Historic St. Augustine, Jacksonville, 70+ golf courses and the magnificent Ponte Vedra Beach

For the past five years I’ve been on a mission to explore the Sunshine State’s every nook and cranny. Faced with a bottomless well of interesting things to see and do there is seemingly no end in sight. However, the good news is that each new day and each new foray into unexplored territory deepens my passion for a state blessed with 1,200 miles of sand beaches, a sub-tropical climate and the world’s most famous theme parks. Considering Florida covers nearly 60,000 sq. miles, my mission is a big undertaking and in order to facilitate it I purchased a winter home in an Atlantic coast community that puts me in a prime position to reach any part of Florida in no more than four hours.

My most recent expedition took me to the northeast region generally referred to as Florida’s First Coast (FFC). The name has two meanings: it’s the site of the first European settlement and the first stretch of east coast that visitors encounter as they enter the state by car. FFC lies immediately below the Georgia border and continues south along the Atlantic coast to just north of Daytona Beach.
The nooks and crannies and wonderful attractions that lie within this area are missed by vacationers who fail to hit the brakes until they reach more southerly destinations such as Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Here is just some of what they miss out on.

Ponte Vedra Beach
This seaside upscale community is often referred to as the Palm Beach of North Florida. It was visited by European explorers in the 16th century and in 1942, during the Second World War, the beach was the landing area of four saboteurs debarked from a German submarine lying offshore. Carrying a supply of explosives, the four failed to get far before being captured and ultimately executed.

Today, this beach area is a posh destination that is home to one of the finest resort complexes in the state, the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club built in 1928 and the Ponte Vedra Lodge and Club built in 1989. Positioned on a long expanse of soft sand beach the colour of snow, the two properties are the epitome of FFC luxury accommodations and likewise rank among Florida‘s best. The resorts include two championship golf courses, exquisite dining and a world-class spa.

First Coast urban areas
The region’s two chief cities are Jacksonville and the charming historic town of St. Augustine. Jacksonville, a vibrantly modern community and the largest city in the state by area, has all the amenities and attractions one would expect from a big metropolis: museums, theatre, the renowned Jacksonville Zoo, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team, an ancient fort founded by the French in 1564, plus outstanding dining and nightlife – and last but not least, 21 miles of uncrowned beaches.

Alternatively, St. Augustine is truly a First Coast jewel. Founded in 1565 by the Spanish, its famous Old Town district is a not to be missed attraction. Here, in the historic section of the nation’s oldest city, cobblestone streets are lined with centuries-old buildings and quaint cafes, restaurants and shops.

Costumed interpreters stroll the avenues bringing history to life in buildings such as Florida’s oldest house, an ancient jail and an old wooden school house. Fronting the city is the mammoth Castillo de San Marcos, a sprawling fortress built by the Spanish in the 17th century. If there is one place in Florida no tourist should miss, it’s St. Augustine.

Among a host of nooks and crannies
There are surprises around every FFC corner including one that offers the ultimate rush. Called Adrenaline Alligator Adventures, this St. Augustine company offers visitors the chance to spend a day with one of its licensed trappers hunting and capturing nuisance gators. For the brave of heart, the experience can go beyond observing to participation.

Ecotourism is also a significant FFC attraction. Right whales, manatees, pink roseate spoonbills and loggerhead sea turtles are a few of the wildlife species visitors can see in the region. Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, 20 miles south of St. Augustine, is a prime site for spotting whales during the winter months. The bigger picture includes a vast inventory of tidal streams, marshland and creeks that wind through north Jacksonville and indeed throughout the region making FFC the perfect place for kayaking, stand-up paddling, bird watching and wildlife sighting.

Calling all shopaholics
St. Augustine’s western perimeter is home to more than 150 outlet stores selling everything from home goods to fashions, shoes, electronics, jewellery, cosmetics, sports equipment and more. Located in strip plazas on either side of the I-95 highway, this shopping complex is one of the area’s big attractions. The downtown historic district is an anti-franchise shopping area but this does not mean the absence of buying opportunities. The Lightner Museum contains an antique shopping mall and San Marco Avenue is home to more than 30 art galleries and studios selling everything from blown glass items and hand-thrown pottery to Old Masters paintings and the work of local artists.

Hit the links
Jacksonville and the beaches alone are home to more than 70 courses and 1,220 holes of golf. While there are plenty of mid-range courses offering value golf, the area is known for big name tracks such as Ponte Vedra’s Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass whose 17th hole island green is world famous.

Also courses with big reputations are the King & Bear, sister St. Augustine courses designed by golf greats Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Alongside them are the Slammer and Squire, another pair of championship tracks designed by golf legends Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen.

All four of these courses are attached to World Golf Village, a complex that celebrates the history of the sport and a mecca for golfers everywhere.

See Jacksonville information at www.visitjacksonville.com or call 800-733-2668.

First Coast golf information is online at www.florida-golf.org or call 904-249-9683.

For St. Augustine see www.Getaway4Florida.com or call 800-418-7529.

For general Florida information see www.VISITFLORIDA.com or call 888-735-2872

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