Jacksonville takes the world spotlight this month because of the Super Bowl, but it offers many year-round reasons to visit as well.
By Kimberly Button
Ask most Americans if they have ever been to Jacksonville, Florida, and they are likely to respond, “Well, I’ve driven through it.” Perhaps that perception will change as the city hosts the National Football League’s Super Bowl XXXIX on February 6. More people will undoubtedly discover that Jacksonville deserves to be recognized as a destination in its own right.
Jacksonville covers 759 square miles in northeast Florida. Its status as the largest city in the lower 48 United States (land-wise) came about in 1968, when the city joined with area county governments to form one large metropolis. The town was named after President Andrew Jackson, who figured prominently in Florida’s past.
Jacksonville is truly a city of contrasts, where stately moss-cloaked oaks coexist with sprawling palm trees “” a combination of country charm and coastal oasis. Unspoiled marshlands teeming with wildlife are just miles from the modern skyscrapers of downtown. The north-flowing St. Johns River cuts through the city, and the Atlantic Ocean is just a few miles away. Nature lovers and adventure seekers will be thrilled with the opportunities that await them in Jacksonville’s great outdoors. Along with the array of sporting activities, though, are a variety of cultural and historical attractions that combine to create a vacation getaway.
A visit to the Jacksonville area also gives visitors a glimpse of the beginnings of American history. In 1513 Ponce de Leon discovered Florida and claimed it for Spain. The area where he landed would later be called St. Augustine, a city just 40 miles south of Jacksonville.
France made a land claim in Florida, too. In 1562 French Huguenots (members of a persecuted Protestant group) began a settlement near the mouth of the St. Johns River in the area now known as Jacksonville. Though the French were aided by the Timucuan Indians, the colony was plagued by troubles. In 1564, relief finally came from France and Fort Caroline was built. In 1565 Spain finally established its own settlement, St. Augustine, and attacked and destroyed Fort Caroline. St. Augustine would go on to become the first permanent European colony in North America.
The saga of the early colonization of Florida can be further explored at the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. The National Park Service, in conjunction with state and city governments and 300 private landowners, maintains 46,000 acres of unspoiled coastal wetlands that have been home to humans for the past 6,000 years.
The Fort Caroline National Memorial unit of the preserve is 14 miles east of downtown Jacksonville. Be sure to stop by the visitors center there to see its displays about the French colony and residents’ struggle for survival; the Timucuan Indians; and the ecology of the area.
Outside the visitors center you’ll find a smaller-scale re-creation of the original Fort de la Caroline. The simple fort on the St. Johns River stands in stark contrast to the city that can be seen across the water.
Another unit of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve is the Kingsley Plantation, the oldest plantation house remaining in Florida. Built in 1798, the plantation is located on Fort George Island at the mouth of the St. Johns River. It consists of a plantation home, a kitchen house, slave quarters, and a barn. Exhibits explain the lives of the people who worked on plantations in the South. An interpretive garden is home to Sea Island cotton, which was the major cash crop of the plantation.
The visitors centers and grounds at Fort Caroline and Kingsley Plantation both are open daily year-round from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day), and admission is free. The use of insect repellent while visiting the Fort Caroline preserve is highly recommended. Visit www.nps.gov/timu or phone (904) 641-7155 for more information.
The Timucuan Preserve is just one part of the 73,000 acres of park lands in Jacksonville that form the largest urban park system in the United States. Nearly 350 recreation sites offer a variety of ways to enjoy the area’s natural beauty. Among Jacksonville’s many parks are the Kathryn Abbey Hanna and Huguenot Memorial parks. Both oceanfront parks have been designated Great Florida Birding Trail sites and harbor an abundance of egrets, loons, and songbirds. The Hanna park is renowned for its great number of seashells and has wooded campsites. Huguenot contains beachfront campsites and permits beach access by vehicle. Both parks offer fishing, hiking, kayaking, and canoeing. The parks are open daily; admission into Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park is $1 per person over the age of 6. Phone (904) 249-4700 for more information. Admission into Huguenot Memorial Park is 50 cents per person over the age of 6. Phone (904) 251-3335 for more information.
For most people, a trip to Florida would not be complete without a visit to the beach or a theme park, and you can experience both in Jacksonville. A full 21 miles of beaches are just minutes away from the heart of the city. While you are heading out to the sand and surf, be sure to stop at Adventure Landing, a regional theme park that allows the younger members of your party, as well as the young at heart, a chance to go wild and have fun.
Adventure Landing has something for everyone, with go-carting, miniature golf, laser tag, batting cages, and a variety of arcade games. Shipwreck Island Water Park at Adventure Landing operates in warmer months (it opens in March for the season) and offers a respite from the Florida heat. A 500,000-gallon wave pool, water slides, a meandering river ride, water cannons, slides, and play areas are part of the water park.
Adventure Landing has two locations in the Jacksonville area, but only the Jacksonville Beach location has the water park. Admission to the water park is $21.99 for adults and $18.99 for children under 42 inches tall. Admission to Adventure Landing is free; activities are paid for separately. Visit www.adventurelanding.com or phone (904) 246-4386 (Jacksonville Beach location) or (904) 771-2803 (Jacksonville location) for more information.
