In the Southeast if you ask most people where the best beaches are, the list is long and opinions are strong! Often overlooked and about 6 hours from Atlanta are the beaches of Jacksonville (Jacksonville Beach, Neptune, Atlantic, and Ponte Vedra). I lived in Jacksonville for about ten years while growing up and spent many weekends and summer days in my teens on and around the beaches. I find they are the perfect blend of old time cottage beach feel you get from Tybee Island and Folly Beach mixed with great restaurants and shopping you find in the larger resort areas from Destin to Gulf Shores.
Where to Stay
There are several options for lodging in the “Jax Beach” area from chain hotels like Courtyard by Marriott, Holiday Inn, Four Points by Sheraton, and Hampton Inn which are all beach front as well as the local One Ocean Resort (pricey). One Ocean is a great couples getaway hotel, but definitely splurge for a balcony room! The rooms and bathrooms are smaller than average (great for couples – not families) but come with complimentary in room snacks and refreshments along with personal butler the service is excellent. For this trip we decided to rent a beach cottage from vrbo.com that was across the street from the beach. For me the real advantage of renting a home is additional space, full kitchen, additional bathrooms, and little touches like beach chairs and sand toys so you aren’t over packing the car with sand for the trip!
Where to Eat
We spent our first day at the beach just enjoying the ocean and excellent weather, for lunch we stopped at an old local favorite Bono’s BBQ (several locations in and around Jacksonville – smoked turkey is my personal favorite) before heading back to the beach. When heading to the beach in Jacksonville plan on packing your drinks and snacks and make a day of it, we have a pop up canopy that we bring to stake our piece of paradise for the day.
A trip to Jacksonville Beach isn’t complete for me without a trip to Taco Lu, a local Baha Mexican restaurant with an extensive Tequila list, but more importantly the best taco’s ever. Get there early as the wait can be as much as 2 hours on weekends, but it is always worth it! The Mexican Street Corn is a must try along with a Banging Shrimp Taco.
Another local favorite is Singleton’s Seafood Shack in Mayport where fresh caught seafood is served daily, it is in the name so be prepared, it is a shack! The service is fast, food is excellent, and portions are large though which makes this a favorite among locals and vacationers.
Deep Sea Fishing
We booked a private excursion with seadancercharters.com (Ask for Captain Dennis) who took us out of Mayport for a full day of fishing, he is a seasoned fisherman and was great working with adults and the kids to make sure everyone was catching fish and having a good time. We caught Barracuda, Red Snapper, Sea Bass, and more….no sharks on this visit though, maybe next time!
For some sand free time either outdoors in the water park, batting cages, go karts, or mini golf or for rainy day entertainment at the indoor arcade and laser tag Adventure Landing is a great family entertainment complex. I really enjoy that water park is large enough to keep the kids (and adults) entertained but not so large that you spend all day walking and waiting in lines. As an added bonus Taco Lu is right next door so after a day in the park you can grab a yummy taco as well!
Day Trip – Ichetucknee Springs
With over 900 freshwater springs Florida has the largest concentration of springs and most are located in the North/Central part of Florida. Ichetucknee Springs are located about a 90 minute drive from Jacksonville (south of Lake City) and are easily accessible by major interstates (I10 & I75). The Springs and River are located and accessed through the Ichetucknee Springs State Park, cost is $5 per person to go tubing down the river or $8 per car for swimming. We decided to go tubing and rented our tubes locally (there are multiple tube and kayak rental companies as you approach the park entrance), once you enter the park (North entrance) you drop off your group along with tubes and then one person drives the car to the takeout point (South entrance). There is a free shuttle provided by the park to bring you back to meet with your group before heading down the river.
Swim shoes – not required and not really needed but there is a lot of sea grass and in some of the more shallow areas the little ones can get squeamish.
Water bottle – Nothing disposable is allowed on the river so bring a hard plastic water bottle with you for a drink along the way
Swim Mask – This is a great to have item for going tubing or to use while swimming in the springs to see the fish, if you plan on a visit to the Blue Hole a snorkel is helpful as well.
It’s cold! – Be prepared that the spring water is cold even on a hot summer day
Groups – When you rent your tubes the company will tie them to the car with a rope, take the rope with you as this is a great way to tether the tubes together and keep the group together.
You can choose 3 different entry points – the North entrance is only available in summer and is limited to number of visitors per day, the trip will take about 3 to 3-1/2 hours to the South (last) takeout point or 2 hour trip to Dampier’s Landing takeout (where your car will be parked). If you tube all the way down to the last takeout it’s a 15 minute walk back to parking lot or the park provides a free shuttle back. There is also a midpoint launch which is about 2 hours to the South takeout point or for a shorter experience for first time tuber you can park at the South entrance and enter at Dampier’s landing and go about 1 hour to the takeout point and ride the shuttle back.
If you have the time either before or after your tubing there is a small swimming area to the left as you walk towards the north entry point, it’s slippery and the water is cold but it is really beautiful! A little bit of a walk (10 minutes – about a 1/2 mile) but a must see is the largest spring in the park, the Blue Hole. It is surrounded by woods but shines bright blue as you approach, you can enter the spring for swimming on a wooden platform, the current can be a bit strong and this is definitely the coldest spring in the park. As you swim over the underwater cave opening it’s really an amazing and beautiful view, in my opinion this is the most beautiful spring in the park.
Lastly just enjoy the beautiful scenery and the tranquil flow of the clear water, you will also surely see many birds, turtles, otters, and possibly even a manatee!