Discover Gay Florida :: Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Daytona Beach
Steeped in history, the First Coast and the world-famous Daytona Beach offer lots of fun in the sun.
The history of northeast Florida stretches back nearly 450 years -- and that only takes into account the European settlers. Spanish admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded what is now St. Augustine in 1565; it is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States. It served as the capital of Spanish Florida for two hundred years and as the capital of British East Florida for sixty more. Around the same time, the French built Fort Caroline near what is presently the city of Jacksonville. Further south, what would become Daytona Beach was borne out of a plantation that was built in the early 19th century.
With the advent of the Florida East Coast Railway in the late 19th century, and the ubiquity of air conditioning and automobiles in the early 20th century, Northeast Florida doubled its population every decade between 1900 and 1930.
Naval bases in Jacksonville helped the area's economy become self-sufficient even before Jacksonville was marketed as a tourist destination. Daytona Beach became famous as a haven for automobile racing enthusiasts starting at the very beginning of the 20th century. The Daytona International Speedway was built in 1958, turning the beach over to tourists and sunbathers year-round. St. Augustine's historic forts were deactivated by the United States Army in 1900 and were restored between the years of 1916 and 1933, later becoming national parks.
In the past 30 years, Jacksonville and St. Augustine together have been billed nationally as "the First Coast" in tourism advertising. While it was called "the Fun Coast" in advertising for a short time, Daytona is best known as just Daytona. In this installment of Discover Gay Florida, we tell you where to go and what to do all across northeast Florida.
One Ocean Resort
Deluxe rooms await at this delightful resort and spa decked out in Florida pastels and aquatic decor. Relax right on the beach, then take time to pamper yourself at the in-house spa. Beaches Town Center across the street provides the shopaholic with extra things to see and buy. (1 Ocean Blvd., Atlantic Beach, 904-249-7402)
Crowne Plaza Jacksonville Riverfront
Look no further for a gay-friendly downtown-adjacent hotel; the dgf crowneCrowne Plaza is one of only two hotels in Jacksonville to be registered with the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association. It is also the host hotel of River City Pride. Great for couples: ask about their romantic getaway package! (1201 Riverplace Blvd., Jacksonville, 904-398-8800)
Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront
Right on the Riverwalk, you can take a stroll along the St. Johns River, then relax and sun yourself at the rooftop pool. Oversized rooms overlook the river and the Jacksonville skyline. You can breathe easy with special hypo-allergenic rooms for allergy sufferers; be sure to book this kind of room if this is what you desire. (225 E. Coastline Dr., Jacksonville, 904-588-1234)
At Journey's End B&B
This intimate bed and breakfast is situated right in historic downtown. Until the end of September, your booking includes trolley tickets so you can explore downtown at your convenience. Rooms are uniquely designed and named after famous explorers (do you feel like having the Dr. Livingstone room or the Amelia Earhart room?). Most rooms have their own private porch and all look out onto the on-site garden. (89 Cedar St., St. Augustine, 904-829-0076)
The Kenwood Inn
Originally built as a country inn in the 19th century, the rooms of the Kenwood Inn have been remodeled in various styles, ranging from Victorian English to classic American country. The inn is an absolute lover's paradise; you can arrange special perks during your stay such as a carriage ride through downtown, freshly-cut roses, or a couples massage. (38 Marine St., St. Augustine, 904-824-2116)
The Villa Inn
A remodeled Spanish mansion, The Villa bills itself as offering "out-of-place opulence." Book the King Carlos suite and you'll find out what they mean: there's a four-poster bed, an add-on deck with hot tub, and in the bathroom there's a seven-head shower! The other rooms do not disappoint (black lacquer furniture in one room, a large-sized royal crown hanging over the bed of another room). A tour of the grounds is also offered at no charge. (801 N. Peninsula Dr., Daytona Beach, 386-248-2020)
This hotel is known internationally as the place where NASCAR was founded, in 1948. Built in the Art dgf streamlineDeco style, one interesting fact about this hotel is that it was Daytona Beach's first hotel and bomb shelter! Not only is there a NASCAR-themed bar, there is also a gay bar in this hotel, with drag shows every weekend. There are so many stories this hotel can tell, all you have to do is ask someone. (140 S. Atlantic Ave., Daytona Beach, 386-258-6937)
This restaurant prides itself on having "pure flavor" with no fusion whatsoever. Dishes for the most part represent the flavors of the Andalucia region of Spain. Enjoy Spanish cuisine in dishes such as the chilled seafood salpicon tapas ($11) and the cured chorizo ($7). (887 Stockton St., Jacksonville, 904-389-0330)
Orsay has been ranked one of the best restaurants in the state of Florida almost continuously since its opening in 2008. The restaurant is classified as a "French bistro with American Southern influences." Exhibits A and B: The Eden Farms Berkshire pork chop ($28) and the blueberry shortcake ($8). An entire gluten-free menu is also available. (3630 Park St., Jacksonville, 904-381-0909)
Hamburger Mary's Jacksonville
The Hamburger Mary's chain, which has combined casual dining and fabulous drag queens for the dgf maryspast 40 years, has a location in Jacksonville too. Sania Dela Cruize and Alexis Gabrielle Sherrington host the drag shows on the weekends if you get a chance to see one. Jacksonville's gay community loves partying at Mary's. (3333-1 Beach Blvd., Jacksonville, 904-551-2048)
River City Brewing Company
