Snowbirds on autopilot for winter warmth beeline it south, leaving some of Florida’s most appealing northern reaches in the rear view mirror. Good things come to those who exit I-95 sooner, however—as in just across the Florida-Georgia border. If you can handle temperatures a bit less balmy than Miami and Naples (with skies just as blue), Atlantic Beach, just east of Jacksonville and less than an hour north of historic St. Augustine, is an idyllic little surf town where the residents are rightfully proud of the creative vibe and excellent independent restaurants and shops.
LIFE IN THE SANDY LANE
The dune-backed beach here is as wide as a highway and packed particularly hard at low tide, a perfect time to pedal along on a beach cruiser. Beach Life Rentals offers free delivery to your resort and can hook you up with tandem and regular beach cruisers for rent by the half or full-day (kayaks, boogie boards and standup paddleboards are also available). Start at The Corner (where Atlantic Blvd. hits the ocean and Atlantic Beach meets Neptune Beach, its southern neighbor) and head north along the sand: The crowds quickly thin out, with seabirds outnumbering humans along a spectacular stretch of beach. For a less sandy route back to town, just push your bike up to one of the public access walkways to reach Beach Avenue, a virtually traffic-free residential street lined with a mix of old Florida and new beach bungalows.
STROLL, SHOP, DINE
Straddling Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach, the Beaches Town Center offers scores of shops, bars and restaurants packed into a few pedestrian-friendly blocks. Take your morning coffee at the neighborhood’s caffeinated nucleus, Lillie’s Coffee Bar, with its umbrella-shaded outdoor courtyard. Then pop next door to the Bali Cargo Company, where owner Kim Rogers sources an exotic cache of beaded belts, antique candy jars and batik quilts from the Indonesian archipelago. Peterbrooke Chocolatier is a Jacksonville tradition and the chocolate-covered popcorn sold here is the stuff of salty-sweet fantasies. And First Street Gallery has some fine and affordable art finds (jewelry, pottery, wood art, paintings) made by local and regional artists. Sip a beer alongside salty dogs and the surfer crowd at Pete’s Bar, a beloved dive bar that’s been around since just after Prohibition. And for dinner, choose from family-style joints like Al’s Pizza, burger favorite MShack, Cajun food at Ragtime Tavern or the more romantic Ocean 60 for seafood. Or make it a moveable feast with several stops. Everything’s within a short stroll.
With 300 wooded campsites fronting 1.5 miles of wild beach, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, just north of Atlantic Beach, is one of North Florida’s finest oceanfront recreation areas. Local shredders wax up their boards to surf The Poles (one of Florida’s best breaks) when the swell is cooperating. And tamer times await at the park’s freshwater lake where you can rent kayaks and paddleboats and bike along more than 20 miles of trails that criss-cross the coastal forest.
Beach Life Rentals: No physical address; 1.904.584.7368; beachliferentals.com
Lillie’s Coffee Bar: 200 First St., Neptune Beach; 1.904.249.2922; lilliescoffeebar.com
Bali Cargo Company: 200 First St., Neptune Beach; 1.904.270.2254; balicargocompany.com
Peterbrooke Chocolatier: 363 Atlantic Blvd.; 1.904.246.0277; peterbrooke.com
First Street Gallery: 216 B First St., Neptune Beach.; 1.904.241.6928; firststreetgalleryart.com
Pete’s Bar: 117 First St., Neptune Beach; 1.904.249.9158
Al’s Pizza: 303 Atlantic Blvd., Atlantic Beach; 1.904.249.0002; alspizza.com
MShack: 299 Atlantic Blvd., Atlantic Beach; 1.904.241.2599; mshackburgers.com
Ragtime Tavern: 207 Atlantic Blvd., Atlantic Beach; 1.904.241.7877
Ocean 60: 60 Ocean Blvd., Atlantic Beach; 1.904.247.0060
Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park: Wonderwood Dr., Jacksonville; 1.904.249.4700; coj.net
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.