12. Vilano Beach to St. Augustine

In the previous Complete A1A journey, a 25-mile stretch from the Duval County-St. Johns County border to Vilano Beach was the focus.

In this entry, the focus is only on a one-mile ride from where A1A turns westward onto the Francis and Mary Usina Bridge, which crosses the Tolomato River before entering the city limits of St. Augustine but not before venturing into a bit of a time warp that is Vilano Beach, a coastal community that was platted in 1927.

A wonderful overview of Vilano Beach is offered by the Newcomer Group.

While St. Augustine Beach, and especially Anastasia State Park, receive much of the beach life attention in St. Johns County, Vilano Beach offers an alternative that is much closer to St. Augustine’s downtown area and can literally be visited by joggers and walkers—a healthy jaunt mind you, but nevertheless a close enough proximity.

Vilano Beach is the quintessential A1A community; it tries to maintain its reputation as a quiet, charming coastal escape while bracing for an eventual conversion toward bigger, more modern hotels and resorts and the traffic and parking ills that accompanies this type of growth.

Sadly, I begin this entry with what is an inevitable occurrence when writing about A1A.

Vilano Beach’s famed Magic Beach Motel, a mom and pop icon that will close down in December 2020 to make way for a new resort—the Vilano Beach Hotel. (Photo by Phil Dignan)
The neon lights welcome you at night to the Magic Beach Motel. (Photo by Phil Dignan)
Flamingo decor can be found throughout the Magic Beach Motel, including these bas reliefs next to each of the motel rooms. These reliefs were part of the original decor of what was once known as the Vilano Beach Motel. (Photo by Phil Dignan)

One of the most popular sights to see in Vilano Beach is the art deco-styled and extremely neon-lit Magic Beach Motel. Originally opened in 1951 as the Vilano Beach Motel, one of several that served A1A travelers back in the day, it was revived after years of blight and disrepair. The motel provided the setting during a one-season stint of the 1999 WB television series “Safe Harbor” starring Gregory Harrison and “Golden Girls” alumna Rue McClanahan, who played the role of Grandma Loring, the fictional owner of the fictional Magic Beach Motel.

The last of the 10 episodes of “Safe Harbor”, “Boys Will Be Boys” shows off much of the Magic Beach Motel as it looks today.

In 2010, a fire damaged the motel; it reopened in its current grandeur in 2012 due to the efforts of current owners Earl and Remy Jensen. For nearly 10 years, Magic Beach Motel has attracted thousands of visitors to at least take photos of the retro motel’s awesome neon lights and wonderful decor. For those staying at the motel, a very short walk to the beach, as well as much of Vilano Beach itself, has made it an ideal location for rest and relaxation.

The motto for the motel?

“Arrive as a guest, leave as our friend.”

Sadly however….

Jessica Clark of Jacksonville’s First Coast News filed this story, “Iconic Vilano Beach motel to be sold, most likely torn down” on August 11, 2021.

According to the Apartments Apart website article “Magic Beach Motel In Vilano Beach Risks Demolition, Residents’ Petition” by Renee Unsworth (August 29, 2021), the new resort will be named the Vilano Beach Hotel, a 194-room resort with retail space, a restaurant, and spa/fitness center that will dwarf the current 24-room Magic Beach Hotel.

According to the motel’s website, December 11, 2021, is the last day to make a hotel reservation.

The lone sign, located along A1A as it turns from the coast toward St. Augustine, shows the displeasure some locals have over the closing of the Magic Beach Motel. (Photo by Phil Dignan).

While Vilano Beach will never be known for high-rise, luxury condos or hotels, Magic Beach Motel, currently on life support, stands in contrast with the three-story Hampton Inn & Suites on the opposite side of Vilano Road, the nearby Holiday Inn Express, and the not-so-old Publix Supermarket. The very soon-to-be addition of a 120-room Hyatt Place will definitely add to the more modernized appearance of Vilano Beach. Other lodging options at Vilano Beach include the Ocean View Lodge and the St. Augustine Beach House, both with beachfront views.

