Jacksonville combines the best of a cosmopolitan city with the laid-back attitude of a village on the coast.
Jennifer L. Mckenzie

Water. In Jacksonville, it's everywhere. Perched next to the vast Atlantic Ocean, this Florida city is split in two by the St. Johns River. With the following pointers, you'll have more than enough to keep you busy, and hopefully plenty of time to stick your toes in the ocean.

Friday--Unpack Your Flippers

Like any big city, Jacksonville offers many lodging selections downtown. Because you're in a beach town, however, we suggest staying by the beach. When in town, John Grisham bunks at the Sea Turtle Inn, where much of his thriller The Brethren was staged.

Located directly on the oceanfront, the Sea Turtle is sparkling from a $6.5 million renovation. Rates start at $109 in off-season and increase to $169 in high season; (904) 249-7402, 1-800-874-6000, or www.seaturtle.com.

Check-in starts at 4 p.m., giving you just enough time to freshen up for dinner in the hotel's restaurant. Not all eateries are worth remembering. This one is. Specializing in Floribbean cuisine, a combination of Caribbean spices and traditional fare, Plantains is an award-winning establishment.

The well-deserved title of Plantains' Specialty goes to the Lobster Brûlée, a seasoned truffle mash with truffle oil, lobster nage, and tarragon. Save room for the Kit Kat, a dessert with three layers of flavored chocolate--one with peanut butter and wafer, another with hazelnut and semisweet chocolate, and a third of mousse topping. This will start your weekend vacation off just right.

 

Saturday--From River Rides to Chocolate Pretzels

Early risers can watch the sunrise, then take a short stroll over to Shelby's Coffee Shoppe, which opens at 7. Shelby's menu features a long list of java drinks, as well as muffins and bagels. The adjoining Crabapple Tree is a lively gift shop full of souvenirs. Instead of standard postcards, pick up a couple of hand-painted watercolor cards (only $2.50 to $3 each) by local artists.

Spend a while exploring this area, known to locals simply as The Beaches. The Book Mark, a local bookstore, sells paperbacks if you forgot your dime-store romance novel. A newcomer to the beach, Patina, sells home accents and furnishings that have a comfortable vintage feel. If you aren't interested in shopping, head to the beach, and bond with the Atlantic.

Once you're shopped out and waterlogged, drive to downtown's River City Brewing Company, near the St. Johns, for lunch. If you're lucky, you might get to fill up on the delicious sea bass special. But skip dessert at lunch to save room for later.

After you eat, take a quick taxi across the river. Yes, taxi. The S.S. Marine Taxi runs from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and is $3 one way. Take a ride to The Jacksonville Landing, a shopping marketplace across the river. Don't dilly dally, though. The shopping here isn't the best in town, and there's plenty more fun in store.

Ready for dessert now? Take a trip to the sweetest place around. Peterbrooke Chocolatier (pictured) is a local favorite. Stop in the San Marco location at 2024 San Marco Blvd. The store doesn't close until 9 p.m., so you'll have plenty of time to load up on chocolate-dipped pretzels and golf ball-size strawberries covered with chocolate. While you are in the San Marco area, enjoy the Mediterranean-style architecture and quaint boutiques. The district boasts many fine-dining options, including Bistro Aix. Reservations are not available, but preferred seating is (call when you are on your way to the restaurant to be put on the waiting list).

If you'd prefer to head back to the hotel and then take in a laid-back dinner at a local hangout, choose Sliders Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar. This somewhat gritty dive is perfect for flip-flops and cover-ups and offers some of the freshest oysters and seafood in town.

For the party animals, swing by Harmonious Monks on Old St. Augustine Road for an evening nightcap. This bar/restaurant is animated, thanks to the singing waitstaff.

 

Sunday--Brunch and Fine Art

Checkout is at 11 a.m. You'll want to start your day with a full brunch at Biscottis cafe in the Riverside area of town. Served from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., the brunch comes off the menu and features traditional morning fare, such as waffles and eggs, with an added offering of seafood specialties. Splurge and order dessert. It's worth it.

After you're stuffed, head to The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. The collection in this fine art facility spans 2000 B.C. to the present. Plus, it features English and Italian gardens that are especially lovely this time of year. The museum is open from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Peterbrooke is open on Sunday afternoons as well, so if you have time, head back there. Chocolate travels well, and the folks back home will thank you for any leftovers.

For more information: Contact Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau, 550 Water Street, Suite 1000, Jacksonville, FL 32202; (904) 798-9111, 1-800-733-2668, or www.visitjacksonville.com.

"A Beach Town Escape" is from the April 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.