Disclosure: I was provided with accommodations and complimentary activities in Jacksonville, FL for purposes of review. All opinions are my own.
I see the signs diverting me to Jacksonville, FL on my way down to Orlando. I know they have beaches. There you go. That was the sum total of my knowledge about Jacksonville, FL.
I had 48 hours to explore Jacksonville, Fl and I made the most of it!
Where To Stay in Jacksonville, FL
I stayed at the Courtyard Jacksonville Mayo Clinic. As the name implies, the hotel is on the campus of the Mayo Clinic and is the perfect location for the Donna Marathon Weekend! Read about my Donna Half Marathon experience and why I loved the Courtyard specifically for that race.
My room included two double beds with plenty of room to move around. There was a desk as well as a microwave and a mini fridge. Having a way to store my own food and heat it up on race morning was a big deal to me.
The Courtyard has a much bigger dining area than most hotels at which I stay. Even better, there were several more intimate seating areas on the sides where a few could gather and watch what they would like on the provided tv.
The Courtyard was close to the attractions, restaurants and shopping that I frequented. One of the first things I did was run out to the Super Target to pick up all the things that I forgot.
Explore Nature on the Cheap – Jacksonville, FL
Fort Caroline National Memorial
After running the Donna Half Marathon, I knew that the absolute worst thing I could do for my sore muscles was to lay around in the hotel while they stiffen up. My family loves exploring national and state parks so I knew hitting one up was a must for me.
The Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve is a national park site that is split into several locations. I only had time on this trip to visit two of the locations that are conveniently across the street from one another. I first stopped in at Fort Caroline National Memorial.
While the original fort that French colonists built is no longer standing, there is a re-imagined replica you can enter on the banks of the St. John’s River. The trails in this area are open to dogs on leashes and make a nice stroll. In the visitor center I learned about the French contact with the Native Americans and their later clash with the Spanish.
Admission to Fort Caroline National Memorial is free and offers the Junior Ranger program at no cost. My youngest son is a HUGE fan of the Junior Ranger program at the National Parks, so I asked for a book and filled in all the answers myself in order to get a badge for him! It was fun and I’ll admit that I did learn more than if I had just cruised through the visitor’s center.
Theodore Roosevelt Area
Across the street from Fort Caroline is the Theodore Roosevelt Area. Donated to the National Parks system by Willie Browne, this area offers 600 acres of hardwood forest, wetlands and scrub vegetation. There are hiking trails where dogs are welcome on a six foot leash. I took the hiking trail by Spanish Pond.
This is a life lesson, friends. I really don’t know where at Fort Caroline I got the idea that the Spanish Pond trail was a .5 mile loop, but I set out cheerfully. I returned to my car much later than I planned and a lot more tired. The path is not a loop and one way was .65 miles. While the trail is a lovely example of Florida flora, I ended up going over a mile more than I planned on a day where I had already covered 13 miles. Maps are important, and I should have looked at the one that was right there at the trailhead. Do better than I did.
I thought this was just a candy store. Y’all, this was so much more.
Pete is the “Peter” of Peterbrooke chocolate fame. Peterbrooke was founded by Pete’s mom and named after Pete and his sister Brooke. Pete decided to strike out on his own and I’m glad he did! Sweet Pete’s is housed in a former “Gentleman’s Club” built in 1903. The building itself is fantastic; I love that they kept so many of the original architectural features. The atmosphere is old-fashioned and fun; the staff is so incredible friendly and accommodating.
I took the factory tour first. I got to see some of the candy being created and packaged, and was taken through the building to see the different areas. In addition to the hand made candies, they offer popular commercial candies and “retro” candies. There’s an ice cream parlor on the second level and a toy store on the third level! Also on the third level is space for classes and special events. Birthday parties abound at Sweet Pete’s.
I was scheduled for a candy making class later and wandered into the adjacent Candy Apple Cafe for a drink while I was waiting. Ask for their special menu of candy cocktails! The bartender suggested a Bourbon Peanut Butter Cup cocktail and that sounded (and tasted) just fine to me.