Still, a stroll westward on Vilano Road should keep visitors in that mid-20th century mood, and if timed perfectly, enjoying some of what this laid-back beach community has to offer its locals and visitors.

Just beyond the Vilano Beach Town Center area, where Vilano Road meets Poplar Avenue, is the Vilano Beach Art Fountain, created in 2016 and featuring 10 mosaics designed by students from the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind.

Vilano Beach Art Fountain featuring 10, 2-foot by 2-foot mosaics created by Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind students. Each design features a well-known Vilano Beach scene. (Video by Phil Dignan)

Students also contributed to the mosaic artwork displayed along the Vilano Beach Nature Boardwalk, accessible a short walk from the fountain on Poplar Avenue.

The mosaic mural, one of several created by students from the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, welcomes visitors to the Vilano Beach Nature Boardwalk. (Photo by Phil Dignan)
The Vilano Beach Nature Boardwalk extends outward beside the Francis and Mary Usina Bridge that connects Vilano Beach and St. Augustine. Pictured is one of several mosaic murals depicting wildlife within the salt marsh. (Photo by Phil Dignan)

On a personal note, I applaud the efforts of the Vilano Beach Main Street group in having students from FSDB provide artwork as my parents, both of who were deaf, graduated from the school—Go Dragons!

Continuing the walk along Vilano Road brings you to sign of the times past.

The vintage Haley’s Court motel sign, which was restored to its original, 1940s-1950s look, is located on Vilano Road, where it stands to represent the art moderne-styled motels that served Vilano Beach motor tourists during the post-World War II era. (Photo by Phil Dignan)

Haley’s Court was one of several motor lodges that handled the tourist boom of the 1940s-1950s.

Postcard dated November 16, 1950, from Haley’s Court, Vilano Beach.

While Haley’s Court no longer exists, evidence of the architecture of its time can be found in the immediate area. One example is 180° Vilano Grill and Pizza.

180° Vilano Grill and Pizza, housed in one of the remaining art moderne buildings on Vilano Road, is one of several locally-owned restaurants in Vilano Beach. (Photo by Phil Dignan)

Adding to the classic, retro appeal of Vilano Road is its Airstream Row, which for most of the week consists of only three Airstream trailers showing no activity.

Airstream Row, Vilano Beach (Photo by Phil Dignan)
An outdoor area sits next to one of the trailers at Airstream Row. (Photo by Phil Dignan)

However, as advertised on the Vilano Beach Main Street website, Airstream Row hosts two events each month: outdoor music on the second Friday evening and a pop-up market on the third Saturday.

Beyond the roundabout along Vilano Road is the Vilano Beach Pier and a not-to-be-missed A1A photo opportunity—the Bluebird of Happiness.

The entrance to the Vilano Beach Pier leads to what was once the Vilano Beach Bridge, the original A1A route from the south into St. Augustine.
The Bluebird of Happiness, located at the foot of the Vilano Beach Pier, greets visitors near and far. (Photo by Phil Dignan)

This eight-foot-tall icon, in its current vibrant condition, has weathered several tough moments. Once an Orange Bird, it served to promote Florida’s citrus industry, before being brought to Vilano Beach in a rather deteriorated condition. Vilano Beach Main Street was instrumental in bringing to its current state and location.

A blog post by Suzanna Mars on March 20, 2010 provides information and photos of the Bluebird of Happiness prior to its current appearance today.

“The Bluebird of Happiness was once a key piece of Vilano Beach’s identity although Vilano Beach was its third home.  Shaped as two oranges and painted that sunny hue, the bird helped promote Florida orange juice along a major pre-interstate motor route.  In its second move in Vilano Beach, it became the bright blue good-luck totem at Newt’s Motel.  In all, the bird was moved four times before coming to an inglorious perch in a local marsh.  In 2008, the Main Street Group brought the bird to a sandy lot in the Vilano Beach Town Center where it stands today protected by a “cage” of chain-link fencing.  His wings appear to have been clipped, but eventually the Main Street Group hopes to restore the bird as a photo-op icon.”

Newt’s and Wilda’s Motel was owned by Newton and Wilda Haley, the same owners of Haley’s Court.

