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Destination Guide

Jacksonvilles as contemporary as its glittering skyscrapers, but the city defines itself by its historic past and its propitious location at the confluence of the St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean.

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

Jacksonvilles bridges, five of them, streak across the St. Johns river, connecting the city to its beaches.

The Acosta Bridge, built in 1921, was the catalyst for development of the rivers 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 areas 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.

Historic outskirts

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 Toms 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, its 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 Jacksonvilles 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 states 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. Todays Arlington offers an array of dining and entertainment spots, waterfront homes, lots of boating access, and public and private golf courses.

All thats 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 Jacksonvilles 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 Stricklands, an epitome-of- casual waterside spot thats been purveying simply prepared, fresh-from-the-sea fish and shellfish for decades. Mayport is also home to the states 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 regions many top golf courses.

Finally, a half-hours 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.

Thats 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.

Marylyn Springer