9. Duval County: SR 116 to US 90/Beach Boulevard

In Entry #8 of the Complete A1A journey, we cross the St. Johns River Ferry from Fort George Island onto Mayport and continue until A1A intersects with SR 116/Wonderwood Drive; the intersection allows travelers to visit Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park eastward, and inland to Jacksonville to explore more of the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve.

Entry #9 takes us through A1A within Duval County as it goes through Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach before arriving at US 90/Beach Boulevard and Jacksonville Beach. We also venture into Jacksonville via SR 10/Atlantic Boulevard and explore the Jacksonville Sports Complex.

From SR 116/Wonderwood Drive, A1A takes a southeasterly, 6.3-mile drive through residential and business areas before turning right onto Mayport Road. Before making that turn, Olympia Cafe, on the left of A1A, offers a chance to enjoy some Greek fare, as well as a selection options including pizza by the slice. It is the first of many locally-owned eateries along Mayport Road and Atlantic Boulevard.

For the next three miles, A1A, which enters Atlantic Beach, runs along establishments serving the local population. For years, this section was mainly nondescript. However, with the increased interest in public art, ArtRepublic, “a cultural production agency creating artist collaborations for growth oriented municipalities and brands,” held its first “enLIGHTen” festival in April 2021, bringing together local and nationally-known mural artists to what was a drab storage facility and transforming it into an eye-catching, outdoor splendor of color and design.

One of over a dozen Mayport Murals

This form of public art has invigorated once down and out areas throughout the country, especially in Miami’s Wynwood district, where its Wynwood Walls attracts millions of visitors each year.

While not as extensive as Wynwood Walls, outstanding, professional quality wall murals and sculptures designed by local, national, and international artists can be found throughout Jacksonville, especially downtown (Visit Jacksonville, the city’s official tourism website, offers a self-guided tour of downtown street art ). This includes a Jason Tetlak mural “Brooklyn”, also known as The Beastie Boys 3-D Mural; it has been certified by the Guinness World Records as the LARGEST anaglyph 3D mural.

Interview with artist Jason Tetlak

Check out the write-up by Forbes magazine, “Mural Park Represents Lasting Legacy Of Inaugural “enLIGHTen” Arts Festival In Atlantic Beach, FL” by Chadd Scott (April 28, 2021

In the article, Scott recognizes a Black-owned restaurant that opened in 1963, prior to integration: Voo-Swar Restaurant and Lounge:

“Established by (Lewis) Washington’s father, Earnest “Mr. E” Davis, who lived next door and died in 2019, Voo-Swar has been a pilar of the area’s Black community since opening. That opening predates integration. Voo-Swar first welcomed guests in 1963, one year prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act which ended segregation in public areas and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

“That history, along with the flavors of proceeding decades serving some of the area’s best ribs, chicken wings and burgers, is infused in the walls. Little of this Florida remains in a state controlled by developers hell bent on squeezing out the old for the new.”

Voo-Swar, located just one block off A1A, sits across the street from the Mayport Murals. Trust me on this—the food is really good; Lewis, who introduced himself to us with fist bumps, and his niece, who introduced herself to us as “V”, are super-friendly; and the backroom, with more murals and several pool tables, has an awesome little dance floor.

The dance floor at Voo-Swar

Along with a self-guided mural tour (among other activities), Visit Jacksonville also offers a Jax Ale Trail tour, which includes a passport to 22 local breweries in the Jacksonville-area.

The passport can be picked up at one of the two Visit Jacksonville visitor centers or at any of the participating breweries. Prizes are given to those that visit four breweries (a koozie), eight breweries (a koozie and a t-shirt), and the currently-opened 21 breweries (a koozie, a t-shirt, and a super secret surprise).

Ruby Beach Brewing Company, coined after the original namesake of Jacksonville Beach—Ruby Beach, is temporarily closed. It should also be noted that Ruby Beach )1884-1886) was later named Pablo Beach, which held this distinction until 1925.

A brief, interesting read on the history of Jacksonville Beach can be found at this Jacksonville Beach website.

Near A1A in Duval County are four of the microbreweries on the Jax Ale Trail. The first, Reve Brewing, is just off A1A to the left before reaching West 13th Street. Reve is the fourth microbrewery along A1A south; SJ Brewing Company in Yulee (also participating in the Jax Ale Trail), Mocama Beer Company , and Amelia Island Brewing Company, both in Fernandina Beach, are the first three.