Another blog site sharing information and photos on the Bluebird of Happiness can be found here: The Goat: Bluebird of Happiness (May 29, 2010).

Through my online search on info on the Bluebird of Happiness, I found a few comparisons between it and the Southernmost Point in the Continental United States Buoy in Key West.

The Southernmost Point in the Continental United States Buoy, probably the most photographed spot in Key West. Behind our photographer was a huge line of people waiting to get a photograph taken.

Although more popular and well-known than the Bluebird of Happiness, it is hard to argue that the Bluebird is much more charming and cuter.

The pier, which also features an archway showing three dolphins, is known as an excellent spot for pier fishing and watching a sunset over the St. Augustine landscape on the opposite side of the Tolomato River.

Sunset views from the Vilano Beach Pier tend to attract people each night. (Photo by Phil Dignan)

Also found along the pier are several porch swings to relax while people-watching or watching a sunset.

One of several porch swings found on the Vilano Beach Pier. (Photo by Phil Dignan)

While the pedestrial nature of the pier is enough reason to visit Vilano Beach, it should be noted that this was once part of A1A as the Old Vilano Beach Bridge, a one-lane each way crossing into St. Augustine from the north, with a drawbridge that at times would cause a need for a beverage or two while having time to watch dolphins frolic close to the bridge.

Old Vilano Beach Bridge (from Florida Memory online collection)

From the Pure Florida blog entry on January 19, 2011 titled “The Sun Is Setting Rapidly On Old Vilano Beach”:

“To be fair, the old draw was a little fussy sometimes, and since it lifted a section of the bridge straight up, if you ignored the crossing arm you went straight into the drink…When you consider the fact that for a very long time, there was a bar called the “Lazy Sands” practically at the foot of the bridge that had a drive through window for mixed drinks served in a “to go” cup…then you can imagine how a drawbridge might consume more drivers than expected.”

From Vilano Beach, travelers would drive through the commercial stretch of Vilano Road, once dominated by local establishments such as Haley’s Court and the Lazy Sands Bar.

That changed in 1995 when the Usina Bridge diverted traffic from these businesses, thus making much of Vilano Road more of a relic of the past.

Still, visitors can find near the pier a Caribbean-style, waterfront eatery, Beaches at Vilano, and a couple of options for exploring the water by Fins Up Tours and Red Boat Water Tours.

Newer development has reinvigorated the Vilano Beach economy; it has also threatened the way of life its residents and visitors have grown accustomed to, that of a quiet, laid-back style with the art deco look reflecting Florida of old. This has prompted community members to call for a pause in future development.

A good read on this is provided by Sheldon Gardner’s article, “As commercial development skyrockets, Vilano Beach Groups seeks pause over impact concerns” (St. Augustine Record, September 27, 2021).

While development is inevitable, community leaders do seek a balance in order to maintain Vilano Beach’s retro-styled ambiance and quirkiness so embraced by locals and visitors alike.

And for an “I almost forgot to mention” moment?

Just north of the platted Vilano Beach is North Beach, home of its…
love lock bridge crossing over A1A.
Though locks were removed back in 2018, once more the bridge walk is weighted with love locks. (Photos by Phil Dignan)

Though not considered one of the world’s great love lock bridges (Check out this article by Rosie Bell, “20 Love Lock Bridges Around the World” from Brides online site.), the North Beach crossover bridge just north of Vilano Beach proper offers a chance for couples to express their love.

One of several dozen love locks found on the North Beach bridge walk. (Photo by Phil Dignan)

Most likely the only love lock bridge crossing over A1A, the current display of love locks follows the removal of love locks that occurred back in February 2018 due to safety concerns—after all, there is nothing lovely about a weighted down bridge crossing collapsing on oncoming vehicles. Still, that romantic spirit continues to lock and load across this section of A1A.

Before we leave Vilano Beach, here are two more video glimpses of this still quirky little gem.

Vilano Beach Main Street promotional video.
Chad Gallivanter, a Florida traveler extraordinaire, provides a slick video presentation of Vilano Beach, as well as other videos focusing on A1A communities.

Happy Traveling!

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