Jacksonville in Florida — known locally simply as "Jax" — is where South meets North. Southern gentility, neighborliness, and cuisine is still practiced with pride. Yet while this city is so rich in cultural and historical heritage, it's also well-endowed with many modern sights and experiences to enjoy, too. But despite the downtown high-rises and tall office blocks, the local folk still very much believe in small-town values. Perhaps nowhere else in Florida are the contrasts so stark, and so interesting.
ATTRACTIONS TO VISIT IN Jacksonville
1. Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens
Ninah May Holden Cummer was a local philanthropist who wanted to create "a center of beauty and culture" in Jacksonville. Unfortunately, she didn't live to see the opening of the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in 1961. But the gift she bequeathed to the city and its visitors will live on forever.
The museum is now home to more than 5,000 pieces of art — some dating back more than 3,000 years — including more recent works from artists such as Winslow Homer, Thomas Moran, and Norman Rockwell, and including the Wark Collection of Early Meissen Porcelain.
2. The Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary
The mission of this non-profit organization is a noble one: to educate the public on the dangers of owning big cats as pets and on threats to the cats from changing weather patterns, environmental pollution, diminishing habitats, and human hunters. None of the animals living here have ever been bought, sold, or traded; they've mostly been brought here by owners who couldn't care for them properly
As a result, you and the kids can see some of the world's most exotic cats up close. Residents of the sanctuary include lions, tigers, pumas, cougars, leopards, bobcats, foxes, and coatimundis (which are not big cats, but actually members of the raccoon family, with very long snouts). One of the best things about this place, however, is its employees — not one of them is paid for their work. They do it out of love. Guided tours are available.
3. Kingsley Plantation
At the Kingsley Plantation, on Fort George Island east of the city, you can take a trip back to the 19th century. This is a good example of a grand Southern mansion from the pre-Civil War days, and a lifestyle that, thankfully, died with the Confederacy.
There's a plantation house, a kitchen house, a barn, and the remains of some 25 slave cabins. Zephaniah Kingsley was the master of the plantation, and he later married one of his slaves, who became a successful businesswoman and property owner. However, discrimination against her and her family caused them to move to what is now the Dominican Republic.
4. Florida Theatre
On April 8, 1927, the Florida Theatre opened. Where once stood a ramshackle police precinct filled with some of the most unsavory characters in Northeast Florida, suddenly there was a beautifully crafted, classic performing arts theater, with a stunning old-world ambience.
Since that time, some of the most famous performers in the world have appeared here, playing music ranging from rock to Rachmaninoff, and happy holiday presentations to children's theater, and pretty much everything in between. And oh, yes, one young performer had his first solo show here: Elvis Presley.
5. Fort George Island Cultural State Park
For a different side of the Jacksonville area, head for Fort George Island Cultural State Park. This spot is a bundle of contradictions. For one thing, it's a historic landmark, the site of Fort George, built in 1736 to defend the southern flank of what was then the British colony of Georgia. It's also a place of lush natural beauty, interesting wildlife, and great recreational opportunities — not to mention a most beautiful and calming silence.
And, yet, it's also the site of The Ribault Club, Jacksonville's most raucous and glittery club for the rich-and-famous in the Roaring Twenties. An outfit named Kayak Amelia can set you up for a guided tour of the island on a cross-terrain Segway, or you can go boating, fishing, kayaking, geocaching, cycling, birding, canoeing, picnicking, and hiking. The island is also the site of the Kingsley Plantation attraction.
6. Amelia Island
While you may not have heard of Amelia Island, about 20 miles north of Jacksonville, rest assured the Spanish, French, English, and Scottish knew of it. At various times, some of them even captured the island, lost it, and then recaptured it again from their enemies.
At one time, in fact, Amelia Island must have been the most desired place in America, because eight different flags have flown over it — more flags than anywhere else in the US. In these early years, the island's cast of characters was known to have included pirates, gun-runners, Confederates, Union soldiers, escaped prisoners, and sailors who jumped ship.
7. St. Johns River Taxi
St. Johns River Taxi will take you to three stops along the Southbank and three stops along the Northbank. The modern, comfortable, covered boats seat up to a hundred passengers and offer spectacular views of the city and skyline. The company also offers special trips and tours to places like the Riverside Arts market and the Museum of Science & History, and you can also sign up for the popular sunset cruise, when the lights of the city turn into a continually-changing tableaux.
One of the best things about the River Taxi, though, is that you don't need a particular destination in mind. Many people take it simply for the sheer joy of the ride along the river and the panorama of the city spread out before them.
8. Adventure Landing
At Adventure Landing Jacksonville Beach — the first of 10 such theme parks that have sprung up since this one opened in 1995 — the kids will be screaming and splashing all day long, and parents will turn into kids again.
Attractions at this popular theme park include miniature golf, laser tag, the Wacky Worm roller-coaster, go-karts, the Frog Hopper, and a ride for the more serious roller-coaster lovers called 3D Max Flight. You'll also find plenty of wacky, wild, watery, wonderful "splash" attractions — thrills and spills galore for the whole family.
9. Jacksonville Riverwalks
The St. Johns River is the commercial, transportation, and historic heart of Jacksonville. Now insisting of two sections — the Northbank and Southbank — this fun network of pedestrian walkways extends some 3.5 miles along the river, connecting a number of hotels and attractions.
It's romantic to walk along the river at dusk, when a calm takes over the water just as the city on either side of it is lighting up. During the day, it's fun to stop and listen to the frequent performances by excellent street performers and bands. In addition, there are some good restaurants along the way. It's also a safe place to jog, run, bike, or just walk. And keep a sharp eye out because you may well see dolphins cavorting in the water.
10. Atlantic Beach
Just a short drive east from the urban buzz of Jacksonville is another world altogether: Atlantic Beach. Here, the only sounds to be heard are the soothing waves lapping against a beautiful beach, and the seabirds swooping above the water. One of the best ways to get to Atlantic Beach is via the St. Johns River Ferry, which plies the river amid all types of interesting scenery.
Another good place to visit is the Tide Views Preserve. This tranquil spot is popular for its great natural beauty, with a long pier jutting out into the marshes and a park with trails and boardwalks. Atlantic Beach is a great place to just relax and soak in the smells, sights, and sounds of one of Florida's great getaway destinations.