The Candy Apple Cafe offers a menu that describes itself as Southern hospitality + French decadence. They offer brunch, lunch and dinner.
Time for my candy making class! Our instructor was great and made the class lots of fun. He explained how chocolate is made and the different kinds of chocolate. There were several young kids in the class and he made sure to include them in the explanations and discussion.
We were given a small cup to go downstairs and collect our mix-ins for our chocolate bars. Any of the candy from the open containers was fair game! It was fun to walk around and think about what kind of crazy combinations to use. I ended up collecting salted caramels, raspberry truffles and chocolate covered cashews for mine. Back upstairs, we were given molds full of chocolate to which we could add our ingredients in any way we chose. While those were cooling, our instructor told us more about chocolate and let the kids drizzle the chocolate on their wrists – the best way to tell when the chocolate is the right temperature!
The factory tour is only $5 and includes a custom made chocolate bar for you to take home. The Chocolate making class is $18 and includes three candy bars as well as a voucher for a free scoop of ice cream. There are other classes available as well – taffy, lolipops, boozy truffles – it’s quite a variety! This is a great option if the weather is not cooperating and your family needs indoor fun.
Shopping In Jacksonville, FL
When I first hit St. Johns Town Center in Jacksonville my first thought was, “There really isn’t anything here that we don’t have at home.” I was proven wrong as I was taken on a tour of this massive shopping, dining and living complex. Yes, you can live at the mall! St. Johns Town Center cover acres of real estate and includes living space.
Everything about this retail center invites you to stay a little while longer. The shops on one end start out as your usual “big box” retailers – Target, Old Navy and the like. As you move through the open-air mall, you start to encounter smaller and more exclusive retailers, finally ending up in an area with a bustling Apple store, a Tiffany & Co. and – believe or not – Tesla. You can order your own custom-built Tesla at St. Johns Town Center.
The area is perfect for date night OR family shopping! There are plenty of seating areas spread throughout, some of them with charging stations for your phone! There is a shaded kid’s play area and a park green where turtles, koi and ducks make their home. The park green is host to concerts and other special events throughout the year. I found some treasures for our upcoming family vacation at the large Disney Store on site!
Free WI-Fi, shuttle service, valet parking and even a Bark Park for your furry friends make St. Johns Town Center a shopping and dining destination unlike anything you’re used to.
Where To Eat in Jacksonville, FL
All this shopping, exploring and creating makes a girl hungry! Here are my top picks for eats in Jacksonville, FL:
Bold Bean Coffee Roasters
I stopped at Bold Bean Coffee Roasters for a quick bite and cup of coffee before yoga class Monday morning. I’m glad I got there early because soon the line was out the door! 2400 3rd St. S., Jacksonville Beach, FL 32250
After yoga, I was more than ready for a full breakfast. I was introduced to Metro Diner. There was no shortage of food on these plates! The menu has a great mix of traditional diner food and lighter, more eclectic choices. 1534 3rd St. North, Jacksonville Beach, FL 32250
Beachside Seafood Restaurant & Market
I was looking for a casual, down to earth seafood restaurant in Jacksonville Beach and I’m so glad I came across Beachside Seafood! The enclosed, roof-top porch is the perfect casual atmosphere for the beach. I had my mouth set on a shrimp po boy and they delivered exactly what I needed. 120 3rd St. South, Jacksonville Beach, FL 32250
After wandering St. Johns Town Center for a while, I was famished. MShack was recommended to me and I’m so glad I took that suggestion. After having seafood the night before, I was ready to dig into a burger. You can order a burger combo off the menu or create your own from the many burger, bun, cheese and toppings options available. I opted for sweet potato tots instead of the regular variety! Finally, I appreciate the heads up I got on their “adult” milkshakes. These are on a special menu for which I had to ask specifically. My milkshake had a berry vodka in it and it was amazing.
What About The Beaches?
Y’all, I found so much to do that I didn’t even make it to the beach. This time. That’s so unlike me, isn’t it? I had such a blast exploring, though, that the beaches will have to wait until my next visit. I saw a lot more things that I wanted to check out. At less than six hours from Atlanta, this is a destination that makes it easy to return to.