Jacksonville is a dynamic destination encompassing big city and beaches, impressive high-rises and quaint neighborhoods. Its location in Northeast Florida also makes it easily accessible to some of the region's finest local gems. Just an hour or two outside the city, you can explore a crystal-clear spring filled with manatees, get to know the country's oldest city, or even drive around the racetrack at the "World Center of Racing" in Daytona. So pack a bag and hit the road, and you'll feel free as a bird.
If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me? For I must be traveling on, now. 'Cause there's too many places I've got to see. — Jacksonville-born Lynyrd Skynyrd
Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach
At the turn of the last century, Amelia Island was dubbed the "Queen of Summer Resorts," where wide Atlantic beaches, serene marshes and moss-draped oak trees attracted vacationers near and far. Today, the Victorian town of Fernandina Beach has maintained its charm, while adding a few trendy restaurants and upscale amenities for guests of the nearby Ritz-Carlton and Omni resorts. Along Centre Street, which runs from the docks of the Amelia River through the heart of town, visitors can meander through art galleries, an old-fashioned fudge emporium and locally owned boutiques and gift shops. The Palace Saloon is also worth a stop, where you can pony up to Florida's oldest bar for a refreshing Pimm's Cup or a Pirate's Punch. Take a carriage ride through town for a quick history lesson, or for the ultimate adventure, splash through the surf on horseback.
Cumberland Island, Georgia
Jacksonville is considered among the most Southern cities of Florida, actually closer to Georgia than it is to Orlando. St. Marys, Georgia, is less than an hour away, where you board a ferry for Cumberland Island. Managed by the National Park Service, Cumberland Island is home to more than 100 wild horses, that roam the shoreline and amid the remnants of old Carnegie-family palaces. The secluded island is ideal for spending a day exploring dirt roads through palmetto forests and majestic oak trees. You can even wander to the Greyfield Inn where John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette held their secret wedding in 1996.
On Aug. 28, 1565 Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez landed on the Florida coast to found the first permanent settlement in the U.S. It happened to be the Feast Day of St. Augustine, so the Catholic country named their first city in the New World for the saint. Over the centuries, St. Augustine evolved from a Colonial settlement to a resort community by the late 1800s under the leadership of Henry Flagler, who brought down his rich New York cronies on his railroad to winter in his five-star Hotel Ponce De Leon. Today, this charming city by the sea maintains a European feel with its cobblestone streets, impressive 1600s fortress, Spanish nuances and beautiful buildlings from Flagler's golden age. A tour of the former hotel, now Flagler College, is an absolute must, along with a stroll down St. George Street and a sip from the Fountain of Youth.
Daytona International Speedway
Start your engines! Even if you can't attend one of the famous races like the Daytona 500, the Daytona International Speedway is worth a half-day touring. Walk along the racetrack and feel the amazing 31-degree tilt for yourself; admire Denny Hamlin's No. 11 winning car; and pick up some NASCAR collectibles in the gift shop. For the ultimate race fan, you can ride along with a pro at 160 mph, or for $2,199 you can even drive the car yourself for eight laps of a lifetime.
Florida's Natural Springs
Florida is home to around 1,000 known springs. These crystal-clear upwellings are the source of many of the state's creeks and rivers. They not only provide the state with 60 percent of its drinking water, but they provide a habitat to indigenous plants and animals. One of the most beloved animals in Florida is the West Indian manatee. Less than 2 hours from Jacksonville, Blue Spring State Park is a designated winter refuge for manatees. From October through March, visitors and locals can spot hundreds of manatees each day from the park's raised boardwalk. Also a short drive from Jacksonville is Ichetucknee Springs, where visitors can tube down the crystal-clear waters, sure to refresh on a hot Florida day.
Northeast Florida is a golfer's playground where many celebrity golfers, like Vijay Singh, Fred Funk and Jim Furyk, call home. Beautiful semi-private, public and resort courses are open year-round to golfers of all skill level. One such destination course is the Ocean Links at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation, 45 minutes north of Jacksonville, featuring five magnificent holes right above the sand dunes. South of town, TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra is a must-play. Home of THE PLAYERS tournament and the infamous 17th hole, shooting par here will earn you clout. World Golf Village near St. Augustine is another golfer's destination, featuring the World Golf Hall of Fame and IMAX theater along with two courses, including The King & Bear, the only golf course in the world co-designed by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.