On the afternoon of September 16 we packed what was left of our belongings and our dog into a rental car, and began our long, nervous drive down to the Orlando airport. We needed to go to Orlando because it was the closest airport with a direct flight to our destination, an important consideration when you're traveling with a live animal. Tensions were high as we weren't positive that our dear pet would be allowed on as cargo due to temperature regulations. This was a one-way flight. It was a Friday and I was to start work the following Monday. We couldn't really afford any delays. In the end, despite a few close calls, we all boarded that [almost too] warm evening and headed off together into the great unknown.
Just over three and a half years ago we made the decision to stop complaining about the lack of activities, opportunities, and things to do in the city we called home. Instead we would go out and experience all that Jacksonville, Florida and the surrounding region had to offer.
Why? Well, as any… Jacksonvillionian, Jacksonvillite, or is it Jacksonvillain? As any Jacksonvillain can tell you, one of the most oft heard phrases containing the word "Jacksonville" is "Jacksonville sucks" followed closely by "there's nothing to do in Jacksonville" or some such similar phrase. This is an easy trap to fall into. Walk out of the front door of a typical residence in Jacksonville and proceed in any random direction for a full ten minutes; it's highly unlikely that you'll pass anything of real human interest (apart from some intensely beautiful oak trees covered in Spanish moss). Like the universe, Jacksonville is very large with a lot of "empty" space in between the interesting things and you really need a high powered vehicle to travel between these points of interest. Fortunately, in this day and age, the vast majority of us have automobiles to rapidly transport us from one place to another and the only thing missing from the average Jacksonvillain is the motivation to seek out and find these distant points of interest. So, like a pair of amateur astronomers, we sought out to find and map these brilliant specks of light littered across the landscape; primarily for ourselves but also for the many people still stuck in the mindset that their home had little to offer them.
From restaurants and bars to state parks to more restaurants and bars, we tried to cover all of the things we found interesting around the town. Inevitably some mediocre things crept in whilst some amazing experiences were left un-transcribed. I must admit that keeping up with this web log at times seemed like a chore while at others it served as a motivator to get out there and do something. I lament the fact that perhaps we focused a little too much on restaurants but food is indeed a large part of the human experience and is a nice way to inspire a trip to a personally uncharted part of town. Even if we left an eatery disappointed, I was always happy to have seen another facet of the varied Northeast Florida landscape.
Only a short time into our journey we discovered that Jacksonville and its surrounding areas are full of culture, character, natural beauty, great food, and great people. One of the remarks on the region I often overheard that incensed me the most was "Florida is ugly." How can anyone walk down an oak lined street, the sun shimmering through the long, flowing curtains of Spanish moss, think that Florida is ugly? Trees everywhere, beautiful little creatures scurrying about, the most amazing evening skies (particularly when a storm is brewing), and weather that is only rivaled by a handful of places around this great country; Florida is not deficient in natural beauty.
And as far as there being "nothing to do in Jacksonville," well, what are you interested in? There is no doubt something that caters to your tastes. Although they never seemed to come often enough, I've seen many of my [obscure] favorite bands in Jacksonville and, as an added bonus, I never had to struggle to find parking. Not only does Jacksonville have a lot going for it but there is also plenty of room for individuals to take charge and create the changes they wish to see.
So back on September 16, that late summer day, we found ourselves landing on the opposite side of the country, tired and transient in what was practically a foreign land: the iconic, sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles. At the opposite end of the I-10, there are a surprising number of similarities to our former home: the sprawl, the natural beauty, the breathtaking coastline, the nice weather, the traffic, and hearing people say "LA sucks" (although these are usually people who don't live here).
While we're pretty excited to be here with all of the new places to explore, there are certainly a great number of things we will miss about Jacksonville. So, for the sake of posterity, I'll do my best to list them here for anybody just now stumbling on this blog or who may not have gone back far enough to uncover our favorites.
The First Coast has a number of beautiful local, state, and national parks. Among our favorites are the Guana River State Park, which is one of the most beautiful stretches of beach along the Atlantic Coast, and Big Talbot Island with the iconic Boneyard Beach where driftwood and the carcasses of once great trees litter the shore to create an amazing post-apocalyptic scene. Much further south, along the A1A between Saint Augustine and Palm Coast, is Washington Oaks. In addition to the beautiful gardens, majestic trees, and gorgeous beach, this is where we got married; under an enormous oak tree on a hot summer day.
