by Andrew Collins
Out of Town
February 16, 2009
Jacksonville sits along the Atlantic coast of northern Florida, and in some respects it possesses the gentile charm of low-country Georgia and the Carolinas. At the same time, this historic metropolis on the St. Johns River captures the laid-back, beach-y vibe more typical of Florida.
Although this part of the state has a somewhat conservative reputation, Jacksonville has a lively gay scene and is becoming increasingly popular as an affordable, friendly vacation option for GLBT travelers.
Jacksonville is the state’s largest city, both in population (800,000) and area (it stretches some 840 square miles – no city in the lower 48 states is bigger). It’s the eastern terminus of I-10, which runs all the way across the country to Santa Monica, California, and also a major city along the East Coast’s longest highway, I-95. As it’s just a couple of hours by car from both Savannah and Orlando, it’s pretty easy to get to or include on a road-trip through the Southeast.
The city doesn’t have quite the Spanish colonial look of some parts of northern Florida because a massive fire in 1901 effectively leveled the city, destroying more than 2,300 buildings. But what you will see in many of the city’s historic areas is a rich mix of Arts and Crafts, late Victorian-style, and Mediterranean Revival architecture.
Good neighborhoods for exploring include San Marco and Riverside, two historic residential areas that also have a variety of notable shops and restaurants. In Riverside, which has many of the Jacksonville’s gay bars, much of the retail and dining action is concentrated in Historic Five Points, which is a funky neighborhood with a youthful, alternative personality. Another excellent Riverside area for exploring is the Avondale section, which is more upscale and refined and has some great restaurants.
Riverside’s top cultural draw is the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, which contains an outstanding collection of paintings and furnishings. The neighborhood is also the site of the city’s popular gay pride celebration, First Coast Pride, held the last week of July. The parade runs from Avondale along the neighborhood’s tree-shaded streets to Five Points, where there’s a two-day festival in Riverside Park.
Jacksonville’s dining scene is varied and interesting, with plenty of intriguing spots to choose room. In downtown Jacksonville, Chew is a dapper little American restaurant serving creative lunch and dinner fare, from grilled truffle-and-fontina-cheese sandwiches to steak au poivre with shoestring potatoes. The same owners operate Orsay, in Avondale, a romantic space with a terrific raw bar serving fresh oysters and a menu of sophisticated French brasserie food.
Affordable and cheerful Bungalow on the Park is a relative newcomer to Riverside, and already a favorite in the gay community. It’s especially popular for brunch on weekends. Right in the center of Historic Five Points, Fuel is the GLBT community’s favorite coffeehouse, with a variety of board games and big, comfy lounge chairs to relax in. There’s frequently live music. Just around the corner, Mossfire Grill serves exceptionally good Southwestern-influenced American fare, from chicken empanadas to barbecue-shrimp tostadas.
You’ll find some of the state’s friendliest gay nightspots in Jacksonville, the most popular being the Metro, which comprises a number of distinct bars all under one roof, including a lesbian lounge, dance floor, cabaret, show bar, and several other lively areas. The patio is especially nice on warm evenings. Another club that draws big crowds is InCahoots, which is just east of Riverside on the edge of downtown and caters to a young (it’s 18-and-over some evenings) bunch of club kids. Both the Metro and InCahoots are very mixed male/female.
Other bars in the same part of town include the Boot Rack Saloon, which is Jacksonville’s headquarters for bears and butch guys; 616, a cruisy spot with a large patio and porn showing on the many TV screens; Park Place, a low-keyed video bar; and The Norm, which has a very popular following among lesbians and has dancing, pool tables, and karaoke nights. Club Jacksonville, in the San Marco neighborhood, is the city’s gay bathhouse and sauna.
The city has a number of appealing lodging choices. Right downtown, the gay-friendly Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Waterfront has a convenient location, great river views, and comfy rooms. In Riverside, there are two gay-friendly inns of note. The Inn at Oak Street is a early 20th-century house with tastefully appointed, well-outfitted rooms with flat-screen TVs and cordless phones with voice mail; some units have whirlpool tubs. At the charming Riverdale Inn, a grand mansion close to the Cummer Museum, the rooms are sumptuous and romantic, and there’s also a top-notch restaurant on-site. A moderate-priced, well-run, and conveniently located chain option, the Hampton Inn Jacksonville 9A and Baymeadows is newly built and very gay-friendly.
