Why has low-key Jacksonville emerged as perhaps Florida's most desirable relocation destination? First, water. Blessed with uncrowded beaches as well as the mighty St. Johns River and the Intracoastal Waterway, you can't drive far without running into shimmering bodies of water. Second, natural beauty. Visit the Guana River Marsh Aquatic Preserve for sunsets over the marshes and estuaries of the Tolomato and Guana Rivers. Spend an afternoon exploring the Black Creek/Ravines Conservation Area. Head over to the Jacksonville Beach Pier and scan the horizon for a pod of Northern right whales. Third, livability. The Jacksonville area boasts most of the cultural and recreational perks found in glitzier (and more expensive) Florida cities. So, where should you buy a home? Let's look at the choices.
Orange Park's residential development first gathered momentum in the early 1920s when Caleb Johnson, president of the Colgate-Palmolive Company, built Villa Mira Rio, a $500,000 estate on the riverbank.
A scattering of gracefully aging residential showplaces still stand along River Road, while Johnson's Mediterranean-style mansion survives as Club Continental, a popular special-event destination.
Otherwise, Orange Park, the county's largest city with about 10,000 residents, is a thoroughly modern place. Key selling points in the county include its highly rated school system, the presence of Naval Air Station Jacksonville and a plethora of retail and entertainment outlets, including the Orange Park Mall, Orange Park Kennel Club for greyhound racing and the Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts.
Arlington is home to Jacksonville University and some of Northeast Florida's most precious environmental and historical landmarks. It's also a center for commerce, encompassing Regency Square Mall and numerous shopping centers, restaurants and office buildings. Downtown is a short drive over the Mathews Bridge, and the Beaches are 20 minutes away via Atlantic Boulevard.
Although much of Arlington was developed in the 1950s and '60s, its history goes back much further. French explorer Jean Ribault landed here in 1562, preparing the way for a second French expedition and colony called La Caroline two years later.
The Spanish later routed the French and captured Fort Caroline. Remains of the triangular fort and the meadow on which it stood were swallowed when the river was dredged. But in 1964 a replica was built, which stands today in the 680-acre Fort Caroline National Memorial.
Much of Arlington's growth is occurring in the area informally known as Intracoastal West, where the Intracoastal Waterway marks the traditional dividing line between Jacksonville proper and its coastal communities.
Although tied to Jacksonville by geography, "The Beaches," as locals refer to the area, have steadfastly sought to maintain separate identities. Starting from the north, here's a look at these once-remote cities settled by rugged pioneers, which still attract people seeking a casual, coastal lifestyle.
Unincorporated Mayport, at the mouth of the St. Johns, retains a gritty, rough-andtumble charm and is home to commercial fishing and shrimping operations as well as the huge Mayport Naval Station.
Locals enjoy traveling to Mayport via ferryboats, which run between Mayport and Hecksher Drive at the southernmost tip of Fort George Island.
The main attractions: dining at rustic seafood eateries, buying fresh seafood just off the boat or going on deep-sea fishing excursions. Gambling cruises also depart from Mayport daily.
In contrast to its working-class neighbor to the north, Atlantic Beach began as a lavish playground for the wealthy. In 1899, when his rail line was complete, Henry Flagler began to develop the area as a resort community, the centerpiece of which was the fabulous Continental Hotel.
Today, Atlantic Beach's tree-lined streets are primarily residential, with funky old beach cottages alongside sprawling new mansions. Non-beachfront residents can access the sand and surf from many well-placed, well-maintained dune crossings.
There's also plenty of action in Atlantic Beach. The Town Center area of Atlantic Boulevard between Third Street and the ocean, refurbished in the late 1990s, boasts some of Northeast Florida's liveliest nightspots.
Spunky Neptune Beach, smallest of the Beaches communities, is most notable landmark is perhaps Pete's Bar, a friendly hole-in-the-wall mentioned in the John Grisham bestseller, The Brethren. Pete's, established in 1933, is the oldest continuously operating tavern in Northeast Florida.
The largest, oldest and southernmost Beaches community, Jacksonville Beach, was originally known as Ruby, named for the daughter of a pioneering family who settled the area in the 1880s.
But the community really started to grow when Beach Boulevard opened in1949, supplying a second, more southerly route from Jacksonville to the coastal communities.
On May 3, 1901, a family living in downtown Jacksonville began to prepare lunch. An errant cinder leapt from the chimney of the stove and floated west, landing on a pile of moss in the yard of a mattress factory at Davis and Beaver streets.
That spark began a cataclysm that would become the third-largest urban fire in U.S. history up to that point. The so-called Great Fire of 1901 destroyed 2,368 buildings— most of downtown—and left 10,000 people homeless.
However, no sooner had the smoke cleared than a new Jacksonville arose, quite literally, from the ashes. Within five years, 1,500 new buildings went up, including several designed by nationally recognized architects energized at the prospect of helping rebuild a major city.