Within the Jacksonville beaches area are three more Jax Ale Trail microbreweries: Green Room Brewery, Engine 15 Brewing Company, and Southern Swells Brewing Company.

Making a left turn, A1A joins Atlantic Boulevard eastward; a right turn takes you inland into Jacksonville. After eight usually congested miles, Atlantic Boulevard veers to the left, but here you may also continue straight onto Arlington Expressway, cross the high-rising John E. Matthews Bridge and arrive at Jacksonville’s Sports Complex, which includes TIAA Bank Field (home of the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars, the annual Florida-Georgia football game, and the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl) and Daily’s Place , 121 Financial Ballpark (home of Minor League Baseball’s Triple-A Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp), and Vystar Veteran’s Memorial Arena.

By the way, Jacksonville is the first of two Super Bowl cities along A1A, the other being more known for its Super Bowl games, Miami.

While you might not be able to catch an event during your A1A journey, a visit to the sports complex also provides a chance to visit one of Jacksonville’s most popular breweries and a Jax Ale Trail participant, Intuition Ale Works, located just across the street from the ballpark.

Also, a couple of photo ops are located in the vicinity.

The first is the impressively intimidating Jaguar statue, located at the front of the stadium’s main entrance. Located across the street from the stadium on Gator Bowl Boulevard (along the St. Johns River) is Casper’s Alligator Farm’s Smokin Gator, a relic from a past tourist attraction once located on US 1 between Jacksonville and St. Augustine. The open-fingered front foot shown once held a cigar (read more on this attraction from one of my prior posts). The gator statue is listed as a Roadside America attraction.

A detailed look at the Jacksonville Fire Museum, with a clever song choice to accompany this video tour

Though temporarily closed, the Jacksonville Fire Museum is located within the sports complex. A visit to Jacksonville would not be complete without learning about the infamous Great Fire of 1901, where much of the city was destroyed.

From the Jacksonville Historical Society’s “The Great Fire of 1901”:

“The Great Fire was the most destructive event in Jacksonville’s history, wiping out 2,368 buildings while leaving nearly 10,000 people homeless and destroying the majority of Downtown Jacksonville (miraculously, only seven persons died). It was the LARGEST metropolitan fire to have occurred in the South, before or since. This momentous event triggered an unprecedented rebuilding effort that laid the foundation for modern Jacksonville.”

When opened, admission to the museum is free and worth a look.

Back on A1A/Atlantic Boulevard, a short ride brings you to Neptune Beach and the Beaches Town Center, one of Duval County’s top restaurant and night life areas. This four block section between what becomes A1A/Third Street and the Atlantic Ocean offers some of the best lodging in Duval County: One Ocean Resort & Spa, The Seahorse Oceanfront Inn and its locally famed Lemon Bar, and the Hotel Palms.

Beaches Town Center also offers excellent restaurants and boutique shopping. all locally-owned, including the second independent bookstore along A1A, The Bookmark.

Speaking of books, a visit to Pete’s Bar is a historic Beaches Town Center spot. Opened as a bar in 1933, Pete’s was the FIRST bar in Duval County to open following the end of prohibition. The bar has been family-owned since Pete Jensen first opened it as a market in the 1920s. It is known for its quarter a game pool tables, and as the inspiration for John Grisham’s novel, The Brethren. Other celebrities that have visited Pete’s include Ernest Hemingway, Mick Jagger, and W.E.B. Griffin.

It is also known for this Thanksgiving tradition, as mentioned in Void magazine’s “Jagger, Grisham, Buffet, Hemingway were Patrons of these Local Dives” by Amber Lake (July 18, 2018):

“Most locals use the adjective institution when describing Pete’s. This is partially owing to its role in the annual Thanksgiving Day community block party known as “Pete’s Giving.” Wittingslow says it started 32 years ago with a single bartender who had offered to stay open during the holiday, as he had nowhere else to go. Before long, everyone knew Pete’s to be the one place that was open. About 20 years ago, the bar had gotten so busy that the city was forced to allow patrons to step out on the street during the holiday. “It was strictly word of mouth. We didn’t ask the Clydesdales [Budweiser horses] to come. They just showed up one year.”

Lake’s article also provides information on three other dive bars along A1A; The Palace Saloon in Fernandina Beach, Ginger’s Place in Jacksonville Beach, and Trade Winds Lounge in St. Augustine.

