For those heading down to Jacksonville, Florida for the January 1st Gator Bowl, I’ve put together a little tour guide for you.
I’ve actually lived in Jacksonville twice during my lengthy radio “tour” so I know the area pretty well. If you’re one of the thousands of Michigan fans heading down that way to watch the Wolverines whoop Mississippi State University in the Gator Bowl, here’s what you can expect.
First a general overview. Jacksonville is much, much smaller than Detroit. Detroit is the 11th biggest radio market in the nation. Jacksonville comes in at #47. The area is fairly spread out and in terms of land mass for a city, Jacksonville is still the biggest in the nation. That’s because all of Duval County (pronounced: Doo’-val) is considered within the limits of the City of Jacksonville.
If you’re flying into Jacksonville International Airport, it’s really small compared to DTW. It’s on the north side of town and fairly efficient although I’ve had to wait up to 45 minutes at the baggage carousel more than once.
Drivers leave a lot to be desired in Jax. If you don’t mind constantly being tailgated than you’ll do fine! People are friendly but not what you would stereotypically expect to find. Personally, I think folks are a lot more friendly and sincere in Detroit than in Jax. You will hear as many “Y’alls” down there as you hear “I seen him” up here. The weather should be nice but not toasty. Typically at this time of the year the average highs are something like 65 and the average lows around 43. But it could easily hit 78 for the high. Then again the high could only be 40. It varies widely in the winter.
Public transportation, while certainly better than Metro Detroit, is limited. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) provides bus service throughout the area. Within a limited area of downtown Jacksonville you’ll also find the Skyway, kind of a monorail. A little like Detroit’s People Mover but smaller and with less range.
You will see plenty of citrus trees. Even though Jacksonville gets major cold snaps, there are quite a few orange, tangerine, grapefruit, and lemon trees around. Banana plants are also common when they haven’t been cut down by a freeze. Fortunately the bounce back rapidly. You’ll see plenty of palm trees including several different varieties although not coconut palms. You don’t start seeing them until you move on down the Atlantic coast. You usually see the first ones around Melbourne.
Another thing you’ll see is a lot of Spanish moss. It’s the stuff that makes it look like trees have beards.
Jacksonville area beaches are pretty nice. Not the pristine, sugar white stuff you see in the Caribbean but nice just the same. I wouldn’t even consider swimming, however. The water temp will probably be somewhere in the area of between 50 and 60 degrees. Any water temperature 70 or below is considered uncomfortably cold to the human body. Surfers don’t mind, though. With their wet suits its not so bad. And you will see plenty of surfers year round. Summer is the time for swimming in the Atlantic in Jax when water temps sometimes approach 87 degrees.
Hopefully you’re heading down there several days before the football game at EverBank Field. Now we’ll get into some specific things to do.
A1A is the scenic coastal highway that runs from the Jacksonville area all the way south to south Florida. Head over to Jacksonville Beach and turn right, or south on A1A. You’ll cruise by Ponte Vedra, St. Augustine, and St. Augustine Beach. If you’d like to continue, I’d suggest continuing for 40 miles or so until you reach Flagler Beach. Flager Beach is considered “untouched old Florida.” Nice coastal views along much of the way. You could take it as far south as Daytona Beach. A1A is a slow, single lane road so you might want to dash east to I-95 and blitz back to Jax at 70 mph unless you’ve been so wowed by the view that you want to retrace your footsteps back on A1A.
St. Augustine is considered the oldest city in the United States. It’s kind of like being in the French Quarter in New Orleans but different. There’s the old fort to discover – Castillo de San Marcos. The Alligator Farm is admittedly a tourist attraction but it’s really more like a zoo and it has tons and tons of gators, crocks, and other critters.
My favorite is to just get out and walk up and down the small streets, check out the shops, and enjoy the scenery.
While you’re there enjoy a Spanish/Cuban meal at Columbia in the old part of the city. Try a Cuban Sandwich and be sure to have a cup or bowl of black beans and rice. Or for a heartier meal, go with the Grouper A la Rusa. And the Cuban bread is out of this world.
St. Augustine is about an hour south of Jacksonville in St. Johns County.
Parts of the downtown area look a little seedy although the city is really trying to spiff the place up. On any given Sunday afternoon, you’ll see more homeless people in downtown Jacksonville as you will in Detroit in a month or more. Sadly, many people who are down on their luck flock to Jax in hopes of finding a job or at least expecting to find warmer weather.
Jacksonville is exactly like Detroit when it comes to safety. If the neighborhood doesn’t look good, stay out. Most violent crime is confined to neighborhoods in Northwest Jacksonville. Jax has the highest murder rate in Florida and per capita, I’d say it’s right up there with Detroit in the violence department.
