Hecksher Drive is arguably one of the most beautiful stretches of road to cruise in Northeast Florida. From the St. Johns Ferry to the Talbot Islands, exploring where the iconic highway A1A begins is an adventure worth digging into. For this month’s joy ride we take you on a 34-mile route along the northeastern coast of our region.
Home Plate Diner
Located at: 1487 Mayport Road, Atlantic Beach
Hours: Open for breakfast and lunch
The morning begins at this vintage baseball-inspired diner tucked into the back of a diminutive plaza off Mayport Road. Sports paraphernalia line the walls, and menu items named after ballplayers populate the breakfast offerings. The Bullpen is a winner, with two pancakes, two eggs, two sausage links and two strips of bacon as ample fuel to propel me through the morning.
The theme is a throwback to the days of cook-owner Jimi Snyder, who says he played third base for the New York Mets minors. Be prepared for good-natured insults from Snyder (aka “The Colonel”). Customers, many of whom are regulars, score big with quick-witted responses.
10:00 a.m. St. Johns River Ferry
Located at: 4610 Ocean Street, Atlantic Beach
For ferry schedule go to: coj.net
Five miles north, the bustling road gives way to waterscapes of the St. Johns River, Chicopit Bay and Intracoastal Waterway. I pass shrimp boat stacked docks and seafood markets before I reach the St. Johns River Ferry, which shuttles vehicles to Fort George Island via a 10-minute ferry ride.
I follow the two-lane A1A that spoils me with stunning views of white sand coast, the Fort George Inlet and neighboring Atlantic Ocean. Road signs alert me to bird trails, camping, horseback riding and my journey along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. I pull over a couple times to take in the preserve, diverse wildlife and recreationalists at Simpson’s Creek, which bisects Little Talbot and Big Talbot Island State Park.
Bone Yard Beach, Big Talbot Island State Park
Located at: 12157 Heckscher Drive, Jacksonville
I pull off into the parking lot upon entering this island park, which was once home to Florida’s most ancient inhabitants, the Timucua. A gate labeled “Blackrock” opens up to unpaved trail as wide as a car lane.
Once I reach the end of about a quarter-of-a-mile walk through a wooded area, the path unveils an exquisite view of barren trees that claw the coastline. Bone Yard Beach has eroded over time, carving out 30-foot bluffs and exposing sun-bleached trees. Eerie and enchanting, the beach is extraordinary.
Located at: 4924 First Coast Highway, Fernandina Beach
Palmetto Walk Shopping Village
A1A cuts through the dunes of Big Talbot Island and soon transitions into lush landscapes as I reach Amelia Island. I pass by resorts such as Omni Amelia Island Plantation and its quaint shopping village. I stop at Bar Zin Bistro & Wine Bar in the Palmetto Walk Shopping Village, a string of quaint specialty shops tucked beneath a hammock of live oaks. Bar Zin has plenty of seating indoors, on the wrap-around porch or out on the patio.
The eatery serves a Napa-inspired menu of small plates and entrees made with fresh ingredients. I enjoy the Classic Amelia Salad, a fusion of crisp green vegetables, citrus and white balsamic vinaigrette, and asparagus soup embellished with truffle oil. I alternate between gulps of ice water and sips of a crisp dry white to sate my thirst.
Amelia Island Museum of History
Located at:233 S 3rd Street, Fernandina Beach
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m.-4 p.m.
Any adventure necessitates a proper visit to the local museum. The Amelia Island Museum of History, set in a former jailhouse, unravels Northeast Florida’s past, dating back 4,000 years. Exhibits dedicated to the Civil War, Timucua and Spanish and French explorers walk me through the region’s rich heritage.
The Picnic Basket in Historic Fernandina Beach
Located at: 503-A Centre Street, Fernandina Beach
Hours: Mon.-Wed. 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.,Thu-Sat. 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
The museum is located just a couple blocks south of The Picnic Basket in Historic Fernandina Beach, a walkable neighborhood with boutique shops, galleries, independent eateries, coffee shops and lounges, including the Palace Saloon, Florida’s oldest bar.
I stop into the Picnic Basket, one of Centre Street’s newest eateries. A market café that makes customized and pre-ordered picnic baskets, the menu affords a smorgasbord of handheld eats, from cheeses, charcuterie, salads, scones, jellies and scratch sides like potato or tuna salad. I fill my basket with a variety of the aforementioned, and a complementing chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.
Fort Clinch State Park
Located at: 2601 Atlantic Avenue, Fernandina Beach
Hours:8 a.m. to sunset
Located at the apex of Florida’s northernmost barrier island, the 1,400-acre park features beaches, historic fort, camping and wildlife viewing. An oak canopy drive renders a breathtaking panorama of late sun-chiseled salt marsh. The iconic 19th century fort offers a glimpse into the daily life of soldiers stationed there during the Civil War. It also affords a mesmerizing view of the Cumberland Island Sound, where the St. Mary’s and Amelia Rivers converge with the Atlantic Ocean.
Cumberland Island is on the horizon, where wild horses are often seen walking the shoreline. I spread out my picnic at the beach near the fort and soak in the surreal beauty of this watery borderland. The sun hovers above the horizon, and bathes the fort and beach in an amber glow. All I hear are the waves lapping at the shoreline and the cry of the native birds above.
The First Coast Magazine Joy Ride
Joy rides are good for the soul! Each month we will give you a tailored itinerary for a perfect driving day trip through the First Coast. Photograph your copy of the magazine at each stop and post on Instagram with the hashtag #FCjoyride to enter the First Coast Joy Ride contest to win a souvenir prize from your joy ride!