Things to Do
Jacksonville's crowning glory is two fine museums — the Cummer Museum of Art and the Jacksonville Art Museum.
The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens has occupied the building since 1961. In it, you'll discover a furnished room from the 1907 Cummer house, plus an eclectic collection occupying eleven galleries, including a relief of Ramses II from 1280 B.C., a fine collection of eighteenth-century Meissen porcelain tableware, and ivory and jade netsuke. Outside, you can walk through the formal gardens of the original Cummer mansion. Admission is $6 per adult, $1 per child (open Tuesday through Saturday 10 A.M.–5 P.M., weekends noon–5 P.M., 904-356-6857). The Jacksonville Art Museum, also free, has collections of Chinese and Korean porcelain and pre-Columbian artifacts (open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday 10 A.M.–4 P.M., Thursdays to 10 P.M., weekends 1–5 P.M., 904-398-8336).
For a bit of history, visit the 119-acre Fort Caroline National Monument, commemorating the site of an attempt by the French to settle in Florida. Here, you'll see a reproduction of the original triangular earthworks-and-palisade fort, built 4 miles from the mouth of the Saint Johns River by a party of 300 French Huguenots in July 1564. Unfortunately, they fought among themselves after having narrowly escaped starvation. As they were about to abandon their fort, Jean Ribault arrived in August 1565 with reinforcements. Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés thought that Ribault's forces were going to attack San Augustín. So he marched on Fort Caroline while a storm kept the French ships occupied, killing over 140 French Protestants and taking the fort on September 20. Two weeks later, Menéndez killed half of Ribault's shipwrecked men. Two and a half years later, after Fort Caroline had become Fort San Mateo, French troops mounted a counterattack, burning the fort and executing the Spanish soldiers. Though the museum displays Indian and European artifacts of the period, you'll find the real attraction is the fort. Admission is free. (Open daily 9 A.M.–5 P.M., 904-641-7155)
JUST FOR PARENTS
Spend an afternoon at the dog track watching greyhounds race to the finish line at the Jacksonville Kennel Club from May to September and at the Orange Park Kennel Club from September to May — both in Jacksonville. (904-646-0001)
On Fort George Island, now a part of the City of Jacksonville, you'll find the 14-acre Kingsley Plantation Historic Site, containing what historians believe to be Florida's oldest plantation house and part of the 46,000-acre Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve run by the National Park Service. At the end of an oyster-shell road lined with moss-hung oaks and palmettos stands an early-nineteenth-century frame plantation house and the adjoining Juan McQueen House from 1791, on the riverbank. When Scotsman Zephaniah Kingsley acquired the island in 1817, he built the main house, with its nine rooms, because he didn't think the original house, deeded to McQueen by the Spanish, was appropriate for an early-nineteenth-century businessman growing cotton and trading slaves. From 1813 to 1839, Kingsley became wealthy from the labors of his 200 slaves. His wife, Anna Jai, a black woman from Madagascar who spoke three languages, took care of the house. A later owner of the house turned it into a Victorian resort. Learn about the plantation's fascinating history on daily ranger-led tours of the house and grounds. Admission is free. (Open daily 9 A.M.–5 P.M., 904-251-3537)
For the Kids
You'll find plenty to keep your little ones from getting bored in Jacksonville. Begin with a visit to the Jacksonville Zoo, where they can wander the grounds observing over 2,000 animals ranging from ostriches and wildebeest to kangaroos, parrots, white rhino, and giraffes. Opened in 1914, it has become famous for its breeding programs. Instead of fences, the 89-acre zoo separates its animals from visitors with moats, allowing your kids to get a closer view. You'll walk on a boardwalk stretching over The African Veldt, an 11-acre recreation of an African savannah, and see grazing wildebeest and lions roaming the “plains” of Mahali Pa Simba, the lion exhibit.
For real excitement, your kids will thank you for taking them to Adventure Landing in Jacksonville Beach, an entertainment park with go-carts, laser tag, a mega-arcade, and miniature golf. And in summer, they can splash in the Shipwreck Island Water Park. (Open daily, www.adventurelanding.com)
The highlight of the zoo is the Okavango Village Petting Zoo, where they can get friendly with miniature horses, pygmy goats, dwarf zebu, and Sardinian pygmy donkeys. They'll go ape at Chimpanorma, and alligators lurk in the wetland habitat. At 11:30 A.M. on weekdays and at noon and 2:30 P.M. on weekends and holidays, they can watch the keepers bathe the elephants in “Elephant Encounter,” then take a ride on one. Another show, “Animals and Us,” presented three times daily on weekends, highlights the habitats and food of native animals. Admission is $9.50 per adult, $6.50 per child. (Open daily 9 A.M.–5 P.M., 904-757-4463, www.jaxzoo.org)
Even more exciting is a trip to the Saint Augustine Alligator Farm, the state's oldest attraction, operating since 1893. Time your visit to coincide with the twice-daily alligator show. You'll see a handler drag an alligator around by its tail while it bellows loudly, arches its back, and opens its mouth in anger. But when he sits on the animal's back and sticks his fingers between the gator's teeth, your kid's heart will stop for a moment. Admission is $17.95 per adult, $9.95 per child. (Open daily 9 A.M.–5 P.M., 386-824-3337, www.alligatorfarm.com)
Kids can swim with a dolphin for twenty minutes at Marineland's Dolphin Conservation Center for $120. Opened as Marine Studios in 1938 as the world's first underwater motion picture studio, its dolphin shows have thrilled visitors for decades. Toll-free 888-279-9194, www.marineland.net)
Festivals and Seasonal Events
There are a variety of local events, including food and art festivals that you may find interesting, but the following are three of the top ones:
Speed Weeks: For two weeks in February, crowds gather at Daytona International Speedway for the action-packed twenty-four-hour Rolex 24 at Daytona and other races leading up to the Daytona 500. Tickets go for $25 and up and sell out in advance. (www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com)
Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival: Fishermen welcome you aboard their crafts in early May, with food, folk music, and mock pirates. (www.shrimpfestival.com)
Birthplace of Speed Celebration: This three-day event over Thanksgiving weekend on Ormond Beach commemorates the first auto races in 1903 with antique car races today. (386-677-3454)