Along the A1A Ocean Islands Trail
Jacksonville’s Beaches | Mayport | Broward House | Kingsley Plantation | Big Talbot | Downtown Fernandina
Marlin & Barrel Distillery in Fernandina | The Pétanque Courts of Fernandina | American Beach: Under the Blue Bottle Tree with Marsha Dean Phelts | Amelia Island Culinary Academy | Amelia Island Downtown Tasting Tour | The First Coast’s Only AAA Five Diamond Restaurant: Salt at Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island
Every place has a story, stitched together with humble beginnings and historic figures to create a living narrative. In very few places can you travel along a timeline of a region’s history as it unfolds before you. The A1A Ocean Islands Trail stretches across waterways, through maritime forests and along the historic streets of downtown Fernandina Beach. It’s just one of such highway designations called Florida’s Scenic Highways that has recently been created by the Florida Department of Transportation to promote resource preservation and enhancement, promote tourism and economic development and educate travelers.
Not only is the A1A Ocean Islands Trail an amazingly beautiful drive, the byway system connects us to sites determined to be historically, culturally, recreationally, naturally, or archaeologically relevant to our region. By curious accident of history and geography, many of these significant resources are found along this route.
The only way to tell a story is to start at the beginning, so that’s what I did.
Since the Florida Scenic Highway designation encapsulates the intersection of A1A at J. Turner Butler Blvd., I decide that’s a perfect place to start out my stay-cation tour of the coastal byway. Even as a local, this is the kind of day trip that makes you feel like you’ve actually been somewhere else, even though you might just be a quick ferry ride away.
Even though I live at the beach and have driven this route approximately 17,487 times, I try to imagine it’s my first time here. When that fails, I fall into de facto tour guide mode. What would visitors find interesting along this stretch of highway?
Catching the sunrise at any of the beach access points is always a stunning way to start a morning, but I am not one of those people who enjoy rising before the sun so I will just leave this here.
Traveling down A1A – which us locals know as Third Street – it’s a mix of the new and the old. New restaurants sprout up just as soon as one closes its doors. New residential developments take over where sandy old beach shacks once stood. While the more mature residents happily occupy the shiny new construction, there’s never any shortage of salty millennials willing to shack up three or four deep in a rickety rental as long as it’s close to the ocean. It’s a good mix.
The foot of Beach Boulevard and A1A is where lifeguards in Jacksonville Beach have stood watch over the Atlantic Ocean for decades. The station is owned and operated by the American Red Cross Lifesaving Corps and ushers in new recruits every year with a ritualistic initiation ceremony involving dead fish and Crisco. Without giving away too much, suffice it to say these guards have proven they have what it takes to man the beaches.
Heading three blocks north on A1A is the SeaWalk Pavilion where live music, festivals and community events converge along the oceanfront. The concrete amphitheatre was constructed with symphonic standards in mind to maximize the output of live music. Springing the Blues, Great Atlantic Country Festival, Deck the Chairs holiday event and the Moonlight Movies series are just a few of the awesome, family-friendly events offered by the city of Jacksonville Beach. The SeaWalk Pavilion and adjacent Latham Plaza also provide perfect green space to take a walk, enjoy a picnic or pose for a photo with the surfer statues by artist Jennifer Johnson. They are frighteningly realistic and have unnerved unsuspecting passersby since their installation.
Though inoperable at the moment, word on the street is that repairs are slated to begin on the damaged Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier this fall. It took a beating last October when Hurricane Matthew blew by. It was designed to break away during rough weather to make it easier to replace the numbered planks. However, Matthew’s bite took off a chunk of concrete at the end of the 1,300-foot pier frequented by deep water anglers. Once it reopens, it will no doubt be full of fishermen and those who just like to take in the sights. It’s literally one of the best views of the beach, the breakers and reminds me over and over again why I love where I live.
Ever wondered if the sand looks different from all of various beaches or the length of the biggest shark ever pulled up at the old Jax Beach pier? All of the best fish tales are archived among the annals of Beaches history at The Beaches Museum and History Park located at 381 Beach Blvd. The museum offers visual tours from the early days of Palm Valley to the former railroad town of Ruby Beach, now Jacksonville Beach. Visit the historic Beaches chapel or onsite railroad car or station master’s house in the adjacent history park. Take in a photo exhibit. Peruse an art show or if you’re Fletcher High School alumni, swing by one of the all-class reunions. Take a trip back in time without ever leaving the beach.
