Jacksonville's own Malibu, exclusive Ponte Vedra Beach boasts the gargantuan oceanfront mansions of millionaires, a trio of world-class resorts including the five diamond rated Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, and shopping villages filled with high-end boutiques.
Driving down swanky Ponte Vedra Blvd, those of us "still working on our first million" (yeah, right) can make ourselves sick admiring one 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. This is because like in many other exclusive seaside strands around the country, private wealth seems to come at odds with public right-of-way, making Ponte Vedra a prime local battleground for access issues. So, how can you see what these grand homes look like from the beach side?
One fantastic public access lies at the southern end of Ponte Vedra Blvd. 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 soft white powder that characterizes much of Jacksonville's shoreline, the sand at Mickler's Landing is coarser and more pinkish in color due to the increased presence of coquina (ground up shells). Mickler's Landing is also known as one of the best spots in the state for finding sharks' teeth.
Atlantic Beach & Neptune Beach
Just across the Intracoastal Waterway from Jacksonville sits a long barrier island containing a string of funky, laid-back and cosmopolitan beach comunities known collectively as Jacksonville's Beaches. Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach, with their shared Town Center, are my idea of the perfect beach mix.
The setting of John Grisham's novel, The Bretheren, Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach are anchored by a lively, beautifully landscaped Town Center full of funky, trendy and casual restaurants, coffeehouses, boutiques, galleries, gift shops and nightspots. Atlantic Blvd., which runs west all the way to historic San Marco Square just south of Downtown Jacksonville, serves as the official dividing line through the middle of Town Center before ending in a landscaped, brick circle at the sand's edge. Hip and happening yet quaint and homey, Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach and their shared Town Center provide a picture-perfect, quintessential beach town setting enjoyed by families, surfers, yuppies and the wealthy set alike.
Stretching north from Atlantic Blvd., Atlantic Beach boasts impressive beach houses reflecting a mix of New England, Caribbean and imaginative architectural styles. Stretching south from Town Center, Neptune Beach is lined with pastel colored beach houses that are a little more modest in size and style. Both communities share the same stretch of soft, wide, sandy beaches backed by dunes covered with sea oats. Pockets of shell deposits and calm, shallow tidal pools are also common along the shoreline here.
Hang ten toes in the surf, or pamper them in a spa
For those who happen to find themselves wealthy, the Atlantic Beach side of Town Center is anchored by One Ocean, a posh oceanfront resort and spa with its own swanky oceanfront restaurant. If you visited Atlantic Beach in years gone by you may remember the Sea Turtle Hotel which used to be in its place. The long-time landmark was sold, completely remodeled and upgraded to become One Ocean.
A few blocks inland on the Neptune Beach side of Atlantic Blvd. at Seminole Rd., is another local icon, Aqua East. Aqua East is a two-story surf shop that also offers wave runner and boat rentals, in addition to the usual surf shop fare. It is easily recognizable by all the large surf gear poster advertisements plastered in its windows. Aqua East is one of the largest of several Jacksonville area surf shops that cater to a vibrant local surf culture. While Jacksonville's Beaches are not as acclaimed for their waves as East Coast hot spots like New Smyrna Beach, the Space Coast, and Sebastian Inlet, they are home to sponsored professionals who compete in international tournaments. Several blocks into Atlantic Beach on Seminole Rd. is the beautiful Howell Park, which offers a myriad of nature trails that traverse over creeks and through tree hammocks.
Just across the Intracoastal Waterway from Jacksonville sits a long barrier island containing a string of funky, laid-back and cosmopolitan beach comunities known collectively as Jacksonville's Beaches. The most populous of these towns, Jacksonville Beach (also known as "Jax Beach") boasts a skyline of mid to highrise condos and hotels and a multitude of restaurants and retailers.