Before arriving at Beaches Town Center on A1A/Atlantic Boulevard, you will come to Aqua East Surf Shop on the left; this is a great stop for those needing beach wear and essentials, as well as offering a wide selection of Aqua East-brand t-shirts.

Unlike other beach cities along A1A, the Jacksonville beaches gives off a vibe that is hometown-centric, catering to locals more so than tourists. The landscape is not dominated by super high-rise hotels, souvenir shops, and wildly-decorated miniature golf courses.

But, there is much for visitors to enjoy.

For several blocks between Neptune Beach and Jacksonville Beach, A1A/Third Street traverses only through neighborhood areas and Duncan U. Fletcher Middle School, with Fletcher High School and San Pablo Elementary School tucked away behind. Home of the Senators, Fletcher High claims among its alumni eight former NFL football players, founding members of the alt rock band Cold, 2003 United States Surfing Champion Sean Mattison, and…

Jo Ann Campbell, a former drum majorette and graduate of Duncan U. Fletcher High School.

… singer from the 1950s and 60s, Jo Ann Campbell.

The high school was named after the LONGEST serving U.S. senator from Florida and former Jacksonville mayor.

From A1A/Third Street, head to US 90/Beach Boulevard, then turn a left, go to First Street, and find a parking spot. This allows you to explore the boardwalk of Jacksonville Beach.

For seven blocks north, you will come across some of the popular hangouts, local retail shops (check out Surf And Skate Surf Shop Jax Beach for those Jacksonville Beach t-shirts), and the Jacksonville Beach Pier.

The pier is going through renovations and will not open until Spring 2022. What you will find within sight of the pier, however, is the newest addition to the boardwalk, the Margaritaville Beach Hotel.

While I tend to avoid chain hotels, restaurants, and shops in my blog posts, I do have to make an exception here, for I am a confessed Parrothead who rarely turns away from Sirius XM Channel 24 . But also, to conclude this entry, I feel a need to contrast this new addition to Jacksonville Beach with the oldest, and most historic hotel within the beaches, if not all, of Duval County—the Casa Marina Hotel and Restaurant.

A narrow parking lot separates these two hotels. Yet, the style of both are extremely different in taste and style. Margaritaville, while luxurious and modern, is also wacky and tacky (as it should be) while Casa Marina is nostalgic and refined. It is not a cheap stay in either, but it is worth visiting both and hang around at the Landshark Bar and Grill (Margaritaville) and/or the Penthouse Lounge (Casa Marina) for a spell.

Don’t step on a pop top without your flip flop.
The lobby at Margaritaville Hotel, Jacksonville Beach
Landshark Bar and Grill
Welcome to the Casa Marina
A view of the Jacksonville Beach Pier (under renovation) from the Penthouse Lounge
The Casa Marina provides images throughout the hotel of Jacksonville Beach history through vintage photos, including boardwalk life and a time where cars lined the beaches.

While Margaritaville reflects the current popularity of Jimmy Buffett and is the place for a margarita, Casa Marina, which opened in 1925, reflects the Jacksonville Beach of life prior to prohibition; a list of nine martinis, including The Hemingway, top its menu list of cocktails. From the Casa marina website:

The 1920’s in Jacksonville were ‘hot’. The Jacksonville train terminal opened in 1919 and everybody who was anybody came southward to Florida: from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, John D. Rockefeller, and President Harry S. Truman and F.D.R. claims that these celebrities including, Jean Harlow and Al Capone, were guests at the hotel in its early years. The movie industry boomed in Jacksonville long before Hollywood and the ‘greats’ like Chaplin and Pickford made appearances.

The Casa Marina was two stories tall and had 60 rooms. Jacksonville Beach was the most alluring tourist town in NE Florida: its boardwalk, dance casinos, dining, amusement rides and wide beaches were known throughout America.

No offense to a Margaritaville Cheeseburger in Paradise, but an order of shrimp tacos from the Penthouse Lounge is simply a heavenly experience.

Wherever you choose to enjoy lunch, dinner, or nightlife around the boardwalk, you will find it welcoming. So much, that even if you were on an establishment’s naughty list….

From Mango’s Beach BarINSIDER TIP:  Under new management. If you were previously banned before, you are welcomed back for another trial run!”

A brief, interesting read on the history of Jacksonville Beach can be found at this Jacksonville Beach website.

Next stop: A1A from Jacksonville’s Beach Boulevard to St. Johns County and Ponte Vedra.

Happy Traveling!

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