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Next Florida Playground
By Kathleen and Martin Walls
Jacksonville reveals a whole new side for fun-loving visitors
Jacksonville Florida has always been considered the hardworking brother in the state’s family of cities. Recently, that image has been shattered. Jacksonville is revealing its fun side. What a surprise, after all this time when you thought Jacksonville was all work and no play, it unwraps a whole slew of fun places to visit. They were there all along. You just had to hunt for them. Lately Jacksonville is being seen in a whole new light and it is shining brightly.
The heart of Jacksonville is located in its downtown area. Starting from The Jacksonville Landing, a festival marketplace on the St. Johns River with shops, eateries and entertainment, you are minutes from most of the historically significant old buildings.
One of Jacksonville’s most significant downtown structures is the Florida Theatre. It originally opened on April 8, 1927. It provided early movies and vaudeville acts. Then there were 15 lavish movie theaters. Today, it is the city’s last remaining example of 1920’s style movie palace.
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, a towering Gothic Revival church, is the largest pre-1901 house of worship in Jacksonville. The Merrill House, built by James E. Merrill in 1886, is the largest of the 19th century homes remaining in Jacksonville. It is now open for tours. The Ritz Theatre and LaVilla Museum and many other historically interesting buildings grace the downtown area as well.
You can drive but parking is sometimes difficult. Your best choices are the Skyway and the trolley lines. There are three trolley lines and they are free. The Skyway is only fifty cents, even less if you are elderly or disabled.
You can hop on the Skyway at many points downtown and alight at delightful Hemming Plaza where venders hawk items as varied as local produce or handmade jewelry. Cross the plaza and you are at the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the largest collections of modern art in the Southeast. You can even enjoy lunch at the museum’s Café Nola.
Science and History
On the Southside of the river, you will find the Museum of Science and History. MOSH as it is called has offerings ranging form dinosaurs to a state of the art planetarium. It is basically three attractions in one. Whether your interest is in the nature and history of Jacksonville, the stars and space or you want to take you kids to the museum’s University of Science that will help them understand things like electricity or optical illusions, this is the place. For anyone interested in the history of Jacksonville, Currents of Time is a “must see.” This huge (9,300 ft) exhibit begins with the Timucuan people who inhabited Northeast Florida for thousands of years before the first French explorers arrived to hack out their tiny settlement from the Florida wilderness. It tells of the little settlement of Cowford, begun in 1791, and chronicles its development, through wars, fire and snowbird invasion, unto the third largest metropolis in the country.
Almost next door to the MOSH is the Jacksonville Maritime Museum. This free museum offers models and artifacts of ships ranging from a Chinese junk and the Bounty to the Aircraft carrier
that served from 1956 through Desert Storm.
Fort Caroline National Memorial commemorates the founding of
the first Protestant colony in North America in 1564. French Huguenots led by Jean Ribault settled there until defeated at Matanzas near Saint Augustine. The original fort has been reclaimed by time and the widening St. Johns River, but the replica that stands guard in this quiet neighborhood of Jacksonville, gives a feel for what it must have been like for those unfortunate settlers. The fort is reconstructed from original drawings of the first fort Caroline in one-third scale. French and Native American artifacts are housed in the visitor center. Since the fort is part of the Timuquan Preserve, a boat dock, nature trails and picnic areas abound. The Spanish Pond Trail leads visitors into the heart of the Theodore Roosevelt Area. It connects with two other trails that offer a glimpse of what Florida was like in the days of the Timuquan. Be prepared to spot wildlife ranging from otters and alligators to eagles and roseate spoonbills and everything in between.
Directly across the St. Johns River, the Preserve area stretches almost to the Georgia line. If you cross the river on the Mayport Ferry, a delightful experience in its own right, and drive north on A1A (Heckscher Drive), you will cross a series of barrier islands.
Stop and visit the magnificent old Kingsley Plantation. Set on the high ground of a hammock with its moss-draped oaks this is one of Jacksonville’s wilder sides. The plantation grew Sea Island cotton and is the oldest remaining plantation house left in Florida. There are also some interesting tabby ruins before you reach the plantation entrance.
Not far from here, just next to the Mayport Navy Base, you will find Katherine Hanna Park. The park offers a wonderful spot for RVers to enjoy the ocean in comfort. They offer water and electric hookups and shady sites. There is also a 60-acre freshwater lake within the park.
Little and Big Talbot Island
If you continue on north, you will come to Little Talbot and Big Talbot Islands. This is where you find two other great public parks for RVers and great places for bird watching or just strolling the beaches. Talbot Islands State Park offers over five miles of beautiful beaches, hookups and picnic facilities. Hugonot Park is a county park and is more rustic but lets you get closer to nature. It provides beach side camping and RV sites as well as swimming, fishing, surfing, a boat launch area, picnic shelters, restrooms, and shower.