At the town's active center is the oceanfront Seawalk Pavillion, ampitheatre, and Latham Plaza, a manicured greenspace located across the street. Together they provide a recreational focal point surrounded by numerous restaurants, nightspots and hotels. Throughout the year both venues host popular festivals that celebrate foods, cultures and music including George's Music Springing in the Blues Festival, Florida's largest outdoor free blues concert.
In terms of its natural attraction, Jax Beach, like its neighboring communities, boasts a beautiful wide strand of soft sand fronted by sea oats and sand dunes. Several blocks inland, along Beach Blvd., Adventure Landing is a popular water park and amusement complex located near the Intracoastal.
Jax Beach has refined its image since the 1990s as numerous new boutiques, fine dining establishments, high-rise luxury condos and even the large J. Johnson Gallery now call the town home. New hotels have also been built in recent years and the ocean pier provides pedestrians with remarkable views of the coast and oceanfront skyline from as far as a quarter mile offshore! Before undergoing this rennaissance, Jax Beach had fallen into blight and become notorious for attracting a rowdy crowd. Thankfully, today's Jax Beach has reinvented itself, with the southern half and the north end boasting the town's quietest and most family-friendly stretches of sand. In contrast, the popular entertainment and special events area surrounding Latham Plaza and the Seawalk (basically bounded by Beach Blvd. to the south, the pier to the north, Second St. to the west, and the beach to the east), is where the "ready to party" people flock to the restaurants, bars, and live entertainment during the weekends and where those without the good fortune to have a place to call home assume residence when the crowds are away.
Three blocks west of the ocean, running the length of Jax Beach is Third Street, also known as A1A. This is the main artery that connects Atlantic, Neptune, Jax and Ponte Vedra beaches and is lined with a broad assortment of restaurants, retailers, fast food joints, and other businesses that serve the needs of residents and visitors alike.
While Jax Beach has certainly become more sophisticated over the years, it's still a laid back, swimsuit and flip flops kind of place. Even though some of those flip-flops may carry the Prada label, the town is just too laid back to be pretentious.
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!
If you're looking for people to meet or hang out with, the beach is the most happening place to be. During the summer it's filled with people, motorcycles and fast and furious cars. There's not much family fun on the beach unless you had further down to Ponte Vedra Beach. Jax beach, atlantic beach, and neptune beach are the same beach just off different streets. There's hotels and resturants. The hotels are a bit costly around $99 a night and up.
For decades fishermen flocked to the old Jacksonville Beach Pier. After the weathered wooden pier suffered extensive damage due to the effects of a hurricane out at sea, a longer, stronger pier was recently built to replace it. While this new pier is an obvious attraction for fishermen, it's also a must see for any pedestrian with an appreciation for unique views. Walk out to the end of the pier -- one quarter of a mile out to sea -- and behold the spectacular views of ambitious surfers, the sandy coastline and the colorful highrises that line Jacksonville Beach. While the pier does not have a restaurant of its own, it is but a short walk from the many diverse culinary offerings of the Seawalk area.
The sun is high and hot most days. That draws the crowds to the ocean side. Three main beaches of JAX are Atlantic beach, Neptune beach, and Jacksonville beach; all next to each other. Along the beaches are high rise condos for occupancy of locals mostly. The public beach area stretches about 5-6 miles.
Just north of Atlantic Beach and south of Mayport N.A.S., Hanna Park is a beautifully preserved oceanfront park operated by the City of Jacksonville. In addition to its wide, white sand beach with lush green dunes, Hanna Park boasts acres of coastal woodland recreation areas including freshwater lakes (with paddleboat rentals), numerous hiking and biking trails, ample picnic areas, a children's water play area and camping facilities. Locally, the park is famous for its great mountain biking trails and for "The Poles," Jacksonville's storied surfing spot.
Here is a map of the different beaches that line Jacksonville's shoreline, including those on Amelia Island, just north of the city, and on Anastasia Island, to the south by St. Augustine. Each of the beaches listed has its own unique identity and distinctive feel. Enjoy!
Operated by the City of Jacksonville, Huguenot Park is located on Fort George Island and 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 appealling 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.
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