GUANA RIVER STATE PARK
Separating Jacksonville's main beaches from those serving St. Augustine, the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (as it is now technically called) is about a ten-mile long stretch of scenic, undeveloped coastline featuring some of the tallest sand dunes in Florida. There are three beach access areas here, all located along A1A. One has an observation platform offering a panoramic view of the park’s somewhat pinkinsh sands, lush green dunes, and dense wetland estuaries from high atop one of the dunes. Across the highway, the park's Intracoastal side is a wildlife management area boasting more dunes, scrub and wetlands. Guana River is thought to be where Ponce de Leon actually first landed in "La Florida" in 1513.
Those who appreciate quirky, imaginative architecture will love the oceanfront homes along the quiet, residential stretch of northern Atlantic Beach. (Take Seminole Rd. north to the second public parking access).
Many of the houses here were designed by famed local architect William Morgan and reflect a variety of unique designs resembling a flying saucer, a pyramid, a sandcastle, an underground house (identified by two large circular windows carved into the side of a grassy mound) and other abstract shapes.
A stroll along the sand in northern Atlantic Beach affords the best view of these homes, which are surrounded by other large beach cottages that reflect a mix of New England, Caribbean, Carolina and Long Island design influences.
Of course, the beach here is a treat in itself, composed of the same soft, white powder expanses and lush dunes that characterize most of Jacksonville's shoreline.
Get up early and head out to Atlantic, Neptune or Jacksonville Beach to watch the sunrise. (If you're staying at one of the oceanfront hotels, simply walk out onto your balcony). Not only is a Jacksonville sunrise over the ocean an awesome and magnificent sight to behold, but it often is enhanced by the rolling fins of dolphins.
Dolphins can be seen any time of day around Jacksonville (I was completely surrounded by them in the St. Johns River one afternoon), but they tend to be especially active in the ocean just as the sun rises. First look for rolling black shapes appearing and disappearing at the surface of the water. Keep watching and you may be lucky enough to see one or a few come out of the water a little!
Looking for public access in ritzy Ponte Vedra Beach?
Exclusive Ponte Vedra Beach boasts the gargantuan oceanfront mansions of millionaires, world-class resorts including the five diamond rated Ponte Vedra Inn & Club and its sister resort The Lodge & Club, and shopping villages filled with high-end boutiques. It is actually said to be the third wealthiest community in the state behind Palm Beach and Naples.
Driving down swanky Ponte Vedra Blvd, the average person will see showy oceanfront mansion after another. The road even cuts right through the center of the grounds of two luxury oceanfront spa resorts. (Just be very wary of the slow, slow speed limit).
One thing you probably won't see along this stretch are public accesses. By law, public accesses are required, however, they have become obscured by shrubbery and other creative deterrents. That makes Ponte Vedra Beach, like many other exclusive oceanfront communities, a prime battleground for public access rights. So, how can you see what these grand homes look like from the beach side?
One fantastic public access lies near the intersection of Ponte Vedra Blvd., Mickler Rd. and S.R. A1A in what the locals call Mickler's Landing. Here, ample parking and facilities are provided, allowing beachcombers to enjoy both a priceless ocean view and a multi-million dollar backdrop. In contrast to the largely whitish-gray sand with occasional shell pockets that characterizes much of Jacksonville's shoreline, the sand at Mickler's Landing is coarser and more peach in color due to the increased presence of coquina (ground up shells). On a related note, Mickler's Landing is also known as one of the best spots in the state for finding sharks' teeth. Visitors may also notice that the water here has more of a turquoise-green hue than it does at many of the other area beaches. The contrast of peach and turquoise is quite stunning.
Operated by the City of Jacksonville, Huguenot Park Beach fronts both the Atlantic Ocean and the mouth of the St. Johns River opposite Mayport N.A.S. Free of development, Huguenot's beach boasts a backdrop of some of the highest dunes in Jacksonville and a chain of rocky jetties that stretch out to sea marking the entrance to the river's busy shipping channel. Visitors should be advised that water activities are better enjoyed at one of Jacksonville's other beaches as, due to Huguenot's location, the shape and size of its sandy stretches can vary drastically with the tides and the strong currents where the St. Johns meets the Atlantic can be too treacherous for swimmers. Beachgoers do, however, get an awesome view of the gigantic military ships in port across the river.
Aside from a couple of isolated spots in Amelia Island , where parking on the sand is permitted, Huguenot Park is the only one of Jacksonville's beaches where automobiles are allowed to drive on the sand. For me, that alone makes Huguenot Park less appealing than the city's other beaches; however, many people prefer it for this same reason. Regardless of your opinion, you have to admit that the towering dunes, rocky jetties and skyscraping military ships certainly make Huguenot unique.
In the winter time those with a sharp eye may spot whales migrating just off the shores of Jacksonville's beaches. Last winter one whale made local headlines when it took a wrong turn and found itself swimming in the St. Johns River. Wildlife authorities kept patrol until the whale safely found its way back out to sea.
Hanna Park. Located right next to the Naval Base this is a hugh national trust park, with some great beaches, camping is allowed for a nominal fee. I would recomend that a night stay sould be somthing well worth considering if with a group of people.
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