Speaking of going back in time, Pete’s Bar in Neptune Beach is a time capsule of quarter pool, stiff drinks and a caste system that requires prospective bartenders serve time on the door, checking IDs and breaking up fights, before they are allowed behind the bar. Just like every place has a story, each place has sights and smells that are unique to the area. While everyone will agree that the smell of the Intracoastal at low tide is an immediately recognizable aroma, Pete’s Bar has its own intoxicating fragrance – a pungent mix of cigarette smoke, stale beer and other unearthly elements. It clings to the dark, wood panelling, the thatched roof of Pete’s Hut, your clothes, your hair. It permeates everything just as Pete’s has permeated Beaches culture for decades. The bar still holds the first liquor license issued in Duval County after Prohibition was lifted. Ernest Hemingway was known to frequent Pete’s. John Grisham featured the bar in his 2000 novel, “The Brethren.” If you’ve lived at the beach for any length of time, chances are you’ve been to Pete’s, even if you don’t remember it.
Mayport Fishing Village
After winding down Mayport Road and through the Mayport Fishing Village, it’s time to relax with a ride on the Mayport Ferry. An integral part of the community culture, the Mayport Ferry serves as a gateway to such destinations as the Broward House, Kingsley Plantation, Little Talbot Island, American Beach, Amelia Island Plantation, and Boneyard Beach at Big Talbot Island.
Driving through the Mayport Fishing Village on the way to the ferry, it’s all about the journey, not the destinations ahead. Oyster beds burst through the silt at low tide. A bright blue sky is flecked with seagulls as a pair of dolphins pops up beside a shrimp boat as it cuts through the glasslike surface of the water. Waiting for the ferry to return, my son and I snack on hot, boiled peanuts and fresh-squeezed lemonade under the shade of a tree ripe with azalea blossoms. A sharp blast signals the ferry’s arrival, startling a group of pelicans engaged in a tug-of-war over some leftover bait. As we slice through the water, a gentle spring breeze shoos away the impending summer heat, at least for now.
Ferry service for the St. Johns River crossing at Mayport has been in operation since 1874, providing a vital transportation link connecting the north and south banks along SR A1A since 1948. Farmers, fishermen, merchants, and travelers once crossed the river on a private flat boat ferry but as the region grew, so did the need for a fixed service. The Jean Ribault, which operates today, was built in 1996 and carries approximately 40 vehicles with up to 206 passengers.
Despite being such a desirable asset, funding constraints nearly shut down ferry service more than once. As we sail across the St. Johns River toward Fort George Island, it’s difficult to believe how close we came to losing such a valuable asset.
Arriving at Heckscher Drive, we set out along the byway. Waterfront homes, casual watering holes, custom board shops, and boiled peanut stands peacefully coexist along the stretch of highway.
With its lacy architecture, widow’s walk, and wide porches fit for swinging with a tall glass of sweet tea, the historic Napoleon Bonaparte Broward House is a stunning vision of Victorian splendor. Located directly on A1A at 9953 Heckscher Drive, the residence was once the home of Florida governor Napoleon B. Broward who served from 1905 to 1909. On December 27, 1972, it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. In 2004, the Trust for Public Land conveyed the house to the National Park Service as an addition to the Timucuan Trail State and National parks.
Napoleon Bonaparte Broward was born on a farm in Duval County on April 19, 1857. After leaving the family farm following the death of his parents, Broward worked in a logging camp, as a farm hand, steamboat roustabout, steamboat pilot, and owner of a steam tug. He earned a statewide reputation using this tug, The Three Friends, to smuggle guns to Cuban revolutionaries prior to the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Broward was elected sheriff of Duval County, and served on the Jacksonville city council, in the 1901 House of Representatives, and on the state board of health from 1901 to 1904. As governor, Broward is best remembered for draining and developing portions of the Everglades for agricultural cultivation. He ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1908 while governor but Broward went on to win the office two years later. Unfortunately, he died from gallstones just before he was to enter surgery in Jacksonville on October 1, 1910 and never took office.
More than 30 roads in Florida are named after Broward. In Jacksonville, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (Dames Point) Bridge is also named for him. Broward County, Florida is named in his honor.
