Sometimes it's great fun to take off on a lazy-day day trip. These are day trips that don't require a lot of travel time and don't break the bank at the gas pump, either. A while back, Anne Sponholtz took six ambitious day trips from Jacksonville, Fla. This time she returns for some shorter rambles, and discovers a museum, a fort and a beach.
Jacksonville Revisited: 3 Lazy Day Trips
I am by nature a shunpiker, preferring road trips along America's back roads. But not always. Though these three day trips from Jacksonville, Fla., require some travel time on the interstates, the payoff is some interesting sightseeing, fun in the sun, good food and a sprinkle of history. All three are short trips, perfect for a lazy day or when gas prices are trending skyward. Don't be surprised to discover you want to make several visits or even spend several days at a couple of these spots.
Camp Blanding Museum & Memorial Park
Travel time: 57 minutes
Interstate 10 begins in Jacksonville and travels west 2,460 miles across the country all the way to Los Angeles. We hopped on for a 12-mile stretch and exited at Exit 343, where we picked up one of the country's oldest north/south highways, U.S. 301, and headed south. I kept an eye on the speedometer while traveling through Lawtey, a small town along U.S. 301 known as a speed trap. No one wants to see those flashing lights in their rearview mirror.
The drive from Jacksonville is pleasant enough, through small towns, forests and a few neighborhoods. The 73,000-acre Florida National Guard Military Reservation, home of Camp Blanding, is about eight miles east of U.S. 301 on State Road 16 outside the town of Starke. The camp played an important part in World War II and has served as the principal training ground for the Florida National Guard for many years.
Camp Blanding Museum and Memorial Park is located just outside the main gatehouse, allowing visitors to enjoy the museum and park without having to be cleared at the gate. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon until 4 p.m. Although much of the museum is dedicated to the role Camp Blanding played during World War II, visitors can also see medals, weapons, equipment and historical artifacts from Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm. There are special tributes to those who died for their country. I must say that my stroll through the museum brought a lump to my throat.
Among the outdoor displays is a 720-pound borne, a boundary stone or milepost, from one of the French towns liberated in World War II by troops stationed at Camp Blanding. Also featured on the grounds are early military jeeps, cannons, armored trucks, aircraft, guns and other military memorabilia. Plans call for a major expansion of the museum and park, with the goal of creating one of the best military museums in the Southeast.
After spending the afternoon at the museum, it's time to chow down. Head south on U.S. 301 toward Starke and you will discover "restaurant row," with almost every restaurant you can name, including two of our favorite sit down/takeout restaurants - Cedar River Seafood, my husband's favorite, and Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q, my favorite. It's time for a coin toss.
Fort Clinch State Park, Fernandina Beach
Travel time: 55 minutes
Traveling to Fort Clinch State Park means heading north on I-95. Take Exit 373 and follow the signs to Fernandina Beach, the town in which the park is located. One of the prettiest parts of the trip is the view from a large bridge that crosses the Amelia River. Fernandina Beach is located on Amelia Island. Known as the Isle of Flags, it is the only place in the country to have flown the flags of eight nations (France, Spain, England, the short-lived Republic of Florida, a rogue Scottish colony, Mexico, the Confederate States and the United States). The entrance to the fort comes up unexpectedly. Just as you are admiring a neighborhood lined with lovely homes, suddenly a cannon appears, marking the state park entrance. I missed the entrance and had to turn around.
This park is crammed with things to see and do. You can stand on the shoreline at the northern tip of the park and look across the river into Georgia. RVers can stay at the campgrounds on the beach side of the park, or on the river side, where tent campers can also set up camp beneath giant oaks. From either the beach or the river, you might spot a U.S. submarine and its escorts heading out to sea. We were among the lucky ones to do so, and would have posted a picture of the event had I not left my camera in the RV.
There is a designated swimming area, where the waves from the Atlantic Ocean await those wishing to enjoy a day of sun, white sand, shell collecting and salt water. You'll want to pack up those fishing poles for this trip, too; fishing from the beachside pier, in the surf, and from the river are all popular among anglers. Self-guided nature trails and hiking trails traverse the park, and there is good bird-watching on the shore.
But the fort remains the big attraction. Though it was never finished and no battles were fought here, the fort is well preserved and serves as an interesting backdrop to the many re-creations of garrison life that are held here throughout the year. Follow the costumed guide around the many buildings, and you'll soon find yourself back to 1864, when Civil War soldiers were constructing the fort. I even snapped a picture of my Southern-born husband with a Union soldier. That was great fun.
If you didn't pack a picnic lunch, drive a few blocks down the road to historic Fernandina Beach, where a variety of restaurants await the hungry traveler. We enjoyed a meal at Marina Restaurant, but there are a lot of great restaurants, some located on the waterfront and others scattered around town. Trolley service is available for tours of the area, and a shrimp festival draws thousands to Amelia Island each May. After a good meal, enjoy the rest of the day shopping in the island's wonderful shops before heading back to Jacksonville.
St. Augustine Beach
Travel time: 55 minutes
There isn't much to say about the drive to St. Augustine Beach. It's just a straight shot down I-95, about 26 miles to Exit 311. But cross the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway and you'll soon find yourself in a different world.
St. Augustine Beach, which runs along Historic & Scenic A1A, is unlike the Florida beach communities farther south. Yes, there are condos, hotels and motels available in every price range, as well as cottages and private campgrounds, but you won't see the wall-to-wall high-rises that you find in other Florida beach towns; as a consequence, the atmosphere is more beachy and laid-back. Storms and high winds roaring in from the Atlantic have played havoc with the beach from time to time, but a little erosion does little to dampen the spirits of beachgoers looking for fun at the shore.
Nearby is the wonderful old city of St. Augustine, which deserves a visit of its own someday, but you'll find that the beach town has plenty to offer on its own: good restaurants, a little shopping, some great sightseeing, and easy access to the beach and river. Anastasia State Park offers one of the access points to the beach. It's a great place to camp, too; in fact, Reserve America [http://www.reserveamerica.com] lists the park campgrounds among the Top 100 Family Campgrounds for 2009.
Be sure to stop by the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum. I did not venture a climb up the lighthouse (a trip to the roof of our house leaves me terrified), but those who did make the climb declared the view spectacular. The museum has a gift shop, and nearby you'll find a playground, a restaurant and a small fishing pier. Access to Fort Matanzas, a national monument, is just down the road; take the guide boat to Rattlesnake Island, where the Spanish built the fort in 1740 to keep the British from advancing on St, Augustine.
There are plenty of fishing spots in St. Augustine Beach, both from the pier and in the surf, and there is usually something biting, though it might be a sting ray or a crab. Deep sea fishing is also popular off the shores of the beach, and there are several golf courses nearby.
If it's longer trips around Jacksonville that you're looking for, check out my earlier article. But if a lazy-day trip is what you have in mind, get behind the wheel and head out to one of these North Florida destinations. Just don't leave your camera in the RV.