We did spend a lot of time covering restaurants so it's only fair that we list our favorites.
Pisco's Peruvian Restaurant - Amazing Peruvian food; better, in fact, than most of the Peruvian food we ate in Peru. Great portions, reasonable prices, hole-in-the-wall charm, and great flavors has made this one of our favorites places in the world to eat.
Tommy's Brick Oven Pizza - Best pizza in town. Paper thin crust, great sauce, nice folk. The salads and sandwiches are just as good.
The French Pantry - What can I say? This is Duval County's most notorious secret. How can anyone who has ever been to the French Pantry claim that Jacksonville has no culture? Bread that is so good you might think you're dreaming, impeccable sandwiches, a cute little restaurant with communal seating, hours typical of a government agency, and a line out the door that would make the Soup Nazi proud. On multiple occasions I have been in line for an hour or more, in the oppressive Florida heat, and all of the misery has dissolved as soon as I had that first bite of bread. I would do it all over again; some things are worth the wait.
Indochine - I love Thai cuisine perhaps more than any other and Indochine tops my list of great Thai places around town. It's probably also my favorite restaurant on ambiance alone. Other notable Thai restaurants are Lime Leaf in Tapestry Park and Pattaya Thai on Baymeadows (especially for their willingness to dial up the spiciness to pain inducing levels).
The Metro Diner and the Cool Moose Cafe - I apologize to the proprietors of these fine establishments for lumping them together but they essentially fulfilled the same purpose for us: weekend breakfast, and they were the absolute best places in town for it. Great food coupled with their own unique atmosphere. But Cool Moose has the best coffee.
Los Portales Mexican Grill - Sorry, but Jacksonville's favorite Mexican chain really doesn't compare to the quality you get here at more reasonable prices.
Cami Cakes - Nobody does cupcakes like Cami Cakes. Nobody.
The Donut Shoppe - I don't typically like donuts. Donuts from The Donut Shoppe are not your typical donuts.
Seven Bridges - This deserves to be much higher in the list but will serve as a segue of sorts. I'll try not to get overly sentimental but I have had some great times with some wonderful people at Seven Bridges. For years it was my goto place for an after-work conversation that required a bit of mental lubrication. The food was always great and the beer was always better. I have had some of the best beer in my life at Seven Bridges. These beers were present for some of the best conversations of my life. These conversations were with some of the best people I've been honored enough to call a friend. There's definitely a lot of emotion and nostalgia wrapped up in my feelings about this place but even if I took that all away it would still probably be my favorite place to grab a bite or a pint around town.
Jacksonville's beer scene is the best in Florida. To be honest, Jacksonville's beer scene is better than what we've experienced so far out here in LA. Sure, most bars and restaurants here have a very respectable craft/import selection and there are a few good microbreweries around here but on a few key measures Jacksonville has LA beat. First off, Jacksonville has more microbreweries and brew pubs per capita. The few microbreweries in Jacksonville are also seriously good. Thanks to pioneering efforts of Bold City Brewery, they've managed to invade the taps of most bars and restaurants around the region, giving Jacksonville something local to be proud of. In a town where Anheuser-Busch has a factory (which is fun to tour, by the way) and Bud Light is most people's only form of hydration, I'd say the local microbreweries have done an amazing job at building an engaged community. I look forward to the day when I see a bottle from Bold City Brewery, a can from Intuition Ale Works, or a keg from Green Room Brewing out here on the West Coast.
Abandoning my original plans, I won't go over the things we think Jacksonville could do to improve itself. I will, however, urge anyone who has the power to make a difference to help preserve Jacksonville's natural resources, promote the creation of more communal green spaces, encourage growth in the local tech industry, and to support the innovative, local businesses.
Thanks to all of the people who made our years in Jacksonville great. Thanks to the places we covered for putting up with my giant camera. Thanks to those who commented, made suggestions, and gave feedback. Thanks for reading. Make it a good one.