The entire island once belonged to the Christopher and Houston families. Spicer Christopher acquired the island in 1783 and raised cotton, indigo, horses and cattle. John Houston, called “Big John,” married Spicer’s daughter, Elizabeth Susannah Christopher combining the two families into one even wealthier one.
When Elizabeth died, “Big John” married a relative of his first wife, Mary Braddock Greenwood. Many of these families intermarried and are buried in the cemetery now called the Houston Cemetery. John McQueen, immortalized in Eugenia Price’s Don Juan McQueen, also lived in the area for a time. The planters as well as their slaves reportedly haunt the cemetery.
Zoo and Gardens
One of Jacksonville’s premier attractions that has ghosts of a different kind is the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. Tucked away on the north side of Jacksonville, Florida snuggled up against the Trout River is one of the city’s hidden jewels, The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is a “must see”. The zoo sprang from modest beginnings. It grew along with the city to become the exquisite 89-acre jewel it is today. It all began on May 12, 1914 with one red deer fawn at its first location in the Springfield section. That was soon followed by a monkey island and other animals and rapidly grew until in 1925, it moved to its present location. One of the most significant acquisitions of that early zoo was a black jaguar they named Zorro. Zorro produced many offspring during his 19-year life span. These were sent to zoos all around the country and in 2003, a survey showed that all the captive-born black jaguars in North American zoos were descendants of Zorro.
The zoo’s black and white ruffed Lemurs hail from Madagascar. They are tree dwellers and rarely use the ground to move about. At night their eyes are highly reflective. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that the word "lemur" means "ghost" or "spirits of the night" in Latin. Glands in their paws leave a sent that they use to mark their territory. A sharp index claw is used for grooming while their long tail provides balance. The lemur is well adapted for their lifestyle but still endangered due to their small range. A male and female will bond and remain together producing one to three young.
The way these and the other animals and exhibits are laid out make the zoo a delight to visit. Once you enter through the Main Camp, you have a choice of exploring Australia, Africa, South America, Wild Florida or the Great Apes. Or, if the younger guests are restless and need to burn off a little energy, you can visit the Play Park.
One of the great things about the zoo is that you do not feel as if you are watching caged animals. They have spacious exhibits where animals enjoy a life in conditions that closely replicate their native habitats. The arrangement of the zoo into loops representing different countries where both animals and plants representing that country are grouped together make it easy to visualize being in a exotic local. When you visit the African Loop for instance, Savanna Blooms Botanical Garden, Rift Valley’s free flight aviary, lions, giraffes, even a white rhino transport you to the plains of Africa. The newest “loop” is Wild Florida. My favorite exhibit there is the Florida Panthers. The train is a great way to get an overview, as it makes a continuous loop around the zoo.
Naturally, the Jacksonville Jaguars are represented by some of their real counterparts in The Range of the Jaguars, a truly gorgeous exhibit presented to the Zoo by Wayne & Delores Weaver, owners of the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars. New Years day 2009 was a very special day at the zoo. Their four and a half year old female jaguar named Zassi gave birth to a very special cub.
Delfi Messinger, Director of Animal Programs at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, explained, This cub is a symbol of what conservation is all about as it will strengthen our ongoing projects in Guyana."
Mother and cub were released back into the Range of the Jaguar exhibit on April 13, 2009 The Jacksonville Zoo and Garden’s jaguars now number eight cats, the largest collection of jaguars in the nation.
In most of the sections there are keeper talks which is one of the best ways to get more out of your zoo visit by hearing a keeper discuss the animals they work with daily. Feel free to ask questions and enjoy getting up close and personal with the zoo's inhabitants.
If all this walking about has made you thirsty, the Budweiser brewery welcomes visitors to watch actual brewing at their facility. Those over 21 will be offered samples to taste
This just scrapes the surface of the new and exciting Jacksonville. There is so much to see and do you will wonder why you haven’t been there yet.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
208 N. Laura St., Ste. 102
Jacksonville, FL 32202
Fort Caroline National Memorial
12713 Fort Caroline Road
Jacksonville, FL 32225
Budweiser Brewery Tour
111 Busch Dr.
Jacksonville, FL 32218
Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens
8605 Zoo Parkway
Jacksonville, FL 32218
Museum of Science and History (MOSH)
1025 Museum Circle
Jacksonville, FL 32207
Jacksonville Maritime Museum
1015 Museum Circle, Unit 2
Jacksonville, Florida 32207
Talbot Islands State Parks
12157 Heckscher Drive
Jacksonville, FL 32226
Timucuan Preserve/Kingsley Plantation
11676 Palmetto Avenue
Jacksonville, FL 32226
128 E. Forsyth St.