Words and images by Andre Roman and Ashton Elder
Visitors still travel to Jacksonville Beach today, but it’s a much easier — and briefer — trek. The once-dirt Beach Boulevard is now paved and the trip from downtown takes only about a half hour by car, but the charm of this beachside village remains.
Locals, too, enjoy the setting.
“I like to come for walks or go surfing,” said Jacksonville Beach surfer Carolina Conte. “It’s about feeling some peace. It’s a place where I can find peace, surf and be by the water … the waves are just about perfect for my skill level so I like to just get out there and have fun and enjoy nature.”
Much of the draw today revolves around the ocean, the same thing that drew bather here in the 1800s, even though the surrounding area is much more settled.
Back then, it was wild and dune-filled. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1800s that developers realized a potential for a resort at the beach and began selling lots here for $50 to $100.
The beaches area exploded after that, even going through a stage as an amusement park beginning in 1905. At that time it was referred to as Pablo Beach and described as the Coney Island of the South. It fit the iconic beachfront image with boardwalks, seaside shops, resort hotels and rides, including a gilded Ferris wheel.
In the 1960s the beach was incorporated into the city of Jacksonville and although it no longer resembled Coney Island, it still attracted over 9 million visitors annually. And today, some 21,000 people live within the village’s boundaries.
But with over four miles of white sandy beaches, Jacksonville Beach has remained quaint, much of its activities centered on locals.
In fact, nobody knows Jacksonville Beach quite like a local, so it is best to grab one to be your guide as you tour the area. Or, just ask a local for visiting suggestions. Most are happy to accommodate you.
Just “r-e-l-a-x,” suggests local Larry Stoner. “As long as you’re in Jax Beach, you’re doing all right.”
As visitors enter the town epicenter they can immediately detect the smell of salt in the open air and the cool, distinctive ocean breeze. The backdrops of the beach blankets small shops and restaurants.
The buildings reflect the beachside architecture with their vibrant colors and white wrap-around verandas A large amphitheater, the Seawalk Pavilion, distinguishes downtown Jacksonville Beach and is the location of many of the city’s annual events as well as monthly concerts, art walks and movie screenings.
Want to find a place to eat or drink? Just ask.
“If you’re looking for that perfect cup of coffee, a local music show or the next hot spot, a local has the answer and can hook you up!” Stoner says.
Even holidays here have a local flavor.
Each Thanksgiving people convene at Pete’s Bar’s annual block party to have a bloody Mary or a beer. Locals who spill over into the streets with visitors, get a chance to catch up with neighbors.
Every Christmas morning Santa Claus can be seen parasailing over the beach shoreline. On the Fourth of July the beach hosts a grand fireworks display.
The beach also has live music events and is particularly known for the Springing the Blues Festival and the Community First’s Seawalk Music Festival.
In October the beach and main street return to the times of Pablo Beach during the city’s annual Oktoberfest. The city brings back the Ferris wheel and a festival centers on craft beers from area breweries and local cuisine served via food trucks.
“There is always something going on at the beach year round,” said Jacksonville Beach native Patricia Humes.” Out on the pavilion they show movies and have concerts every month. I love the fireworks on the Fourth of July, the sandcastle contest in May and Deck the Chairs at Christmas.”
Beyond the Seawalk Pavilion on the beach, swimmers and surfers congregate, taking in the rushing large waves. Couples are beach cruising on the sand and parasailers usually color the skyline.
The regularity of waves in Jacksonville Beach makes it the perfect spot for surfing contests throughout the year. In fact, surfing is one of the most popular sports here and it is typical to see many locals walking to and from the beach surfboard in hand.
A family beach, it is filled with sunbathers and sandcastles as well as the gleeful laugh of youngsters playing in the sun and sand. It is also pet friendly, although dogs must remain on leashes.
There is a vivacious scene at night and the town’s main street is brightly illuminated after dark by the light spilling out from bar doors. The nighttime center of the city is a mini Bourbon Street, with the bars attracting a wide arrange of locals and visitors who gather there to have a few cocktails, listen to live music and hop from bar to bar.
“I would definitely say it’s a lively scene,” says Kalie Rogers, a bartender at popular Jacksonville Beach bar, Hoptinger. “There are always going to be people out on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
“Every place has different specials. We [Hoptinger] have live music. Lynch’s has live music, and then you have [bars like] Tavern and the Ritz that have DJs.”
So, whether it’s day or night, Jacksonville Beach has its own uniquely charming atmosphere.
Stoner, who used to live in Miami, says he much prefers this — his new home.
“Miami may have beautiful beaches, but by the time you find a spot and drop $15 bucks for parking, you’re a little less giddy about the sun and the sand,” Stoner says. In Jacksonville Beach, “there is always a reason to get a group of friends together.”