A rustic, unpaved driveway enveloped by a wispy hug of Spanish moss marks the entrance to the historic Kingsley Plantation. After turning off A1A, bumping along the dusty dirt road cut through the dense forest for what seems like miles, elements of the Kingsley Plantation slowly reveal themselves. A single, shelled frame of an old slave shanty sits alongside the unpaved roadway. Its appearance is jarring in its simplicity because of the magnitude of the atrocity of what it represents. The car is quiet with reflection.
The site is named for owner Zephaniah Kingsley. The Kingsleys lived on the property from 1814 to 1837. The grounds include the slave quarters, barn, main plantation house, kitchen house, and garden that produced Sea Island cotton, citrus, sugarcane and corn.
Upon entering the plantation property, we see a neat cluster of the former slave quarters on either side of the road. The shells of 25 cabins arranged in a semicircle are the remains of the slave community of the men, women and children who lived and worked on Kingsley Plantation more than 150 years ago.
The simple cabins were constructed from a material called tabby, a cement-like mixture of cooked oyster shells and sand poured into forms layer by layer to make the walls. Each home had a fireplace for a kitchen and a room for sleeping. They hardly look large enough for a single occupant but these structures housed 60 to 80 men, women and children.
The main house is lovely and open for daily tours.
Boneyard Beach at Big Talbot Island
After strolling the grounds of two historic homes, further down A1A, Boneyard Beach at Big Talbot Island is a breath of fresh air. The unique beach is famous for the salt-washed skeletons of live oak and cedar trees that once grew near the shore. The juxtaposition of the skeletal remains of tree bones bleached white by the sun against the unspoiled shoreline is both stunningly beautiful and incomprehensible. Erosion has created a natural spectacle reminiscent of a Tim Burton-esque landscape.
We paid the $3.50 entrance fee and parked next to a family who was obviously there for a photo shoot. Many people use the scenic beachfront as the backdrop for engagement, graduation or family photos. And with good reason. It’s exquisite. A quick hike of the Blackrock Trail takes you to the shoreline with a breathtaking view from the bluffs.
The newly imported trees still hold the soil in their massive roots and the color of earth. Smoothed by the tides and the sun, older trees fossilized by time litter the shoreline. People sit snuggly among the branches, reading, resting, reflecting. It’s a wonderful place for it all.
It is, however, noteworthy to mention how important it is to be aware of the incoming tides. At high tide, water covers the entire beach and is known to leave sightseers stranded. Beach goers are advised to leave the beach one hour before the next high tide cycle. And in case anyone feels like taking a souvenir home with them, don’t. The driftwood is protected and removal is strictly prohibited.
Downtown Fernandina Beach
It’s late in the afternoon when we finally reach the A1A intersection of Front and Centre Streets in historic downtown Fernandina Beach. The streets are quiet, punctuated by a single seagull cry and the hushed sounds of live music muffled by centuries-old brick. Too late for ice cream but too early for dinner, we are exhausted by our journey. It’s a good tired. It’s the kind of tired that blurs out all the distractions, leaving only the sharp lines in focus.
We follow a cobblestone path to a bench in the center of the downtown area and take a beat. From our vantage point, the city’s stories literally beckon from every corner. The quaint Victorian seaport village once served as a stomping ground for pirates, Gilded Age millionaires, bootleggers, shrimpers, and other colorful characters.
The pirate theme echoes throughout the charming waterfront community as evidenced by the pirate figure holding court outside the Palace Saloon, the oldest watering hole in Fernandina Beach.
As the northernmost city on Florida’s Atlantic coast, Fernandina Beach is the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry. The area celebrates the love of all things shrimp with the annual Isle of Flags Shrimp Festival featuring art, live entertainment, a parade and, of course, more shrimp than you can shake a stick at.
Visitors stroll through the myriad of shops, dine at one of the many restaurants and take a cruise on the water on one of many boats available for charter. There are miles of beachfront, golf courses, dozens of antique stores, gated resort communities, and eco tours available by kayak, Segway, and even horseback.
Quaint doesn’t even begin to describe Fernandina Beach. Even the post office is house in a building included on the National Registry of Historic Places. This is a city that props its history up in the front window for everyone to enjoy.