In the decades that followed, Jacksonville has been characterized in turns as a resort destination, a movie capital, a golf mecca, a business center and, as of 2005, a Super Bowl city.
In addition to 5.6 miles of river frontage, Jacksonville's urban core boasts 256 acres of parks and public spaces, more than 100 eateries of every type imaginable and numerous galleries, museums and theaters.
Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville and Veterans Memorial Arena make up the sports and entertainment complex at the east end of downtown.
A Friday market in Hemming Plaza, First Wednesday ArtWalk and frequent events at cultural venues such as the Florida Theatre and the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts are also downtown draws.
When Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom's Cabin, settled in rural Mandarin in the 1860s, she was attracted by the area's natural beauty and its suitability for growing citrus.
Stowe, who in addition to farming established a school for former slaves, later wrote about her life in Mandarin, which she termed "a tropical paradise," in the book Palmetto-Leaves. This modest series of sketches, widely read in the North, did much to promote Florida's charms and encourage relocation.
Just a short drive south of Jacksonville's city center, Mandarin is bordered by Beauclerc to the north, Julington Creek to the south and St. Johns River to the west. Surely, Stowe wouldn't recognize the community
North Jacksonville has been described as Duval County's last frontier for development. Its 850 square miles boast stunning scenery and such ecological wonders as Huguenot Memorial Park, Big Talbot and Little Talbot islands and the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve.
Increasingly, new subdivisions are cropping up, spurred in part by plentiful, relatively affordable land and adjacency to Jacksonville International Airport.
Riverside was founded after the Civil War by Northern real estate speculators who sought to transform the vast plantation acreage overlooking the St. Johns into a neighborhood for the elite.
The neighborhood's first heyday lasted from about 1895 to 1929, when architects and builders sought to outdo one another with impressive Colonial Revival, Georgian, Queen Anne and Tudor residences. Even proponents of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School found expression in Riverside.
In 1920, a group of investors bought property immediately south of the neighborhood and subdivided it into 720 lots. Avondale, as the development was called, at first boasted primarily Mediterranean-style homes influenced by architect Addison Mizner.
Eventually the two neighborhoods grew together, and are now all but indistinguishable from one another. The Riverside/Avondale Preservation Group keeps careful watch over proposed new projects and renovations.
Shopping and dining in Riverside/Avondale is an adventure. The nearby Five Points retail district is one of the most eclectic in the Southeast. Riverside Market Square brought the neighborhood a new Publix Supermarket, assorted restaurants and shops.
In addition to lovely architecture, fine shopping and adventurous dining, Riverside/ Avondale is home to several public parks, the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens and St. Vincent's Medical Center.
When Telfair Stockton first began selling San Marco lots in 1925, he envisioned a community with a Mediterranean motif. But by the time San Marco began to blossom, public fascination with all things Mediterranean had faded, clearing the way for Tudor, Georgian and Colonial styles.
San Marco's business district, which has been dubbed San Marco Square despite its triangular shape, is a local treasure. Today, a wedding cake-style fountain flanked by carved lions is the centerpiece of the small triangular park at the center of "The Square," which is home to some of the region's most popular eateries and an array of intriguing boutiques.
San Marco's proximity to downtown makes it popular for commuters, who can use the Kings Avenue Parking Garage and catch the Skyway into the city.
Southern Living magazine named Springfield its No. 1 Comback Neighborhood in the South. But few would have thought such revitalization was likely just a decade ago. This once prosperous expanse of 1,800 stately homes and its 22-block commercial district had become a slum—and there was little reason to believe that change was in the offing.
But Springfield has been resilient. In fact, according to the Springfield Preservation and Revitalization Council, more than one-third of the historic neighborhood's homes have now been renovated or restored. And Main Street now sports a tree-filled median with antique-style streetlamps and brick crosswalks.
Want to see a movie, grab dinner or go shopping? If so, you're likely to end up on the Southside, which is generally considered to lie northeast of Philips Highway, south of Atlantic Boulevard, east of University Boulevard and west of St. Johns Bluff Road.
The Cinemark Tinseltown, a movie megacomplex with huge screens and comfy, stadium- style seating, has established itself as one of the most popular draws in Northeast Florida, bringing crowds to Southside Boulevard to catch a flick and enjoy the nightlife.
Also on the Southside is The St. Johns Town Center, an open-air mall at J. Turner Butler Boulevard and St. Johns Bluff Road. Among the tenants are 40 retailers new to the region and eateries such as P.F. Chang's, Maggiano's Little Italy and Ted's Montana Grill.
The Southside's other regional mall, The Avenues, is located on Philips Highway between I-95 and Southside Boulevard.
Perhaps Jacksonville's most affordable housing can be found on the Westside, a vast expanse that encompasses Naval Air Station Jacksonville and Herlong Airport as well as dozens of older subdivisions and shopping centers.
