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Come for St. Augustine, Stay for Amelia Island: A Guide to Northeast Florida

By Terry Ward

Jan 27, 2022

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Northeast Florida is home to several great beach towns and plenty of surf spots.

Kristin Wilson/Unsplash

Northeast Florida is home to several great beach towns and plenty of surf spots.

Tempting restaurants, new hotels, and plenty of outdoor adventure await.

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Northeast Florida—which stretches from Amelia Island in the north to St. Augustine Beach in the south—is the entry point for many people who road-trip into the Sunshine State from chillier points north. It’s full of surprises—so many, in fact, that you might want to fly directly here for your next Florida vacation. 

Come for an ideal backdrop of beach towns full of ocean-loving locals—where life revolves around paddling out for dawn patrol on days when the surf is up—and stay for historical attractions (like the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States, the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine) and an impressive dining and brewery scene both on and away from the beaches.

Know the northeast Florida neighborhoods 

Each stretch of the coast here comes with its own appeal. Amelia Island, in the north, is your best bet for pristine beaches and great cycling paths. Heading south, you’ll hit Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach, which have the most residential feel of the Jacksonville Beaches (which also include Jacksonville Beach), with neighborhood coffee shops where surfers meet after checking the waves and families catch up with friends. 

Jacksonville Beach itself is the place for more of a party vibe, with plenty of bars and a bandshell–the Seawalk Pavilion–that hosts regular concerts and festivals. If it’s a side of history you’re after with your beach time, head south from there along the coast to St. Augustine’s historic quarter (and St. Augustine Beach for sun and sand).

Check into one of the best new hotels

On the beach east of downtown Jacksonville, One Ocean Resort & Spa, right where Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach meet, has the best oceanfront location of any hotel in these neighboring coastal communities, with rooms featuring balconies that take in 180-degree coastal views.

Book One Ocean Resort now: From $299/night, expedia.com

If you don’t mind being near but not on the beach, Hotel Palms sits three blocks from the ocean, within walking distance of scores of great restaurants and shops. It is an affordable and stylish place to stay in the dune-backed neighborhood of Atlantic Beach. 

The renovated motor court hotel has a vintage vibe that conjures Palm Springs and a chic lobby coffee bar, Show Pigeon Coffee, that steams up espresso drinks laced with housemade syrups in flavors like burnt orange and maple sage.

Book Hotel Palms now: From $159/night, expedia.com

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New in 2021 in Jacksonville Beach, Margaritaville Beach Hotel brings the brand’s Caribbean vibe to northeast Florida and is a family favorite, with an oceanfront pool and hammocks for swinging beneath the palms.

Book Margaritaville Beach Hotel now: From $179/night, expedia.com

To the south in historic St. Augustine (and also new in 2021), the Renaissance St. Augustine Historic Downtown Hotel was built to replicate the historic Hotel San Marco that sat on the same spot during Florida’s late 19th-century Gilded Age. Stay here to be steeped in history and to sleep within walking distance of all of downtown’s highlights, including the restaurants and bars along George Street and sunset favorite, the 17th-century Castillo de San Marcos.

Book the Renaissance St. Augustine now: From $269/night, expedia.com

For oceanfront luxury in northeast Florida, Ponte Vedra Inn & Club’s newly restored oceanfront Peyton House and Ocean House have 41 indulgent new oceanfront rooms and suites; there’s a new bocce ball and croquet court to enjoy if you’re feeling fancy (or just want to take a swing at things).

Book Ponte Vedra Inn now: From $399/night, expedia.com

Come hungry to San Marco. It's home to a variety of restaurants serving cuisine from Mexico, the Mediterranean, and more.

Plan a trip around this thriving restaurant district

On the south bank of the St. Johns River, minutes from downtown Jacksonville, the historic neighborhood of San Marco is a leafy warren of bricked streets and stylish shops, restaurants, and bars that almost feels like a mini Savannah.

Longtime anchor restaurants like Matthew’s and Bistro Aix (offering fine dining and modern Mediterranean, respectively) share the quarter with trendy newcomers like cheese-and-salumi hot spot, Taverna, and Town Hall, where two-time James Beard nominee Tom Gray sources from local purveyors for a seasonal menu that usually features Atlantic Ocean bounty, such as local flounder and tilefish.

San Marco has barbecue joints and beer gardens that feel like a real local find–and will make you feel like one of the locals, too, while you sip a frosty beer with an ear of elote and Mexican street-style tacos at Tepeyolot Cerveceria or dig into a brisket sandwich or chicharron pork nachos at the Bearded Pig.

Come as you are to these popular bars

Jacksonville Beach’s multi-functional brewery-taproom-espresso bar, Ink Factory Brewing, opened in late 2021 as the newest addition to the Jax Ale Trail, a self-guided tour of more than 20 breweries around greater Jacksonville, including the beaches. Try the brewery’s Acid Test–a fruited kettle sour ale brewed with lactose and Oregon boysenberries for a refreshing, zingy taste. 

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In the oceanfront courtyard of a hideaway motor inn in Jacksonville’s Neptune Beach, Lemon Bar & Grille is a long-standing watering hole that does a mean piña colada backed by dune and ocean views. It’s an ideal spot to while away a Sunday funday (you can even run into the ocean for a dip between sips).

And slated to open later this year in downtown St. Augustine, a new rooftop bar and restaurant, River & Fort, overlooking the waterfront at the heart of the city’s historic corridor, is sure to make a splash with some of the best on-high views in the neighborhood. 

Add both Fort Clinch State Park and Castillo De San Marcos to your itinerary.

Find adventures in the great outdoors

Northeast Florida’s majestic oak trees, draped with Spanish moss, and rugged dune-backed beaches make the region a favorite with visitors drawn to Florida’s beguiling nature. 

Amelia Island is one of the best places in the state to pedal a bike, with six miles of trails under the canopy of trees within Fort Clinch State Park (keep an eye out for white tailed deer as you pedal) and more terrain to explore around the towns of Amelia Island and neighboring Fernandina Beach (just north), too.

If mountain biking is more your pace, Jacksonville’s oceanfront Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park has miles of single- and double-track trails (spanning boardwalk, sand, and dirt) suitable for all skill levels. The surf set gravitates to the beach break called Mayport Poles, just in front of Kathryn Hanna Abbey Park—a consistent spot for waves that break particularly well on a north wind.

And for a real treasure-hunting adventure along one of Florida’s most rugged stretches of beach, stake the sand in search of shark’s teeth at Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in Ponte Vedra Beach. People have found megalodon teeth here; even if you come up empty handed, you can still enjoy views of some of Florida’s highest sand dunes within the reserve.

New in northeast Florida in 2022

This year marks the inaugural Fort Mose Jazz & Blues Series, which is being held during Black History Month over February 18 to 26 to celebrate St. Augustine’s African American heritage.

Concerts featuring two-time Grammy Award–winning jazz artist Gregory Porter, 18-time Grammy Award–winning Count Basie Orchestra, and others will take place at Fort Mose Historic State Park—a National Historic Landmark site home to the first legally sanctioned free African American settlement in North America.

>> Next: How to Make the Most of a South Florida Vacation This Winter

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