which was moved from Mayport, a 28-ton steam locomotive built in 1887, and the Beaches Chapel – one of the oldest historical structures in Jacksonville Beach.
I saved the best for last. There are a number of restaurants, cafes and pubs along the coast and walking distance from the Casa Marina. Our favorite was Zeta, a locally owned and operated brewery, pub and restaurant. Their mottos “Life is too short to drink crap beer” and “Good craft beer without the ‘stache and skinny jeans” really says a lot about the laid-back atmosphere.
I have to confess that I’m not a beer drinker, but when I read the descriptions of the IPA’s (sounds like I know what I’m talking about, right?), some of which were produced in the oak and steel vats right in back of us, sampling them was intriguing. With names like “Blueberry Lager” and “Hoppy Bunny,” what harm could it do, right? Of course, the “Habanero Sculpin” and “Head Hunter” sounded a bit more ominous.
The service was first-class, and the casual food exactly what we were craving. My flatbread pizza with custom toppings was cooked exactly to my very particular “crispy” instructions, and the monkey bread dessert – hot, sticky sweet bread with caramel, cinnamon, pecans and sugar – was finger-licking heavenly. I should know. I ate 50%, 75% most of it.
Despite the fact that we were the only two Baby Boomers in a room flooded with Millennials, we had a blast. Our young waiter and the bar manager, John and John, supplied us with service among the best I’ve ever experienced. Seriously. The other patrons were very friendly and stopped over to our table to offer photography suggestions, when they saw how we were hamming it up…. Mart as the cameraman, and me as the… ham.
Jacksonville Beach is a study in contrasts – a great place for a chill weekend, but with all the warmth and reception you’d ever want.
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Casa Marina Hotel during her stay in Jacksonville Beach, but as always, the opinions, reviews and experiences are her own.
Photos by Mart Harrod