Although Jacksonville itself has plenty going on, it’s also a gateway for exploring several very appealing coastal destinations: the historic city of St. Augustine, quaint Amelia Island, and the bustling cluster of beach communities to the east, which include Jacksonville Beach, Neptune Beach, and Atlantic Beach.
Founded in 1565 and thus the oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine has a compact downtown of magnificent Spanish Colonial architecture (note in particular the buildings of Flagler College), lively lanes filled with festive if touristy galleries and cafes, and venerable inns and B&Bs. There’s easily enough here to keep you busy for an afternoon, especially if you like browsing the wares of arts galleries and souvenir shops – you’ll find a concentration of these along pedestrian-only St. George St., which leads north from the central Cathedral Square to Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.
Consider taking a tour of San Sebastian Winery, which produces not only fine wines but quite respected ports and cream sherries. You can have a drink in the winery’s rooftop bar, which has live jazz and serves a menu of light tapas. Also check out the ornate, Moorish Revival-inspired Casa Monica Hotel, an elegant, gay-friendly place to stay that also has great spots for cocktails and dinner, the 95 Cordova Restaurant and hip Cobalt Lounge.
There are several gay-popular B&Bs in St. Augustine, most of them within easy walking distance of downtown attractions and dining. Two good bets include gay-owned Casa de Solana, which claims to be the city’s second oldest inn and has 10 upscale rooms; and the Craftsman-style Saragossa Inn, an inviting B&B set along a quiet residential street.
It’s roughly a 30-minute drive through the city’s eastern sprawl of rather bland shopping centers and strip malls to reach the bustling communities of Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach, and Jacksonville Beach. These family-oriented towns are strung together along the ocean and have the usual mix of mostly mid-range chain hotels, condos, souvenir shops, and typical seaside amusements. In Jacksonville Beach, you’ll find the only gay bar out this way, Bo’s Coral Reef, which is a fun place to shoot pool or linger over a drinks after a day at the beach. Also, if you’re headed out toward the beaches from downtown, you might stop by AJ’s Bar and Grill, a friendly gay hangout about 5 miles from the beach on Atlantic Boulevard.
In Atlantic Beach, you’ll find the most inviting lodging option in the area, the lavish One Ocean Resort, a beachfront property with handsomely appointed rooms, a large pool area, a well-respected resort, and one of the greater Jacksonville’s most sophisticated and romantic restaurants, Azurea. A more casual option for healthy dining in the area is Shakti Life Kitchen, a vegetarian cafe in Atlantic Beach serving tasty pizzas, salads, and Mediterranean-inspired fare.
About 45 minutes’ drive northeast of Jacksonville, near the Georgia border, you’ll find the upscale, historic community of Fernandina Beach, on Amelia Island. This barrier island is less developed than the beach communities due east of Jacksonville, and it’s an ideal locale for biking, strolling, golfing, and viewing the islands prolific birdlife and precious habitat of nesting loggerhead turtles. If you’re just on Amelia Island for the day, head for Centre Street, and browse the many boutiques and galleries.
For a memorable meal, book a table at 29 South, a stylish bistro in the heart of Fernandina Beach serving creative American fare, such as lobster “corn dogs” with spicy horseradish ketchup and a famous dessert of glazed-doughnut bread pudding topped with butterscotch sauce and mocha ice cream.
The most famous accommodation on Amelia Island is also one of northeastern Florida’s most gay-friendly lodgings, the sumptuous Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, which overlooks a lovely beach and has every activity you could want for a special getaway – spa treatments, golfing, fine dining. More intimate overnight options include a pair of gay-friendly B&Bs, the 11-room Ash Street Inn, and the warmly furnished Hoyt House B&B, which has 10 elegant rooms.
With the combination of a city center enjoying a steady renaissance and easy access to so many enchanting beach towns, it’s easy to envision Jacksonville developing into a notable gay vacation destination in the years to come.