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Essential holiday information for Northeast Florida
It would be easy to overlook the far north-east corner of Florida as it’s not as populated, busy and, well, obvious, as the Sunshine State’s other regions. But that would be a major shame, as it would be overlooking one of the most pristine, natural and downright blissful parts of the state.
America’s First Coast
Just to start with, this is the very heart of America’s First Coast, the original European settlement areas where Spain’s conquistadors arrived in the 16th century and set up today’s city of St Augustine, which retains its Spanish colonial overtones to this day. As well as St Augustine, there is the city of Jacksonville, another of Florida’s vibrant metropolises and, further north, the gorgeous tranquility of Amelia Island, a true resort hideaway.
Venture inland and you discover the cities of Gainesville and Ocala. The former is the home of the huge University of Florida, one of America’s biggest college programmes, which infuses the whole city with a young, energetic and arts-orientated vibe, while Ocala is genuine Old Florida, a much slower-paced, down-home agglomeration of horse farms, parks and small-town America.
This is Florida, of course, so that still means great beaches, vibrant wildlife and all the natural wonders the state has to offer. There are almost 100 miles of beaches and glorious coastline to enjoy, from Palm Coast all the way north to charming Victorian Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island. And, for those who enjoy a round or two, this is the epi-centre of the state’s golf culture as it includes the home of the US PGA, the World Golf Hall of Fame, and the magnificent courses of Ponte Vedra.
Travelling to the Northeast
Jacksonville is only a two-hour drive from Orlando, along motorways I-4 and I-95 and is easy to navigate. There are no direct flights from Orlando to Jacksonville International Airport, but you can also fly via Miami or Tampa.
Attractions in Northeast Florida
While the charms of the cities and the great beaches provide much of the general attraction for this region, there are still specific choices that make the area must-see territory. To start with, this is arguably the most history-rich part of the whole Sunshine State, from the story of the indigenous people to the arrival of the first Spanish settlers, battles with the French and British, the Seminole Indian Wars of the 19th century, the US Civil War, the Victorian era, the railroads of Henry Flagler and the 20th century tourist boom.
Fort Clinch on Amelia Island boasts plenty of surviving Civil War heritage while Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, near Lake City, marks the site of the War’s biggest battle in Florida and the small-but-well-equipped Museum of Southern History in Jacksonville provides a great overview.
Flagler College in St Augustine is another essential period attraction, with daily tours of this 19th century architectural gem, as is Fort Matanzas National Monument just to the south, dating to the 1700s. The St John’s River offers a number of ways to enjoy the south-east USA’s largest waterway, and Island Party Boat Tours, just south of Jacksonville, can provide a variety of possibilities hereabouts. For family fun, Jacksonville Zoo and Shipwreck Island, with its water park, offer guaranteed kid-friendly adventures.
Wildlife in Northeast Florida
The natural aspect of this region is one of its key draws, and there is a lot to see and admire at places like Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve, Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Preserve and Ocala National Forest. All of them will provide looks at the local flora and fauna, which can include alligators, turtles, raccoons, white-tail deer and an abundance of birdlife, including the comical Sandhill Cranes.
Head to Silver Springs in Ocala and you can also revel in the clear freshwater springs that are a key feature of northern Florida, with great fishing, boating and wildlife watching. And, in winter months, you might just be lucky enough to spot the rare Southern Wright Whales that come to give birth off the shores of Amelia Island.
Sports & Activities in Northeast Florida
Water Sports & Golf
Water-sports of every kind are never far away, including kayaking, paddle-boarding and airboat rides, but this part of the Sunshine State is renowned for its golf. There are literally dozens of world-class courses to take your pick from, and several major resorts offer every conceivable attraction for the keen golfer, with multiple courses and magnificent club-house amenities.
True aficionados will want to make a beeline for Ponte Vedra, though. This is where you will find the TPC Sawgrass, the immense course that is home to the annual The Players Championship, golf’s ‘Fifth Major,’ and its iconic 17th hole, while just down the road, near St Augustine, is the extensive World Golf Hall of Fame, with its many exhibits, golf simulator and Hall of Fame Challenge.
For spectator sports, it doesn’t get much better than Everbank Field, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars American football team and a great place to sample the hard-hitting NFL action from September to early January.
City highlights of the Northeast Florida
It may surprise some visitors to know Jacksonville is actually Florida’s biggest city in population terms, with almost a million residents, but it continues to be one of the most overlooked, which is a huge shame as it boasts its own historical districts, lively nightlife, great shopping, fast-developing restaurant scene and largest urban park system in the country.
Gainesville is a bustling and increasingly trendy hotspot with its young, student population while Ocala provides a genuine taste of small-town America with its quaint downtown area and growing reputation for live music.
Fernandina Beach features a classic early 1900s vibe with its array of restored shops, bars and restaurants, but the real jewel in the city crown is St Augustine, which can easily be worth three to four days to explore fully. This historic gem is built around the 17th century edifice of Castillo de San Marcos, the old Spanish fortress, and features a genuine cobblestone Old Town, the fabulous Lightner Museum (a former 1800s hotel of the Flagler era), the shopping of St George Street and the great views from the St Augustine Lighthouse, as well as Ponce de Leon’s mythical Fountain of Youth.
Where to shop in Northeast Florida
Those looking for the best in retail therapy should head for Jacksonville and St Augustine for the widest range of shopping possibilities. The former runs the gamut from the trendy boutiques of the historic San Marco neighbourhood to the modern designer outlet shops of St Johns Town Center, with more than 150 stores through an open-air complex, while St Augustine has an extensive pedestrianised district with a great variety of shops, from typical tourist fare to genuine antiques, as well as the nearby St Augustine Premium Outlets, which adds another tempting array of discounted big-name brands.
The unique downtown district of Fernandina Beach is possibly the region’s best shopping secret, though, with an old-fashioned main street of art galleries, jewellery shops, antiques stores and other one-off delights.
Northeast Florida dining, cuisine and foodie tips
The region’s restaurant scene is possibly the most wide-ranging in all the state, as it varies from the rustic and down-home offerings of places like Ocala, Lake City and Alachua (just north of Gainesville) – where you might find alligator on the menu – to the uber-trendy parts of Jacksonville, Amelia Island and St Augustine, the latter of which even boasts its own highly successful modern distillery for hand-crafted whiskey, rum, gin and vodka (and free tours daily!).
Jacksonville’s San Marco district is fast becoming Foodie Central in that city, with a fabulous array that includes the gourmet home cooking of Maple Street Biscuit Company and the high style of BB’s Restaurant & Bar, but the main downtown area is also stacked with good choice. Little Amelia Island is also hard to beat for fine dining options, while St Augustine is another treasure trove, especially as its culinary profile reflects its Spanish-French-British-American heritage, notably in places like the Raintree Seafood and Steakhouse and Columbia Restaurant. Seafood is often prominent on the menu, and Sunset Grille and Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille in St Augustine are two of the best.
Why Northeast Florida?
This is the part of Florida that will most appeal to culture vultures and history buffs, a remarkable treasure trove of 6,000-plus years of antiquity and heritage.
You can sample the oldest city in North America – St Augustine – and one of its most contemporary in Jacksonville; you can check out the surprising thoroughbred horse-racing culture around Ocala, and check in to the modern university frenzy of Gainesville; and you can get a true taste for rural Florida while being minutes from some of the fanciest resort hotels in places like Ponte Vedra, St Augustine and Amelia Island.
In fact, in the latter, with its immaculate beaches and fab resorts, you might just have the synthesis of Florida itself – simply a wonderful place to be.
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