The River City Brewing Company celebrates 20 years as a Southbank dining favorite this year. The microbrewery is a favorite of all the diners; be sure to ask them for their daily selections. For dinner, try the salad, drunken salmon with jasmine rice and Florida key lime pie all in one fixed price ($25). The steak burger on a butter brioche ($12.95) is a less expensive alternative that doesn't skimp on taste. (835 Museum Cir., Jacksonville, 904-398-2299)
Gypsy Cab Company
A St. Augustine favorite for the past 30 years, the group of chefs at the Gypsy Cab Company put together a menu that "borrows" from nearly a dozen cuisines. Just in seafood alone, you can have salmon and scallops Provençal ($19), shrimp San Juan ($19), or seafood gumbo Lowcountry style ($19). (828 Anastasia Blvd., St. Augustine, 904-824-8244)
The Raintree, currently operated by the second generation of English immigrants, is fascinated with the cuisine of the "New World." American and Asian cuisines mix with the "Old World" of the Mediterranean to produce such award-winning dishes as the filet mignon Bearnaise (six oz., $23.99; nine oz., $28.99). (102 San Marco Ave., St. Augustine, 904-824-7211)
Cap's On The Water
Just off A1A is Cap's On The Water, a seafood restaurant that cooks up its specialties in Southern and Mediterranean culinary styles. The St. Augustine Record voted the restaurant number one for top service and as most appealing outdoor restaurant in town. Blackened shrimp and chicken curry ($15.99) and clams linguini ($14.99) are some of the centerpiece dishes on the dinner menu. (4325 Myrtle St., St. Augustine, 904-824-8794)
The locals insist that I include Caribbean Jack's on my list of places to eat, and from what I've read dgf carribabout the place, it is also a favorite of the tourist and biker crowds as well. The owners label their Bananas Foster drink as "world-famous!" More than one person has recommended the sesame-seared ahi tuna appetizer, with wakame seaweed and pineapple teriyaki glaze. Valet parking is offered for free. (721 Ballough Rd., Daytona Beach, 386-523-3000)
Zen Bistro has been voted one of the most popular Asian restaurants in Volusia County, and according to reviewers on Urbanspoon, it isn't a stretch as to why. "Just got back from Thailand, and their Thai food is the real deal," said one diner. Another diner praised the large portions and the ability to cook to order, even for people with gluten sensitivities. The sweet and spicy peanut dish with vegetables ($9.95) is recommended. (223 Magnolia Ave., Daytona Beach, 386-248-0453)
Ocean Deck Restaurant & Beach Club
The Ocean Deck is Daytona Beach's only oceanfront restaurant and beach bar/club. People love the drinks (ask for the mojito or the frozen "Red Tide" concoction), view, and especially the food; a big favorite is the Monte Cristo sandwich ($12.95) which is described as fluffy and not too heavy. (127 S. Ocean Ave., Daytona Beach, 386-253-5224)
The Gator Bowl, played at EverBank Field, is a Jacksonville New Year's Day tradition. It is one of the most popular college football bowl games in the country, with an SEC team and a Big Ten team battling it out for post-season bragging rights. This past New Year's, Northwestern won over Mississippi State. Thousands decide that the TV's for the birds and see the game in person; are you going to be one of them? (New Year's Day, www.gatorbowl.com)
Jacksonville Jazz Festival
The Jacksonville Jazz Festival is the second-largest jazz festival in the United States. Four days of performances light up downtown Jacksonville, and bring out as many as 60,000 spectators each year. The event has seen a resurgence in the past few years after dwindling attendance and overspending put the future of the event in question. The City of Jacksonville assures jazz lovers that the festival will be around in 2014 and for years to come. (Last week in May, www.makeascenedowntown.com)
River City Pride
The current incarnation of River City Pride (which had a long-running tradition in Jacksonville, from dgf riverparade1978-2008) started in 2010 to coincide with National Coming Out Day. Since then, the parade and festival have been held in October, on different weeks to maximize participation and visibility. They are the largest gay pride events in Northeast Florida, with dozens of groups participating each year. (Second and third weekends in October, www.rivercitypride.com)
The Players Championship
World-famous golfers come to the TPC Sawgrass in adjacent Ponte Vedra Beach to play what is perhaps the most important tournament outside of the four yearly "major" championships. The winner receives over $1.7 million, the highest payday out of any golf tournament in the world. Want to hobnob with Tiger Woods? He won the event in 2013. (Second week in May, TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, www.pgatour.com)
The Romanza Festivale was started in 2012 by Romanza St. Augustine to honor St. Augustine's colonial beginnings in the run-up to the city's 450th anniversary in 2015. The week of events this past year honored the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon's discovery of Florida. In 2014, St. Augustine will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act with another week of community heritage celebrations. (Third week in May,)
Daytona Bike Week
It may be called a week, but the events actually last ten days. It is the world's largest motorcycle-themed group of events, with over 500,000 people converging on Daytona Beach every year for festivals, parades, contests, concerts, and the admiration of motorcycles. The festivities lead up to the Daytona 200 motorcycle race, held at Daytona International Speedway. People loved Bike Week so much that there is a second event, Biketoberfest, in October! (Second week in March, www.officialbikeweek.com)
Who can even think of Daytona Beach without thinking of the most famous NASCAR race? "The Great American Race" has been run every year since 1959. Tens of millions of people watch the race on television and some race-car fans believe that one just has to see the Daytona 500 before he or she dies. It's a lucrative event for Daytona Beach; although the race itself only lasts one day, the average tourist stays there nearly a week during that time. (Last weekend in February, www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com)
Northeast Florida has many nightlife options for the gay community. While St. Augustine doesn't have any gay bars, many people can and do travel to either Jacksonville or Daytona Beach for a night out.
