Duval County: St. Johns River Ferry to Margaritaville

For those traveling A1A south, there is much to see once entering Duval County, the second county on this journey, and my home base. This also means that you have arrived in Jacksonville, the LARGEST city in area in the Lower 48 (overall, it finishes below Sitka, Juneau, Wrangell, and Anchorage, Alaska, and just ahead of Anaconda and Butte, Montana).

Coming into Jacksonville via A1A brings you into the Timucuan Ecological & Historical Preserve. Within the A1A portion of the preserve are the following state parks: Amelia Island, George Crady Fishing Pier, Big Talbot Island, Little Talbot Island, and Fort George Cultural (which contains Kingsley Plantation, part of the National Park Service), as well as city-operated Huguenot Park.

You leave the preserve on A1A by crossing the St. Johns River Ferry, a barely less than a mile ride that brings you to the fishing village of Mayport. It is the only ferry service on A1A.

There is much to see and do at the preserve, but for now, the focus in on the other side of the St. Johns River: Mayport, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, and a couple of notable watering holes, one old and one new—Pete’s Bar and the Landshark Lookout at the Margaritaville Beach Hotel in Jacksonville Beach.

My old high school bud, Robert, joined me on this afternoon of exploration.

Our late morning start began in Mayport. Here the St. Johns River Ferry arrives from Fort George Island, crossing the LONGEST river in Florida and if answered correctly by Gregory Scott in Quora, the second longest river (275 miles) to flow north in America (first credited to the Bighorn River, which flows north through Wyoming and Montana for 336 miles, thus making the St. Johns the LONGEST river to flow north within one state).

It should be noted that many of us here in Jacksonville have been led to believe that the St. John’s River is one of only two rivers to flow north, the other being the Nile, and some might still be in “denial” that there are other rivers that do the same (sorry, I had to do it).

As Robert lives near the Charles E. Bennett Bridge, one of five ways to get to the Jacksonville Beaches, we crossed the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway (which offers a fantastic view of the salt marshes below) into Mayport and headed to Singleton’s Seafood Shack. This establishment is currently remodeling, and hopefully, it will not lose its rustic appeal. Singleton’s was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (see video here). Reviews are mixed, but here is a guarantee, the shrimp here is fresh, delicious, and not too pricey. Robert and I each had the lunch shrimp basket, sided with fries and cole slaw ($10 each). The iced tea was also excellent.

Another option for seafood in Mayport is Safe Harbor Seafood, which offers both a restaurant and seafood market. MSN.com rated Safe Harbor as the #1 place for seafood in Florida, according to Safe Harbor’s website.

Regarding fishing and shrimping, Mayport has a rich history; over the years, however, the shrimping fleet has declined dramatically. A good read comes from the Beaches Museum of Jacksonville Beach, which held an exhibit on Mayport in 2016.

After lunch, we went to take a look at the St. Johns River Lighthouse, located within Naval Station Mayport. You cannot visit the lighthouse, but it is close enough to the fence to get a nice view. Another lighthouse within the naval base is the St. Johns Lighthouse, an art deco designed structure built in 1954, making it the NEWSEST of the known lighthouses in Florida.

To view the St. Johns Light, Robert and I visited one of Duval County’s gems, Hanna Park. Just a short drive off A1A, Hanna Park consists of a 1.5 mile public beach, a 60-acre freshwater lake, around 20 miles of trails for hiking and biking, and full-service camping sites and cabins. A wildly diverse eco-system can be found at Hanna Park; the flora reflects the look of Old Florida, especially with its over 400 acres of coastal hammock that includes lush saw palmettos and sable palms. Part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, we saw blue herons and ospreys, among others.

And did we see any reptiles?

Our first stop in Hanna Park was to visit The Poles, one of Northeast Florida’s well-known surfing locations. The poles serve as the boundary between Hanna Park and Mayport Naval Station. It is from here that you can see the distant St. Johns Lighthouse. Afterward, we went a bit inland and hiked around the lake, where not so distant was a healthy looking alligator. Hanna Park, located between Mayport and Atlantic Beach, has a Jacksonville address. Thus, in Florida, alligators can be found within city limits.

Mountain biking is a popular activity at Hanna Park. While there are no mountains in Florida, Hanna Park uses a system of difficulty levels similar to that used on the ski slopes:: green level for beginners, and blue and black trails for more advanced mountain bikers. Expect frequent switchbacks, roots, and even elevation change on the more difficult biking trails. Adventure Kayak Florida, located within the park, offers bike rentals, along with kayaks.

We spent a couple of hours hiking at Hanna Park before hopping back onto A1A. Here, A1A is marked as Mayport Road until arriving and making a left turn onto Atlantic Boulevard. To continue on A1A, you make a right onto 3rd Street. Stay straight, and you come to a three-block section known as Beaches Town Center, which offers a nice selection of restaurants, shops, and boutique hotels. It is also the home of the OLDEST drinking establishment in Duval County—Pete’s Bar.

Pete’s has served alcoholic beverages legally since the year prohibition ended (1933). It has been owned and operated by the Jensen family since its opening as a market in the 1920’s. It is known for its quarter a game pool tables and as the inspiration of John Grisham’s novel, The Brethern. Our bartender, who considered reading the book “the worst week of my life,” nevertheless showed us the signed copy of the novel kept on the shelves behind the bar. He was not a fan.

This was Robert’s favorite part of the day. “I loved going into Pete’s Bar, talking about Grisham and having the bartender overhearing us and pulling that book out from the shelf. I felt like a detective.”

The beaches communities include Mayport, Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach, and Jacksonville Beach. The Beaches Town Center is located where Atlantic and Neptune beaches border, and is definitely worth an extended visit. Behind Pete’s is the Seahorse Oceanfront Inn, a family-owned establishment, and home to the popular Lemon Bar and Grille, a top-rated beach bar. However, Robert and I needed to be somewhere at five o’clock (again, I had to do it), so we wrapped up our day with a visit to the newest addition of Jacksonville Beach’s boardwalk, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Beach Hotel.

The Jacksonville Beach location is the first of three located along the A1A route. Hollywood Beach and Key West (obviously) are the other two where you can stay, enjoy a “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and drink overpriced margaritas. The Jacksonville Beach location offers an excellent view of the Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier (currently under reconstruction following damage from Hurricane Matthew in 2016). It also provides a view of the Casa Marina Hotel, located next door. There is contrast here; the Casa Marina, which first opened in 1925, is listed as one of the “Historic Hotels of America” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2005. The rooftop Penthouse Bar offers a competing view with Margaritaville’s Landshark Lookout, along with a more interesting, and more affordable drink list.

This itinerary covers nine miles along A1A from the St. Johns River Ferry to Margaritaville Beach Hotel, Jacksonville Beach.

Thanks Robert for sharing the day. A1A is best when explored with friends.

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