Migrating south to Florida on Spring Break has been a Luna family ritual since I was in diapers. We’ve been all over: from the Strip of Panama City Beach to the parks in Orlando to the beaches of Sarasota. And it’s one tradition I’ve continued long after my own school years ended and I assumed control of my own travel destiny—in my 34 years, not a year has passed without me visiting Florida (though, realistically, I usually find myself there three or four times annually).
Last year in March, I took advantage of Southwest’s cheap flights from Nashville to Jacksonville and visited my local friend Angie for a long weekend. I had such a good time that I vowed to make this getaway an annual occurrence. So it was kismet when I was invited to a wedding in South Carolina mid-March of this year; one look at the map told me in four hours by car I could be back in Jacksonville, and suddenly a four-night stint in North Florida was etched on my calendar.
Area-wise, Jacksonville is the largest city in the United States (with more than 840 square miles!) as well as the most populous in both the state and the Southeast. But vibe-wise, it feels to me like a small town with everything going for it: a burgeoning food scene, some fun art installations in interesting neighborhoods, a lively brewery trail, 22 miles of pretty coastline and the nicest, friendliest people you’ll meet. (It’s still the South, y’all.)
Heading there for your own Spring Break or summer vacation? Here are four of my favorite ways to get to know Jacksonville:
1. A little SUP Yoga
I’ve been paddle boarding for a decade, though I just invested in my own personal board last summer. Any chance I get while traveling, I hit the water to see the area from a different perspective. In a city like Jacksonville that’s flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and bisected by the St. Johns River, water sports opps are ample, and there’s no better way to spend your time than getting a cardio fix while seeing new terrain.
Due to a cold snap that consumed the entire eastern half of the country while I was there, I didn’t get out on the water this time around as SUP operations had temporarily halted. But starting in April, Black Creek Outfitters will resume its regular SUP Yoga classes for the season—every Saturday morning at 9:30am on the lake behind the shop—and for newbies and paddleboard veterans alike, I can’t endorse this form of fitness more highly. It’s a core workout like you’ve never known before, trying to balance in standing bow pose as the water ebbs and flows beneath your board. And no, you don’t need yoga or paddle boarding experience to try it—you just need to have a good sense of humor, as you will fall in!
For those looking to just grab a rental board and paddle out to sea on Atlantic or Neptune Beach, the friendly folks at Jax Beach Surf Shop have you covered; they offer board rentals, lessons and group paddles. They also sell equipment and some really cute beachwear. Additionally, Jacksonville has an active SUP community that organizes regular meet-ups.
2. A wander along the JAX Ale Trail
I’m a fan of exploring a place via its craft beer scene; not only do you get a literal taste of the food and spirits culture driving the city, but you also are guaranteed to meet some colorful characters.
A New York photographer friend B.A. was in town for the weekend, and he met up with me at Aardwolf Brewing Company, located in the heart of San Marco, the cutest little Jacksonville neighborhood. It was the middle of the afternoon when many should have been at work, but also St. Patrick’s Day, so the place was already hopping.
Another friend had mentioned that Aardwolf specializes in sours, so I took the opportunity to deviate from my normal dark-beer agenda and try a green sour specially made for St. Paddy’s Day. Yum!
B.A. and I then hopped in a Lyft and headed over the bridge to Intuition Ale Works, which might be Jacksonville’s most well-known brewery, for flights of stouts, IPAs and other specialty brews that happened to be on tap. If I can’t be on the beach, I can’t think of a better way I’d like to while away the day than a self-guided brewery tour.
Not a beer fan, but still want to partake? No problem. Jacksonville’s first craft distillery, Manifest, recently debuted in the space adjoining Intuition. We tried it out, too…for research, of course.
3. Dining downtown
I have a love affair with anything whimsical and/or delicious, but factor in an amalgamation of Alice in Wonderland, Willy Wonka and the most striking black-and-white design you’ll find, and you can immediately see why I’ve got a love affair with the Candy Apple Café. Though I’d been there once before, it was the first stop I made while back this visit, and it’s not just because its resident shop, Sweet Pete’s, is three levels full of sugary fun.
After lunch at the café, a mosey through the adjoining gourmet candy story is definitely in order. Even if you fill your stomach with desserts and craft cocktails from the Candy Apple (as well you should), be sure and stock up on treats for later in the day. You won’t regret it; at 23,000 square feet, Sweet Pete’s is one of the biggest confectionary emporiums in the country. Just don’t settle up until the shop’s signature caramels have made their way into your shopping basket! For science lovers and amateur chefs, there are even hands-on, candy-making workshops that I’ll make it to one of these days.
4. A spa day at Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa
While a number of spas inhabit coastal resorts along Jacksonville’s beaches, Angie and I opted for a morning indoors at Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa down on Ponte Vedra Beach. Given that it was quite chilly that day, we couldn’t think of a better way to beat the cold than to Zen out at this 25,000-square-foot spa, which offers a full menu of treatments. Angie and I both opted for the Sawgrass Custom Massage, a blend of Swedish and Therapeutic with hot stones, a scalp massage and a wee bit of foot reflexology to top it all off. It was pure heaven.
It was an added bonus that my late grandparents had been avid golfers who had taken me to Sawgrass as a child. After our massages and a little unwinding in the hot tub, we drove around the 65-acre resort so I could soak up the nostalgia remembering how Dede, Granddaddy and all their friends so adored this place. There’s also a Soothies Café on site at the spa that was bringing out smoothies and mimosas at the ready. I didn’t indulge this time, but next visit, it’s on!
Looking for other trip ideas to Florida? I’ve got a few:
- Swimming with Manatees in Crystal Springs
- Taking Your Dog to South Walton
- Planning the Ultimate Vacation in the Florida Keys
- Getting Your Water Park on at Volcano Bay
- Exploring the Elegance of St. Augustine
- Planning a Gulf Coast Bachelorette
- Experiencing the Magic at Wizarding World of Harry Potter
- Playing with Dolphins in Panama City Beach
- Going Wreck Diving in the Gulf of Mexico