The Northeast coast of Florida is one of the most overlooked destinations in the Sunshine State. While the trendier and blue blood enclaves in the southern part of the peninsula get all the press, Florida's First Coast on the outskirts of Jacksonville has in some ways remained a sleeping beauty. I recently visited this corner of the state for the first time in several years, and I couldn't help but wonder why I'd stayed away so long. With an abundance of world-class hotels, golf, dining, and even a dash of history, the First Coast has all the makings of a great Florida vacation.
|How's this for a beach?|
Where to Stay
The First Coast of Florida stretches from the Georgia border to as far south as the cities of St. Augustine and Palm Coast. Within this 75 mile piece of coastline, one will find numerous hotels and resorts to catch a little R&R and bask in the Florida sun.
To the north lies Amelia Island, a pristine hamlet that allows visitors to connect with both nature and the state's famous white sand beaches. Here you'll find the award winning Elizabeth Pointe Lodge as well as the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, Florida's newest recipient of the prestigious Five Diamond Award. In addition, the Omni Amelia Island Resort offers the ultimate playground for families and couples alike, and is set to reopen in March of 2013 after an $85 million expansion and refurbishment.
|Amelia Re-Imagined...Set to debut March of 2013.|
Credit: Omni Amelia Island
Traveling south on A1A you'll eventually come across the hip coastal town of Atlantic Beach and the One Ocean Resort & Spa. The young and young-at-heart will feel right at home in Atlantic Beach, which feels like a smaller and slightly dressed up version of Key West.
|The sign pretty much sums it up...|
A little further down the coast lies the golfer's paradise known as Ponte Vedra Beach. Anchored by the Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa, Ponte Vedra Beach is put on the world stage each year when the PGA Tour comes to town with the annual Players Championship. If you prefer the beach and classic Florida luxury to golf, then the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club and the adjacent Lodge & Club are likely the place for you. These beachfront resorts are both recipients of the Five Diamond Award, and carry a legacy dating as far back as the 1920's.
Where to Play
For the golfer, Florida's First Coast is the very definition of paradise. The TPC at Sawgrass captures most of the attention - 5th majors are good that way - but if you find the 17th and its infamous island green too intimidating, there are many more options for great golf in the area. Anytime the word "Ocean" appears in the name of a golf course, you're destined to find good things, and the First Coast features not one, but two courses with that distinction. The Ocean Links at Amelia Island features five oceanfront holes, while the Jack Nicklaus designed Ocean Course at Hammock Beach Resort has been called the "Pebble Beach of the East." In any case, I suggest packing extra Titleists.
|Distraction doesn't make golf any easier...|
If golf isn't your thing, consider a day trip to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States. Founded by Ponce de Leon in 1565, the city is home to numerous historic landmarks, such as the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and nearby Fort Matanzas. After nightfall, head to St. George Street and join in one of the many ghost tours which, although too scary for yours truly, are a fun way to experience some of St. Augustine's rich history.
|The Legendary Casa Monica Hotel in St. Augustine|
Credit: Kiwi Collection
Finally, if you've always dreamed of swimming with the dolphins, the Marineland Dolphin Adventure should not be missed. One of Florida's earliest tourist attractions, Marineland is now operated by the Georgia Aquarium and allows visitors to get up close and personal with their dolphins and also learn about the facility's conservation efforts. Marineland has been a mainstay on the First Coast for decades, and is the very definition of "classic Florida."
What to Eat
Along with the great hotels and golf, Florida's First Coast is home to more than its fair share of exceptional dining. The most notable of which is Salt at the Ritz Carlton in Amelia Island. As the name suggests, the restaurant has earned its stripes by infusing their menu with various rare and unique salts from across the globe. They also recently earned their salt - sorry, I couldn't resist - by taking home a Five Diamond Award of their own. I'm beginning to think the First Coast has a thing for diamonds.
|The salt spread at...Salt.|
Credit: Ritz Carlton
Further south, the Medure brothers - Chefs Matthew and David - have in some ways defined the landscape of dining on the First Coast. Their restaurants, Matthew and Medure, are consistently two of the highest rated in the area and should appear on any foodie's radar. They've also shown their ability to cross over into more casual eats with M Burger Shack, where I can attest the milk shakes and truffle fries might nearly change your life.
|It doesn't look like much, but just trust me on this one.|
When the evening is all said and done, no food adventure on the First Coast would be complete without a nightcap at Hugh's Bar inside the lobby of the One Ocean Resort. Here the bar's namesake serves up some of the best hand crafted cocktails in the Sunshine State. Might I suggest the Old Fashioned - think: a smoothie with Bourbon - or the intriguingly named "Hugh's Your Daddy."
|Sunrise over Atlantic Beach|
Although it is often overlooked, the First Coast deserves to be counted among the most popular vacation spots in Florida. Between the numerous great hotels, golf courses, and restaurants, the area can easily hold their own up against the more popular destinations to the south. My hope is that more people come to discover the charm and classic Florida appeal of the First Coast, but until then, it'll be our little secret.
Enjoy Your Stay