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A Family Vacation in Jacksonville

By Lisa Tucker McElroy

Our family is always looking for a new adventure  and we recently found it in Jacksonville, Florida’s largest city. While tourists often think of Miami or Tampa for a family vacation spot, Jacksonville has tons to offer families who love sun and sports. Jacksonville’s temperate climate, beautiful beaches, and easy accessibility make it a great bet for families who want to make the most of their vacation days and dollars.

Places to Stay

Jacksonville offers a lot of good hotel options, but you may also want to consider heading just outside of town to Ponte Vedra, right on the white sand beach.  We love the luxurious Ponte Vedra Inn & Club (www.pvresorts.com), with its four pools, two golf courses, tons of tennis courts, and family friendly menus.  The rooms are plantation style and comfortable in an over-the-top kind of way – huge, four poster beds with sheets I coveted for my own; kitchenettes; modern, tile bathrooms; and sitting areas in many.  Most of the rooms look out over the wide beach at the ocean.  You may want to request a room in Atlantic House, near the award-winning spa (adults only) and Surf Club.  For breakfast, head to the genteel main dining room for the buffet, and tell the kids to order hot chocolate:  it comes in individual china pots. This place has the details down!

For a more budget-friendly option, try the three Homewood Suites properties in Jacksonville (www.homewoodsuites.com). These all-suite hotels owned by Hilton offer comfortable apartment-like suites with luxe linens, sitting rooms, full kitchens, and even multiple bedrooms and bathrooms.  A free hot breakfast is included in the room every day, as is a three-course dinner on weeknights.  Want to cook in your suite kitchen?  They’ll even grocery shop for you!  All Jacksonville locations boast pools, and two allow your pets to cozy up in your suite. 

Where to Eat

Locals swear by Moon River Pizza (www.moonriverpizza.net), with “The Special” (a loaded pie with pretty much everything but anchovies) topping the list of must-eats.    Every good pizza deserves to be followed by a good ice cream cone, and the folks at Dreamette have ice cream down, seeing as they’ve been in business for 60 (that’s right, 60!) years.  And kids will go crazy for cupcakes at Sivada’s Cupcakery (www.sivadascupcakery.com), where every kid should try a birthday cake cupcake, even if it’s not officially his birthday.

For a real birthday (or any kind of celebration), try one of Matthew Medure’s restaurants(www.matthewsrestaurant.com), Matthew’s in Jacksonville or Restaurant Medure in Ponte Vedra.  Because the owner is a family man, he’s trained the staff to be great with kids.  My kids loved the mini-filets and baby carrots, plus the paper chef’s hats he let them wear. We swooned over the tortellini and the short ribs. Don’t get me wrong – your kids will need to mind their P’s & Q’s, but the promise of a homemade soufflé at the end may do the trick.

Fun Family Activities

First things first:  Don’t miss the beach!  Especially in Ponte Vedra, the beach boasts gentle waves, white sand, and tons of collectible shells.  At the Inn & Club, they can set you up with an umbrella, too. 

Want to take in some animals?  Head to the Jacksonville Zoo (www.jaxzoo.org) to see the new baby giraffe or new lions and warthogs that live there. On a rainy day, try heading to the Jacksonville Hands On Children’s Museum, a 6500 square foot destination with interactive exhibits like a 50's café and a puppet stage (complete with 50 puppets).  For more information, visit www.handsonchildrensmuseumjax.com. At the MOSH (the Museum of Science and History), kids can check out ever-changing exhibits like “Animal Grossology” and  “Become a Junior Naturalist.”  For more information, visit www.themosh.org.

Don’t miss a side trip to St. Augustine.  This historical Spanish town is the country’s oldest European settlement, and it’s only an hour’s drive from Jacksonville.  You can visit a fort, the oldest house in America, an old jail, and the country’s oldest schoolhouse (built in – get this – 1763).  The Spanish Quarter is a charming cobblestone step-back-in-time.  Kids will also love the wax museum (www.potterswax.com ), the alligator farm (www.alligatorfarm.com), and the local ghost tour (www.ghosttoursofstaugustine.com).  After all, a city this old must have its ghosts!

If You Go:

  • Mid-spring through mid-fall is the ideal time to hit Jacksonville.  The weather’s warm and beautiful, perfect for hanging on the beach.  Because Jacksonville is in the northern part of Florida, it does get chiller in winter.

  • Bring your clubs and rackets.  Golf and tennis are key activities here, and many facilities offer very reasonable clinics.  At the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, we attended a mid-afternoon weekend clinic where we ended up being the only students.  In essence, our family got a private lesson for about $15/person.

  • Save on baggage by buying beach toys there.  We hit the summer aisle at a nearby Target and walked out with floaties, buckets, and shovels for about $15 – less than it would have cost to check an extra bag.  At the end of our trip, we offered them to another family we’d met around the pool and asked them to pass them forward.

  • Rent a car.  In this part of Florida, you don’t want to be stuck at the hotel all day.  Luckily, rental car prices are surprisingly reasonable at the Jacksonville airport, and they’re parked right outside baggage claim (no annoying shuttle rides with kids in tow).  You may want to spring for a convertible, all the better to enjoy the mild climate.

  • Grease up.  Jacksonville’s sun is deceptively direct.  You’ll want to load up on sunscreen and lube up the kids several times a day.

  • Wear bright colors. Florida’s all about the sundress and big, floppy hat.  Just dress down and relax.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.

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