If you’re going to the game you’ve probably already got your hotel singled out. I’m sure all of the downtown hotels are fully booked. My favorite is the Hyatt Regency. It’s a top flight hotel with sensational river views and it’s just steps away from Jacksonville Landing.
Speaking of Jacksonville Landing. It’s right on the huge St. Johns River and features restaurants and shops. This will be the focal place for Michigan and Mississippi State fans to hang out and tussle over the game.
One thing many enjoy is dog racing. The closest track is the Orange Park Kennel Club in Clay County, about a 35 minute drive from Jacksonville just across the St. Johns river via I-295. They offer nightly racing every night but Tuesday and matinee races on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Kids are allowed but of course, they can’t wager!
One really fun and informative thing you can do is take a tour of the Budweiser Brewery in Jacksonville. You’ll learn a lot and get some free samples at the end. Again, kids welcome but no suds sipping!
Speaking of beer, everybody finds it amazing that Yuengling beer, while hard to find in Detroit, is like a local brew in Jax. It’s the oldest brewery in the United States and is located in Pennsylvania. My son-in-law used to always return to Detroit from Jax visits with a couple of cases in his trunk.
The three main beaches along the Atlantic Ocean are Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach and Jacksonville Beach. If the wind isn’t howling, a stroll down one of these beaches can be pleasant during the winter months. Keep a close lookout for shark’s teeth. They’re shiny, small and dark black. To the south you’ll find St. Augustine Beach, and by the way when the tide isn’t high and the sand isn’t too soft, feel free to drive your car onto the beach here! Yup, just like Daytona Beach.
After a ton of condos started going up on Jacksonville Beach strict laws were passed limiting out of control growth. Therefore there are surprisingly few true beach hotels. The best, by far, is the Quality Inn And Suites and it’s smack, dab on the beach.
HOW ABOUT A SHORT CRUISE TO THE BAHAMAS?
Carnival Cruise Lines operates various 3, 4 and 5 day cruises out of Jacksonville to the Bahamas and Keys, depending on the trip you select. It might be worth considering while you’re down there. The ship they use is the Fascination. We’ve cruised on it and had a ball.
It’s confusing at first when you see Jax police. One the side of the white squad car with a yellow stripe it says “Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office” and on the rear it just says “Police.” The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is the official police agency in the city. Generally they’re fair. You’ll see some local radar traps but I think the Florida Highway Patrol is a little more active in that department.
If you like saltwater fishing, don’t hold your breath. We tried extensively to hook into something good and never scored. It’s the worst fishing I’ve ever seen in Florida, period. We’ve tried off the piers in Jacksonville and St. Augustine beach, surf fishing in a number of spots, the jetties in Mayport and then some. Nothing other than a few small bonnet head sharks, grunts, croaker, whiting and bluefish. And Jacksonville has hardly any big deep sea fishing boats. There is one based in Mayport, the Mayport Princess, but during the desirable summer months, you have to get reservations weeks in advance if you hope to go out on a weekend.
WILDLIFE AND CRITTERS
You will see pelicans and sometimes big strings of them flying over the beaches. These are brown pelicans that were once on the brink of dying out due to DDT pesticide exposure that weakened their eggs. Now they seem to be doing fine.
You’ll see big black and white birds hovering over the ocean and over land. They look a little like eagles but they are ospreys. They build colossal nests on top of light poles, on various antenna structures, etc.
You will also see quite a few bald eagles flying over head often in pairs, especially during the winter.
Great blue herons are common. Ditto for great white egrets. If you’re really lucky, you’ll see some roesate spoonbills feeding along the side of the road in puddles. They are nice and pink in color due to their shellfish diets.
You’ll see many small, white birds on farm fields. These are cattle egrets or “cow birds.” They like to hang around cattle because as the cows roam around, they uproot bugs making for a feast for the cow birds.
Gators are spotted quite often in the Jacksonville but a little less so in the winter when it’s cold and they’re not too active.
There are a ton of wild boars in Florida. They’re so plentiful they are a nussance and uproot a lot of fields. Plus they can be dangerous if confronted. In our most recent 3 years down there, we saw a couple of packs of them at the edge of highways.
Armadillos are everywhere in Florida. You see them mainly at night but often during the day after a heavy rain, which drives bugs out of the ground. If you should approach one–and it’s fun to do–they roll up into a ball and play dead. You can even pick them up and they won’t move.
Don’t be surprised if you see some wild turkeys wandering about. We’ve seen them in flocks of up to 14 birds. They’re long and skinny unlike our Butterball Thanksgiving turkeys.
