Atlantic Beach is one of those rare geographical locations that only occupies a single side of a major roadway. If you straddle the middle yellow line at the foot of Atlantic Boulevard, you can put one foot in Neptune Beach and the other in Atlantic Beach. For me, the last 20 years of my life existed south of the yellow line. It wasn’t until last spring that I officially stepped beyond the divide and into life in Atlantic Beach.
I’ve lived in a dozen tiny beach apartments since migrating across the Intracoastal Waterway in the early 90’s. Each had its own peculiar blend of salty charm. I learned the grid of Jacksonville Beach streets like the back of my hand. I briefly drifted through Neptune Beach, but always returned to the center of the Beaches where I always thought I wanted to be.
When we migrated north, I realized I knew very little about this quaint postage stamp of a coastal community besides its shared physical anomaly with Neptune Beach. I was aware of the affluent pockets of residential McMansions—gargantuan, multi-story structures that dwarf their more modest, cottage-style neighbors.
I relied on a handful of landmarks for direction like the impossible-to-navigate five-way intersection at Seminole Road, the restaurants that help make up “The Corner” like Ocean 60 and Ragtime, the Fly’s Tie/Tax Collector on Sailfish (the tax collector’s office later defected to Neptune Beach), and the Elvis McDonald’s (sadly, Elvis has also left the newly renovated building). It was also understood that like Atlantic Boulevard, the eastern lanes of Mayport Road are considered Atlantic Beach while the western portion is part of Jacksonville, though those boundaries tend to blur a bit.
As soon as we got settled, our car broke down, which made it difficult for us to get our bearings. But everything happens for a reason, and we were forced to explore Atlantic Beach on two wheels instead of four. Bikes are an important mode of transportation at the beaches, and my son and I soon discovered many hidden treasures off the beaten path. There is so much more to Atlantic Beach than meets the eye. Yeah, there is a golf course, country club, five-star oceanfront resort and multi-million dollar real estate. But within walking distance from our cute little two-bedroom home, there are numerous locally-owned restaurants and shops, a cozy little Irish Pub, a Buddhist meditation center, a combination record store/skate shop/vintage video game arcade, freshly churned ice cream, and an Asian grocer offering handmade lumpia. We even live on the JTA Trolley line, which is always a treat when it dings by our house.
A mid-week farmer’s market is held from 3-6 pm every Wednesday with fresh fruits and veggies, sweets, and more. Acoustic Night is staged once a month at Bull Park. Local solo musicians and small groups perform on the park’s lawn in a picturesque setting. It’s the perfect spot for an early evening picnic and live music. The North Beach Art Walk at Town Center straddles the line of demarcation from Atlantic to Neptune Beach and extends to the Adele Grage Cultural Center on the third Thursday of every month. The sidewalks are bustling with activity with vendors displaying their wares. Featured artists will be on hand at a free reception at the Adele Grage Cultural Center located at Ocean and First streets.
And then there are those little gems that exist without the benefit of city sponsorship or storefront signage. While Howell Park is a city-sanctioned park, River and I stumbled upon it by chance during an afternoon bike ride. Upon first glance, it was hard to tell whether we were trespassing in someone’s yard or if the lush canopy of trees, coquina paths, and wooden foot bridge was actually public property. As it turns out, Howell Park is also a dedicated turtle sanctuary.
With 2,500-square-feet of nature trails, freshwater streams and picnic areas, Howell Park is located between Seminole Road and East Coast Drive, across from the 12-acre Jack Russell Park containing a large picnic pavilion, six tennis courts, two racquetball courts, two playground areas, two baseball diamonds, a full basketball court, a soccer field, and the Oceanside Rotary Skate Park. There are actually two entrances to Howell Park. We entered from the residential side at the end of Pine Street and Seaspray Avenue, where we encountered another delightful curiosity that endeared us to our new neighborhood even more. While a common sight in places like Seattle and Oregon, some wonderful soul in our neighborhood actually built their own Little Free Library, a leave-one-take-one collection of books housed in a painted wooden cabinet with a glass door and a tiny tin roof.
Not every neighborhood can claim to have an underground house. Designed by architect William Morgan, the “Dune House” is a small earth-sheltered house in Atlantic Beach. The duplex is comprised of two 750 sq. ft. Homes built in 1975 by Morgan to use as vacation rentals. He lived next door and didn’t t want the new house to block his ocean views. Morgan preferred to keep the landscape natural so he constructed the house in an existing sand dune. The building was constructed using swimming pool technology, a gunite-concrete shell anchored to a cast concrete floor. It’s also one of the original green roofs, topped by a mantle of earth stabilized by native landscaping which helps to maintain a 70-degree temperature inside. The mass of sand over and around the homes eliminates the need for much heating or cooling—but regular mowing is required.
The City of Atlantic Beach has two miles of white sandy beach with 14 ocean accesses. In addition to the beach, the City has 65 acres dedicated to parks, including the Dutton Island Preserves on the intracoastal waterway. Dutton Island Preserves are really two Timucuan Trail parks. The preserves are located in a pristine salt marsh ecosystem that offers visitors exceptional wildlife viewing, three miles of hiking trails through pine flatwoods and live oak hammocks. Dutton Island includes a marsh observation viewing deck and fishing pier on the north end and a kayak and canoe launch site on the south end. There is a marked kayak trail among the salt marsh to guide you. There are also hiking trails and boardwalks, a covered picnic area, restrooms and primitive camping.
We love to take new paths, go the wrong way and get lost on purpose. Something new always reveals itself in the nooks and alcoves nestled among the tree-lined streets. There is a gentle easiness in Atlantic Beach that I find comforting in such a hectic world. I love living within walking distance of the beach but more than that, I love watching people walk, bike, and skate by every day while I am seated at my desk just below my front window. I hear the laughter and joy echo from wagons full of sandy kids. I see couples holding hands, maybe on a first date, or walking their first dog to their first apartment, or pushing their first baby and maybe thinking to themselves how lucky it is for that kid to grow up in such an amazing place. I see myself 20 years ago when I was still confident enough to ride a bike in a bikini. I see parents running lopsided after wobbly two-wheelers and cheering in the streets when their little ones finally fly on their own.
I recognize myself in all of these people and wonder if they enjoy their experience in this little city as much as I do. I feel so grateful for the opportunity to live here and wonder if I could have appreciated this life when I first landed on this island. I am a different person now with a different window to the world. Today, I love sitting at my desk with the blinds pulled high and the curtains open to the life outside my window. Jacksonville Beach may be the physical center of the island, but for me, Atlantic Beach has my heart.