Beachy keen

Posted on 30 Apr 2009 at 9:28am
By Andrew Collins Contributing Travel Writer

Jacksonville and its neighboring beaches are prime summer hangouts


Jacksonville, Florida’s largest city, offers gay B&Bs, clubs, even a bathhouse in the state’s most conservative region.

Jacksonville sits along the Atlantic coast of northern Florida, but it possesses some of the gentile charm of low-country Georgia and the Carolinas while capturing the laid-back, beach-y vibe more typical of Florida. Although this part of the state has a conservative reputation, Jacksonville has a lively gay scene.

Jacksonville is the state’s largest city, both in population (800,000) and area (it stretches some 840 square miles — no city in the lower 48 states is bigger). Good neighborhoods for exploring include San Marco and Riverside, two residential areas with a variety of shops and restaurants. In Riverside, which has many of Jacksonville’s gay bars, much of the retail and dining action is concentrated in Historic Five Points, a funky neighborhood with a youthful personality.

Riverside’s top cultural draw is the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, which contains an outstanding collection of paintings and furnishings, and is also the site of the city’s First Coast Pride, held the last week of July.

Jacksonville’s dining scene is varied and interesting, with plenty of intriguing spots to choose from. In downtown Jacksonville, Chew is a dapper American restaurant serving creative lunch and dinner fare. The same owners operate Orsay in Avondale, a romantic space with a terrific raw bar serving fresh oysters and a menu of sophisticated French brasserie food.

Affordable and cheerful Bungalow on the Park is a relative newcomer, and already a favorite in the gay community — especially for weekend brunch. Fuel is the GLBT community’s favorite coffeehouse, with a variety of board games; there’s frequently live music. Around the corner, Mossfire Grill serves exceptionally good Southwestern-influenced American food.

You’ll find some of the state’s friendliest gay nightspots here, the most popular being the Metro, which comprises a number of distinct bars all under one roof: a lesbian lounge, a dance floor, a cabaret, a show bar, etc.

Another club that draws big crowds is In Cahoots, which is just east of Riverside on the edge of downtown, and which caters to young (18-and-over some evenings) club kids. Both are very mixed, male/female.

Other bars in the same part of town include the Boot Rack Saloon, local headquarters for bears and butch guys; 616, a cruisy spot with a large patio and porn showing on the many TV screens; Park Place, a low-key video bar; and The Norm, which has a following among lesbians. Club Jacksonville, in the San Marco neighborhood, is the city’s gay bathhouse.

The city has a number of appealing lodging choices. Downtown, the gay-friendly Hyatt Regency offers a convenient location and great river views. In Riverside, there are two gay-friendly inns of note. The Inn at Oak Street is an early 20th century house with tastefully appointed, well-outfitted rooms with flat-screen TVs. The charming Riverdale Inn is a grand mansion close to the Cummer Museum with sumptuous and romantic rooms and a top-notch restaurant on-site.

Jacksonville is also a gateway for exploring several appealing coastal destinations: St. Augustine, quaint Amelia Island and the bustling cluster of beach communities to the east, which include Jacksonville Beach, Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach.

Founded in 1565 and thus the oldest city in the U.S., St. Augustine has a compact downtown of magnificent Spanish Colonial architecture, lively lanes filled with festive if touristy galleries and cafes and venerable inns and B&Bs. There’s easily enough here to keep you busy for an afternoon, especially if you like browsing the wares of arts galleries and souvenir shops.

Consider a tour of San Sebastian Winery, which produces fine wines and quite respected ports and cream sherries. You can have a drink in the winery’s rooftop bar, which has live jazz and serves a menu of light tapas. Also check out the ornate Casa Monica Hotel, an elegant, gay-friendly place to stay.

There are several gay-popular B&Bs in St. Augustine, most of them within easy walking distance of downtown attractions and dining. Two good bets include gay-owned Casa de Solana, which claims to be the city’s second oldest inn and has 10 upscale rooms; and the Saragossa Inn, an inviting Craftsman-style B&B.

The bustling communities of Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach and Jacksonville Beach are a 30-minute drive away but worth the trip. Jacksonville Beach’s only gay bar, Bo’s Coral Reef, is out this way —a fun place to shoot pool or linger over a drinks after a day at the beach. If you’re headed toward the beaches from downtown, stop by AJ’s Bar and Grill, a friendly gay hangout about five miles from the beach on Atlantic Boulevard. The lavish One Ocean Resort is a beachfront property with handsomely appointed rooms.

Amelia Island, 45 minutes north, is less developed than the other communities, but is ideal for biking, strolling and viewing the islands prolific fauna. One of northeastern Florida’s most gay-friendly lodgings, the sumptuous Ritz-Carlton, is here, but two intimate gay-friendly B&Bs, the Ash Street Inn and the Hoyt House B&B, are options as well.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 1, 2009.

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