What images come to mind when you think of Florida? Alligators? Hip-swinging dancers? Disney characters? What if I told you that a 50-minute drive from the city of Jacksonville is a dreamy place with miles of pristine beach and a 1920s boutique hotel with a rooftop terrace and an endless starry sky. As a guest of Casa Marina Hotel & Restaurant, I discovered that Jacksonville Beach is one of Florida’s romantic hidden gems.
It's mid afternoon, and a friend and I are enjoying drinks and tapas on the rooftop of the Casa Marina Hotel & Restaurant. From our perch, we can see for miles up and down Jacksonville Beach.
Earlier in the day, sky gazers dotted its white sand as the U.S. Navy Blue Angels practiced their weaves and curves over the Atlantic Ocean. Now, as late afternoon slips into the balmy evening, the beach is almost empty and slowly turning from white to pinkish, to blue.
A Hotel on the World's Finest Beach
Casa Marina Hotel makes quite a first impression with its Spanish-Mediterranean architecture that speaks of a by-gone era of glamor and gangsters. Both were part of Jacksonville Beach's roaring 1920s past, and the celebrity guests rumored to have stayed at the 60-room hotel include Jean Harlow, Al Capone, and John D. Rockefeller. During WWII, the hotel was used for military housing, and after a few decades, it closed its doors.
In 1991, the hotel reopened, and today, it offers 23 bedrooms and parlor suites (six have direct ocean views) with individually appointed antique furniture and decor inspired by various eras.
We stayed in a second-floor two-room parlor suite with a partial beach view, wood floors, soothing green walls, floral and palm pictures and wood furnishings. The bedroom featured a queen bed with leopard patterned bedding, and the sitting room a cozy queen hide-away bed.
Shared amenities included a bathroom with traditional fixtures, and an additional sink and mirror. The hotel's bedrooms also display similar Old World charms, and all rooms have televisions, coffee makers, and refrigerators. A complimentary continental breakfast is set up in the lobby that includes pastries, yogurts, and two hot items.
Jacksonville Beach by Bike
We arrived before check-in and decide to tour Jacksonville Beach by bike.
We brought our own, but during the season, Beach Life Rentals sets up in front of the hotel and in the off season they offer free delivery. They rent beach cruisers, surfboards, SUPs, kayaks, chairs, and beach umbrellas and give hotel guests a 10% discount.
A four-minute ride away is Beaches Museum and History Park. The museum has a permanent exhibit that focuses on local community history, and a rotating exhibit, which might cover a range of topics such as local artists, neighboring beachfront communities, and military life. Admission is free and also includes access to the History Park, which is a collection of historical structures like the 1900 Mayport East Coast Railway Depot, the 1887 Beach Museum Chapel, 1903 Pablo Beach Post Office, and a 25-ton steam train built in 1911.
We take our time cruising back to the hotel and pass notable landmarks like the seventy-year-old American Red Cross Volunteer Life Saving Corps building, a historical marker for the SS Gulfamerica which was attacked by a German U-boat off the Jacksonville Beach coast, and Jacksonville Pier, which was closed due to the recent hurricane.
A Reward on the Rooftop
At the rooftop bar, we indulge in happy hour with wine ($3) and a strawberry tequila drink named You and Tequila ($6). We also order a selection of tapas like pulled pork sliders ($2), blue cheese chips ($2), and a spicy shrimp sauté with fruit salsa ($4). With a prime view of the beach front, we drink and eat slowly, taking in the sounds of the birds and the shifting colors of the sky. Nothing about Jax Beach, as the locals call it, says hurry.
Guests of the rooftop have the option to dine outside with endless beach views or inside at the contemporary bar with lounge seating. Happy hour is Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., and they also have late night specials and a lighter fare dinner menu with items such as crab cakes, shrimp and grits. On Sunday, they host a popular brunch buffet in the first-floor dining room.
Bike Ride to a Brewery
Zeta Brewing Company hosts us for dinner. To get there we ride our bikes on the beach (yes, on the beach!), passing lovers walking hand in hand and wishing our paramours were with us on this tropical Florida night.
We order a beer sampler, a classic Caprese salad ($8), a taco trio ($10), and for dessert strawberry shortcake and monkey bread with caramel, cinnamon, and walnuts ($6). We linger here too, enjoying the food and drink, conversation, and beach life vibe.
When we return to the Casa Marina Hotel it's draped in moonlight and above us is the soft glow of twinkling stars. As we make our way through the hallways and stop to gaze at the historical pictures on the walls of the eras past, I can almost hear the sounds of its past life—cooing lovers, conspiring gangsters, and frolicking partygoers mingling with the crash of the waves.
For more information on the hotel, visit Casa Marina Hotel & Restaurant and for more information on the area, check out City of Jacksonville Beach and Visit Jacksonville. If you're looking for something fun to do in the area, and up for a short car ride, be sure to see what's on the schedule so you can enjoy Jacksonville Broadway at Thrasher Horne. You will discover that an escape to Jacksonville Beach leads to Florida's romantic hideaway.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.