If you have ever watched the 1970s TV show “Laverne and Shirley” and wondered what shenanigans really happen in a beer-bottling plant, you will want to take an Anheuser-Busch brewery tour. This free, self-guided excursion through one of the company’s bottling plants explains all aspects of its beverage production and provides bird’s-eye views of the proceedings. Free samples of beer and soft drinks produced by Anheuser-Busch are offered, and a gift shop has company logo items for sale. Brewery tours are available Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Visit www.budweisertours.com or phone (904) 696-8373 for more information.
For those searching for more cultural excursions, Jacksonville has two art museums, each containing a children’s area. Though smaller in scale than many art museums, these facilities present the basics of art appreciation in an unintimidating manner.
The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens has more than 5,000 fine arts objects in its permanent collection, including Egyptian hieroglyphics, Baroque and Renaissance art, and a gallery full of images of the Virgin Mary. Beyond the art galleries are 2.5 acres of formal English and Italian gardens, set along the banks of the St. Johns River. The garden setting, with its tinkling fountains and vine-covered walkways, is a beautiful retreat made even more intriguing by the massive Cummer Oak, more than a century old, whose enormous branches twist and turn throughout the gardens.
Back inside, you will find a delightful art area geared toward kids, but ideal for anyone who wants a basic introduction. Ancient art goes high-tech with computerized interactive displays; videos about artists; a walking artistic timeline; and a mini gallery that allows youngsters and others to touch re-creations of works found in the formal galleries.
The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is open Tuesday through Sunday; hours vary, and admission is free after 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for students, and $1 for children 5 and under. Visit www.cummer.org or phone (904) 356-6857 for more information.
The Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art (JMOMA), the city’s second gallery, has five galleries full of art that invite contemplation. Upstairs, the ArtExplorium Loft is an entire floor dedicated as a family learning center, with hands-on activities that will have kids learning about modern art in unusual ways. JMOMA is open Tuesday through Sunday. Hours vary; admission is free to all on Wednesdays after 5:00 p.m. and all day Sunday to children and the adults accompanying them. At other times admission is $6 for adults; $4 for seniors, students, and children; and free for children under age 2. Visit www.jmoma.org or phone (904) 366-6911 for more information.
A museum of another sort, the Museum of Science & History (MOSH), offers fun-filled adventure for the whole family. This hands-on interactive museum boasts an eclectic arrangement of exhibits featuring science, nature, history, and even the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars football team. An extensive display of northeast Florida’s history from prehistoric times to the present is especially educational and entertaining, as visitors stroll through a maze of simulated buildings and walkways that re-create Florida’s varied time periods.
MOSH’s newest exhibit, the Universe of Science, is literally a child’s learning playground, with gigantic pinball machines, an enormous bubble maker, rocket launchers, and a hot-air balloon that rises to the ceiling. Among the cacophony of musical experiments, metal disks being catapulted to the rooftop, and shrieks of delight, children and adults learn about electricity, gravity, and mechanics.
MOSH also features a planetarium and a science theater that regularly present intriguing shows, which are included in the cost of admission. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and Sunday from 1:00 to 6:00 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults, $5.50 for seniors, and $5 for children. Visit www.themosh.org or phone (904) 396-6674 for more information.
You can experience the city’s wild side at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. The zoo, which opened in 1914 with one deer fawn, is now home to more than 2,000 animals in a variety of habitats, such as the Australian outback and the plains of Africa. It also includes an aviary where visitors can walk freely among the birds.
One of the most popular exhibits, though, is the natural wetlands with animals that are indigenous to Florida. Several programs presented throughout the day, such as the alligator feeding program, let visitors get up close with the animals and ask the staff questions. The zoo is open year-round (except for Thanksgiving and Christmas) from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. From March 6 to September 6 the zoo is open until 6:00 p.m. on weekends and holidays. Admission is $9.50 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $6.50 for children 3 to 12. An extra fee is charged for the zoo train ride. Visit www.jaxzoo.org or phone (904) 757-4463 for more information.
The next time you are dreaming of a spot in Florida with warm beaches and fun attractions, why not visit Jacksonville? This intriguing city has it all.
Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau
550 Water St.
Jacksonville, FL 32202
(800) 733-2668, extension 10
(904) 798-9111, extension 10
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or the Business Directory, printed in the January and June issues of Family Motor Coaching and online at www.fmca.com, for additional listings.
Huguenot Memorial Park
10980 Heckscher Drive
Jacksonville, FL 32226
This campground has 63 no-hookup sites; some are on the oceanfront.
Kathyrn Abbey Hanna Park
500 Wonderwood Drive
Jacksonville, FL 32233
This park has 293 sites with full hookups.
Little Talbot Island State Park
12157 Heckscher Drive
Jacksonville, FL 32226
This park offers 40 sites with water and electrical hookups. Maximum RV length is 30 feet.