In Jacksonville, the bars include 616 (616 Park St.), a hot hangout for the bear and leather crowd; Metro (859 Willow Branch Ave.), a massive entertainment complex with seven bars; Park Place dgf ajsLounge (931 King St.), a friendly neighborhood bar which people insist is Jacksonville's version of "Cheers"; InCahoots (711 Edison Ave.), a fun dance bar geared toward the younger set; The Norm (2952 Roosevelt Blvd.), which has a wide range of theme nights but is still well-known as a bar for the ladies; The Boot Rack Saloon, (4751 Lenox Ave.), a country and western bar where boot-scootin' is encouraged; AJ's Bar and Grill (10244 Atlantic Blvd.), a pub and grub favorite on the Southside -- away from the other gay watering holes; and Bo's Coral Reef (201 5th Ave. N., Jacksonville Beach), the only gay bar on Jacksonville Beach, with live music and drag shows.
In Daytona Beach there's the Savoy Daytona (546 Seabreeze Blvd.), a carbon copy of the Savoy in Orlando, with hot bartenders and cold drinks; the Streamline Hotel gay bar (140 S. Atlantic Ave.), guaranteeing a gay old time in the birthplace of NASCAR; and the normally straight Full Moon Saloon (700 Main St.), which has a gay night on Fridays with drag shows.
Things to See and Do
First opened in 1987, the Jacksonville Landing revitalized downtown with shopping and dining selections right on the picturesque St. Johns River. It is compared to Miami's Bayside Marketplace, which was designed by the same architect and opened earlier the same year. The Gator Bowl and Jazz Festival host events at the Landing every year, making it one of the most visited attractions Jacksonville has to offer. (2 Independent Dr., Jacksonville, 904-353-1188)
One of the few old-time movie houses left in the state of Florida, the Florida Theatre now hosts a range of cultural events, from live music to off-Broadway plays. In the coming months, acts as diverse as Rick Springfield to Alice Cooper to India.Arie to Bonnie Raitt to Ladysmith Black Mambazo will be gracing their presence in Jacksonville. The holiday concerts in December are a Jacksonville tradition. (128 E. Forsyth St., Jacksonville, 904-355-5661)
The NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars play here and the city is awash with teal on Sundays during the football season. Want to catch a game while you're in town? Some of the cheapest seats in the NFL are yours for the picking. During the week there are tours available, including the Jaguard press box and the team locker rooms. Call 904-633-4674 to set up your tour. (1 EverBank Field Dr., Jacksonville, 904-633-6100)
Castillo de San Marcos / Fort Matanzas
These were the first continuously operating European settlements in the United States. They changed hands five different times, and were eventually retired from active duty by the United States Army in 1900! Today they welcome thousands of tourists a day as people get to see the forts, the jewels of Spanish Florida, and how they were utilized by the Spanish, the French, the English, the Americans and the Confederates. (1 S Castillo Dr. and 8635 A1A South, St. Augustine, 904-829-6506 and 904-471-0116)
Ripley's Believe It or Not! St. Augustine
The very first Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum opened in St. Augustine in 1950, and over the past 60+ years the collection has grown to over 800 exhibits. You will get to see shrunken heads (legend has it that if a woman touches one, she will be pregnant within a month!), the world's smallest car, mummified human remains, the world's largest Erector set Ferris Wheel, and The Lizard Man! (19 San Marco Ave., St. Augustine, 904-824-1606)
Daytona Beach Pier
The Daytona Beach Pier is easily the most recognizable landmark on the beach, stretching 750 feet into the Atlantic. The pier originally housed a casino; its current tenant is a Joe's Crab Shack, which opened last year. Take a walk along the pier, enjoy the view, and enjoy some fishing! The City of Daytona Beach spent a lot of money in refurbishing and renovating the pier for your enjoyment. (1200 Main St., Daytona Beach, 386-253-1212)