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Jacksonville: St. Johns River, history and beaches

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Hugging the St. Johns River, Jacksonville’s historic significance dates way back to prehistoric residents and early French and Spanish colonists. Near the river’s mouth, the Fort Caroline National Memorial, a recreated French fort with stimulating indoor exhibits, flashes back to the days when French Huguenots settled in with the Timucuan Indians to combat the Spanish.

Kayakers enjoy the Amelia Island sunriseThe river splits downtown in half and lively riverwalks cling to both sides. Jacksonville Landing, on the north bank, pulsates with shopping and entertainment value. Nearby: a modern-art museum and theater, Kids Kampus park, and Alltel Stadium, home to the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and the 2005 Super Bowl. Across the river, a trio of museums is worth the water taxi ride over.

Biggest of the three museums, the Museum of Science and History (MOSH) fascinates kids and adults alike with interactive exhibits about marine mammals, the Civil War and more. Next door, the Jacksonville Historical Center delves more seriously into the city’s military past and the Jacksonville Maritime Museum displays models of World War II ships built in Jacksonville.

Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens takes up residence in one of the town’s loveliest neighborhoods, the Riverside Avondale National Register District. The art museum, besides an enviable collection of masterpieces, boasts one of the nation’s best hands-on art experiences for children. Around the museum, explore lovely vintage homes and shop along St. Johns Avenue.

There’s more shopping plus a chocolate factory in the San Marco historic district. In the Arlington community, walk the easy trails at Tree Hill Nature Center and visit the zoo.

A string of beaches fronts Jacksonville, where restaurants, parks, shops and a variety of family-priced hotels keep the sands action-packed. Jacksonville Beach runs into Neptune Beach, where the spirit is youthful and giddy. Explore local history at Pablo Historical Park, an interesting gathering of vintage structures. Adventure Landing attracts families with water park features, batting cages, go-karts and miniature golf. To the north, Atlantic Beach is quieter, with a fashionable hotel and a town center holding one-of-a-kind restaurants and shops.

Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park provides an out-of-the-way beach where kayaking, biking, freshwater fishing and hiking are popular sports. Where the St. Johns River meets the Atlantic Ocean, Mayport earns the city’s naval reputation as one of the busiest military ports in the country. To the casual traveler, it represents an interruption in Route A1A, the famed oceanside drive of Florida’s East Coast. Instead of bridging the wide river, a car ferry system stubbornly persists as a bit of old Florida. The ride takes but five minutes yet manages to take one back a good many years to a less rushed time.

Time continues to peel away the years as you travel north along the Buccaneer Trail, the name Route A1A adopts to remember the region’s swashbuckling years. In more recent times, Fort George was devoted to cotton and Kingsley Plantation Historic Site tells the haunting tales. Little Talbot Island State Park reaches to the bridge crossing onto Amelia Island. Tall white dune beaches and bayside sweeps of marshland where kayaking is popular characterize the two waterfronts on long Amelia Island. Its historic American Beach is an important African-American heritage site. More beach accesses lie off Route A1A including Main Beach, the center of waterfront activity, and Fort Clinch State Park, site of a Civil War-era fortification where rangers dress as Union soldiers. At Georgia’s doorstep, the fort affords a far-reaching view of Cumberland Island, across Cumberland Pass.

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Through this pass, pirates of yore to shrimpers of today have made their way into a busy Victorian seaport known as Fernandina Beach. The town protects 50 blocks of its keepsake architectural gems. Many have been turned into exquisite bed and breakfasts and delightful downtown shops and seafood restaurants. The Palace Saloon serves its original purpose on one corner while the old jailhouse, where many of the Palace’s former patrons ended up, houses the Amelia Island Museum of History, which conducts tours of the town’s old churches, cemetery and other historic sites.
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