Much of the Westside, however, remains rural, offering opportunities for hunting, boating and fishing. Baldwin, in fact, marks the terminus of the 14.5-mile Jacksonville- Baldwin Rail Trail, which follows abandoned railroad lines between Imeson Road and S.R. 121. Another Westside treasure is the 509-acre Westside Regional Park.
The Cecil Commerce Center, formerly Cecil Field Naval Air Station until its decommissioning in 1999, is home to the state-of-the-art Jacksonville Equestrian Center and a growing number of companies in the aviation and transportation industries.
Visitors who leave I-95 and explore the real Flagler County will be surprised to find upscale subdivisions along the Intracoastal Waterway, lavish condominium towers along the ocean and world-class golf courses designed to accentuate the area's natural splendor.
Palm Coast became an incorporated city in 1999 and today is the population center of Flagler County, with some 45,000 residents. A 1,550-acre project called Town Center at Palm Coast, just south of Palm Coast Parkway, will provide a distinctive downtown for the community.
Although Palm Coast is Flagler's highest-profile city, three other municipalities lie within the county: Flagler Beach (population 3,850), known for its 656-foot fishing pier and boardwalk; Bunnell (population 2,156), a sleepy inland city that serves as the unlikely county seat; and Marineland (population 10), a tiny city encompassing a venerable dolphin-themed tourist attraction that reopened in 2006 after restoration.
Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of Amelia Island. Florida's northernmost barrier island, 32 miles from downtown Jacksonville, has been ruled under eight different flags since French explorers first came ashore in the mid-1500s.
In addition to the French, Spanish and English, past conquerors have included Mexican rebels, Scottish mercenaries, local insurgents and the Confederate Army.
Today's invaders of the 13.5-mile-long island are generally friendly tourists seeking pampering at posh resorts, relaxation at pristine beaches and good times at frolics and festivals held in funky Fernandina Beach, the historic city anchoring the island's northern edge.
Fernandina's 50-block downtown district, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is packed with intriguing shops, restaurants and taverns occupying charming 18th-century buildings. Victorian mansions, many of them built between 1870 and 1900, front brick-lined residential streets.
The heart of the historic district is Centre Street, stretching the width of the island from the Intracoastal Waterway to the ocean. And at the junction of Centre Street and the Intracoastal, Fernandina's docks bring in nearly 80 percent of Florida's sweet Atlantic white shrimp—nearly 2 million tons per day.
While there are a number of intriguing infill projects in Fernandina, ranging from luxurious condominiums to traditionally themed, single-family neighborhoods, the bulk of Nassau County's growth is now inland, particularly around Yulee, at roughly 10 square miles the county's largest unincorporated area.
St. JOHNS COUNTY
NORTHERN ST. JOHNS COUNTY
C.R. 210 meanders across the top of St. Johns County, connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the St. Johns River. In some places, it remains a quiet country road dotted by marshes and bays stretching inland from the Intracoastal Waterway and flanked by open fields where horses graze.
Now a plethora of upscale master-planned communities, some the size of small cities, are springing up in this once-rural setting south of Jacksonville. New residents are attracted by the county's stunning natural beauty, its convenient location and its highly touted school system, among other assets.
PONTE VEDRA BEACH
The home of The Players Championship golf tournament and some of Northeast Florida's most expensive real estate was a mining camp in 1914, when two young chemical engineers discovered more than a dozen industrial minerals in the dunes along the ocean.
What's now Ponte Vedra Beach was called Mineral City in those days, when the National Lead Company began producing titanium and zirconium during World War I.
But when the war ended and demand for minerals slackened, National Lead ceased mining and converted the property into the region's first golf and country club—the precursor of today's Ponte Vedra Inn and Club—for the exclusive use of its executives and directors.
Pioneer Jacksonville developer Telfair Stockton bought 800 acres from National Lead in 1942, building homes and expanding the golf course.
In the early 1970s half-brothers Paul and Jerome Fletcher bought 6,000 acres and began selling off tracts for such upscale developments as Sawgrass. The Fletchers also started their own luxury community, Marsh Landing.
In addition to luxurious living, Ponte Vedra Beach has become synonymous with golf and is home to the international headquarters of the Professional Golfers Association as well as The Players Championship, held each spring at Sawgrass.
In 1872, Harriett Beecher Stowe described St. Augustine as a sleepy, isolated place where, she noted, "The current of life has an indolent, dreamy stillness."
For anyone who has visited the Oldest City on a weekend, the words "indolent" and "dreamy" are not likely to come to mind. This is a bustling place, teeming with shopping, nightlife and some of the state's best restaurants.
And there's always a festival of some sort going on, including Founders Day, Menéndez Day, Greek Landing Day, the Minorcan Festival and the Gamble Rogers Folk Festival.
Located 35 miles south of Jacksonville beside the Matanzas Bay, St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by Spanish Admiral Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. That makes it the nation's oldest continuously occupied city.
Castillo de San Marcos, completed in 1695, still overlooks the bay, while more than 85 other historic sites line the cobblestone streets alongside intriguing Spanishand Victorian-style homes.