Jacksonville, Where Florida Begins

Dec. 23, 2010

By Cole Pepper

Jacksonville is a city that is best enjoyed over the long term. Unlike New York, Miami or Chicago, local knowledge is needed to enjoy the Jacksonville experience, especially on a relatively short visit. This is a wonderful city whose culture is largely based on three components: geography, neighborhoods and families. Let me explain.

The geography of any city impacts its culture and it is especially true of Jacksonville, the River City by the Sea. Let's start with the obvious: the water. Between the beaches on the Atlantic Ocean (Jacksonville, Neptune, Atlantic Beaches, to the north, Amelia Island and to the south, Ponte Vedra Beach and St. Augustine Beach), there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the sand. Jax Beach, Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach all have plenty of dining and shopping as well.

Ponte Vedra is one of the wealthiest communities in the country. Home to the PGA Tour and the annual Players Championship at the TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra/Ponte Vedra Beach has real "wow" factor. You can play the TPC Sawgrass (both the Stadium Course and Dye's Valley course are terrific), but it's not cheap. Then again, you probably won't care as you stand on the tee of the island green, No. 17, and try not to worry about hitting it in the water on one of the most recognized holes in golf. The new clubhouse is a magnificent place to wind down after a round of golf.

The Intracoastal Waterway and the St. John's River join with the Atlantic Ocean to give the region three very different bodies of water, but all have great fishing. Fishing charters are available all over the area, but I recommend checking one of these guides (outdoorsshow.com/guides.html) Call in advance. They book up fast.

In addition to the beach communities, there are a number of great neighborhoods to enjoy. Each neighborhood in Jacksonville has a distinct personality and tempo. Downtown (www.coj.net/default.htm) is in a stage of rebirth. There are a number of restaurants (see below). A good place to hit is the waterfront dining and shopping center, The Landing. Most locals spend time at the Landing for special occasions like parties before big games or on New Year's Eve.

Near downtown, the neighborhoods of San Marco and Riverside/Avondale lie across the St. John's River from one another. San Marco has a terrific shopping square and plenty of dining. The 5-Points shopping area lies between downtown and Riverside/Avondale, and features a number of antique stores and locally owned boutiques.

The Shoppes of Avondale are also a highlight. Avondale was recently named one of the top 10 neighborhoods in the country, and is the dining hotspot of Jacksonville (see below). Amelia Island (www.ameliaisland.com/) is beautiful with its beaches and also features SALT restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton. If you don't mind spending the money, you won't forget this meal. For those on a budget, checking out the shops in downtown Fernandina and enjoying the lush oak tree lined streets on and near the Amelia Island Plantation are great ways to enjoy the island.

The St. John's Town Center and Avenues Mall are great for good old fashioned shopping. These are the two best malls to hit. St. John's Town Center is an outdoor mall, the Avenues is indoor. Both have lots of national stores. You can also find bargains at the outlet malls in St. Augustine (www.oldcity.com), just off I-95, south of Jacksonville.

For golfers and fans of the game, there's no better place to start than the World Golf Village. Home to two terrific courses, The King & the Bear, co-designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, and The Slammer & The Squire, named for Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen, the complex also features and IMAX Theatre and many golf themed shops plus the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Movies -- in addition to the IMAX at the WGV, plenty of theaters are available, including a large complex at Tinseltown on Southside Blvd. The Tinseltown Area also has plenty of shopping and dining options.

For those of you who enjoy poker, there are two poker rooms in the area. The St. John's Poker Room and the Orange Park Kennel Club have earned multiple awards as the best poker rooms in Florida.

Here are my picks for best places to eat by style and geography. Jacksonville has a ton of national chains as well, but these are locally owned restaurants that are some of my favorites.

• Pizza -- Westside and Amelia Island: Moon River Pizza. Rest of town: Mellow Mushroom (3 locations)
• Upscale -- Orsay (in Avondale) - Might be the best restaurant in town.
• Local -- 'Town (3611 St. John's Avenue, in the Shoppes of Avondale)
• Eclectic -- BB's (Hendricks Avenue near San Marco). Biscotti's (St. John's Avenue, Avondale)
• On the Water, Downtown -- River City Brewing Company
• Italian -- Taverna (on the square in San Marco)
• Food and Music-Brick -- (Also in the Shoppes of Avondale)
• Thai -- Tuptim Thai - Hwy 17/Roosevelt
• Middle Eastern -- Casbah
• Downtown -- Chew
• San Marco fine dining -- Matthews - Long tradition as one of the best restaurants in the South.
• St. Augustine -- Gypsy Cab Company
• Breakfast Diners -- San Marco (south of the square) - Metro Diner. Avondale- The Fox
• Burger-Pinegrove Market and Deli, Pinegrove Ave. and Park Street in Avondale
• Authentic Seafood-Singleton's Seafood Shack-Mayport, at the Beach: Salt-Life
• Place only the locals know -- 13 Gypsies (Riverside...absolutely must make a reservation in advance)
• Good old fashioned southern Fried Chicken -- Beach Road Chicken Dinners

Cole Pepper is a 14-year resident of Jacksonville. Originally from Kansas City, Pepper has spent his time in Jacksonville professionally as a radio and TV broadcaster and sports writer. He's called the play-by-play action for the Jacksonville University Dolphins, Jacksonville Suns (AA-baseball), Jacksonville Tomcats (former arena football team) as well as working as the studio host for the Jaguars Radio Network for 13 of the last 14 seasons.

Pepper also has his own line of BBQ Sauces "Cole Pepper's Blackjack BBQ Sauce" (colepepper.com) and runs the annual Jacksonville Backyard BBQ Championships, a charity fundraiser for Daniel, Florida's oldest child-serving agency.

Jacksonville Quick Facts

• Jacksonville is named for President Andrew Jackson, though he never set foot in Northeast Florida.

• Jacksonville is the largest city, in area, in the continental United States and the most populous city in Florida.

• By air, Jacksonville is an hour from Atlanta, 45 minutes from Orlando and two hours and 15 minutes from New York.

• Jacksonville spawned a number of popular musicians and musical acts including: The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Limp Bizkit and Pat Boone.

• Jacksonville is home to a number of professional sports franchises, including the Jacksonville Jaguars (NFL), the Jacksonville Suns (Double-A baseball affiliate of the Florida Marlins), the Jacksonville Sharks (Arena Football) and the Jacksonville Giants (ABA) among others. Jacksonville is also home to Jacksonville University and the University of North Florida, which compete in the Atlantic Sun Conference in a variety of sports.

• Jacksonville is host to the annual Florida/Georgia college football game dubbed "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party."

• Nearby St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States.

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