When the weather is warm, plenty of lizards make the rounds. Most call them chameleons but in reality, they are anoles.
If you’re wandering around in wooded areas and fields, be aware that poisonous snakes are not uncommon including rattlers and cotton mouths (water moccasins). Signs warning of snakes are posted at most Florida interstate rest stops.
Sadly a huge problem in Jacksonville and throughout much of Florida are stray cats. There are thousands in Jacksonville and once they become feral there’s not much that can be done. Various humane agencies encourage people to trap them and bring them in to be spayed or neutered. To make it easy to see from a distance if a cat has been fixed, they clip the top of one ear. The cats are then returned to the spot where they were found. We wound up with two cats rescued off the streets of Jacksonville!
We were told that one main reason the cat population was out of control is because developers found lots of rats around projects and imported cats from New York and New Jersey to get rid of the rats. I can’t confirm that story but we heard it from several different believable people.
Most major chain restaurants have branches in the Jacksonville area. But my favorite places here are the ramshackle, down home, seafood dives. Here are some of my favorites:
Clark’s Fish Camp is located directly on Julington Creek, which is a huge creek and more like a river. In my review, I suggest that you stick with a fried seafood platter and you’ll be happy. This place really is a shack with uneven floors, exactly as I like ’em. And as you enter, pause before you go in and check out the water under the restaurant. Chances are good you’ll see some little alligators paddling around hoping you’ll feed them. It’s hard to find but worth the effort. When the creek floods, Clark’s is forced to shutdown. In fact one time after they went to reopen it and clean up the flood mess, they found a 3 foot live alligator holed up in the mens room!
Singleton’s in the sleepy fishing village of Mayport is another hole in the wall but with good seafood. Watch the pelicans and shrimp boats come and go just outside the window. Dine inside or out. And on your way back, check out Safe Harbor Seafood. They have a ton of fresh Mayport shrimp and other delights from the sea.
VARIOUS TID BITS ABOUT JACKSONVILLE
Bacardi’s International Development Center is located in Jacksonville. This is where new products are conceived and launched. And all Bacardi rums are bottled right there. Who knew?
Maxwell House has a major facility in downtown Jax. And when they are doing their roasting, the air smells amazing.
The U.S. Navy has a huge presence in Jacksonville with a major air base and ship base.
CSX Railroad is headquartered in Jax.
Sweet tea is the big deal in Jax and throughout the south. If you want it unsweetened, speak up loudly! And another tradition is a “to go” cup. You’ll be asked if you want tea to go (free) at many restaurants.
Jacksonville is just about 2 1/2 hours (or slightly more) from the tourist madhouse of Orlando. There you have a ton of attractions including the big Mouse House, Epcot Center, Sea World, Universal Studios, and on and on.
It’s nice to take A1A down to Daytona Beach. Ask locals where to stay, though. Some hotels are real rat traps although they look nice outside. Because there are so many beach front hotels in Daytona Beach, you can easily get a decent oceanfront room during the winter time for $60 bucks. At least that’s been our experience. I was just about to suggest to NASCAR fans that they take in the Daytona 500 Experience, which we did many times, only to be shocked that the attraction is now closed. That’s a shame. It was a lot of fun.
The Okefenokee Swamp is a couple hours north in Georgia. Some might find it interesting.
About two hours north of Jacksonville is Savannah, Georgia. It’s a delightful and historical place to visit. Be careful about venturing out unlighted places at night as crime can be a problem here.
Venture a little farther north and you’ll be in the amazing coastal town of Charleston, South Carolina.
Head just a little bit farther north and you can visit the posh resort area of Hilton Head, South Carolina.
Important advisory for motorists heading north into Georgia from Florida. Georgia State Police and local departments can be brutal on speeders. I’ve heard from friends about being fined $1,000 for speeding through construction zones in Ware County, Georgia. So take it easy!
It’s probably a 2 hour drive south (maybe a bit more) down to Cape Canaveral and the Space Coast. Tours of the Kennedy Space Center are offered. Wildlife enthusiasts will love Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge where you can see a lot of Manatees in the inland streams seeking warmer water during winter.
On your way down you might want to stop in Cocoa Beach at the world’s most famous surf shop – Ron Jon Surf Shop. Personally I’m not that blown away by it but many say it’s a must see. It’s open 24/7 even during hurricanes!
TAMPA BAY AREA
Believe it or not, the Tampa Bay Area is just about a three hour drive. It’s a lot warmer down there and the beaches are nicer. And there are various attractions like Busch Gardens and the Florida Aquarium.
Well that’s about it. If you have any questions, feel free to email me! Enjoy your visit.