story by Tom Rose, photography by Diana Rose
[Florida Motorcycle Rides: Jacksonville and the Jackson Loop was originally published as a Favorite Ride in the July 2007 issue of Rider magazine]
Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, in the ’50s provided a traditional middle America setting. Life centered on the nearby beaches of the Atlantic Ocean and the St. Johns River, always The River, with its beginning in the swamps and marshes south of Orlando, flowing north 310 miles into the Atlantic at Mayport. It was and is always there, providing a scenic background for daily activity as well as fishing, cruising, water skiing, swimming and more. My BSA 500cc Twin Flash provided great ground transportation to the river, to the beach and all points in between. A few years after graduating from old Landon High School in South Jacksonville, I was gone except for the occasional visit. Thomas Wolfe wrote that “You Can’t Go Home Again” in his novel, and then went on to show that you have to go home to find your inner self.
When my brother, John, who lives in nearby Orange Park, offered to lead me on one of his favorite Jacksonville motorcycle rides I jumped at the chance. Motorcycle engines roared to life at 7 a.m. Sunday morning. Five minutes later we were making our first of four crossings of the mighty river on the Buckman Bridge, this being one of the widest points at about three miles. To the north is the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. This was the location of a 200-mile motorcycle race in 1935 that eventually became the Daytona 200. Exiting the bridge we headed south along the river, then east through Palm Valley, across the inland waterway to the scenic beachside State Road A1A at Ponte Vedra Beach, and finally along the beach north to Mayport.
Mayport is a small fishing village at the mouth of the St. Johns. It is home to a fairly large commercial shrimping fleet, some great seafood restaurants, the Mayport Naval Station (a major aircraft carrier base) and the St. Johns River Ferry.
The ferry has been in continuous operation since 1948. The fare is $2.50 for motorcycles and $3.25 for cars. The one-third-mile crossing takes 10 minutes, but it’s spectacular. To the east we could see the Naval Base, numerous military ships and the Atlantic Ocean. Docked along the southwest bank were the many small craft of the shrimp fleet. The currents can be treacherous here in this narrow section, and it requires a skilled captain to bring the boat across and into the loading ramp.
Exiting the ferry we traveled north on A1A. This is a picturesque seashore route with the dunes, ocean and beaches to the east and the tidal swamps to the west. We were headed for Amelia Island, Fernandina Beach and Historic Fort Clinch. It would be easy to while away the day along this route, as there are many opportunities to stop and explore. We left this for another day, another ride, and pushed on.
Fernandina has been an international port for almost 500 years. It is a great place to explore and relive a history of pirates, wars, Indians and fishing. There are numerous shops, restaurants and inns to accommodate the visitor. Don’t leave town without having a drink at The Palace and a meal at the Florida House. The Palace, Florida’s oldest saloon in the same location, opened in 1903. It’s like a time warp. Nothing fancy here, just an old-time seaport town watering hole. Florida House, the state’s oldest hotel, was opened as a hotel by the Florida Railroad in 1857. It has been restored as a bed & breakfast inn and restaurant.
Before lunch we checked out Fort Clinch. Built in 1847, it was occupied by both the Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War. Its purpose was to protect the coast and the mouth of the St. Mary’s River. The last military use was during World War II, as a communications and security post. You know you’re in a special place as you enter the park and ride the tree-canopied, two-lane road to the fort. This day a lone Union soldier was on duty, but you’ll often find a full platoon of either Union or Confederate troops. They will transport you back to 1864 as they show and describe a soldier’s life at that time.
Fort Clinch State Park has 1,400 acres of hiking trails, bike trails, fishing spots, a fishing pier and campsites. We began our return by backtracking on A1A, then rode west on 105 (Heckscher Drive) and south on 9A to cross the river for the third time via the two-mile-long Dames Point Bridge. It is the longest cable-stayed concrete bridge in the United States. Motorcycling into the sky, 175 feet above the river on this great bridge, is an unforgettable experience.
Nearing the end of an exciting Jacksonville ride we crossed the St. Johns for the fourth time on the Main Street Bridge into the heart of the city. We picked a riverfront location for a rest stop and a couple of photos, then made another stop at Alltel Stadium, home of the annual Florida-Georgia game and the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
On the home stretch we cruised through the older residential sections of Avondale and Riverside. Huge oak trees overhang much of our route, which was lined with large homes that are 50-100 years old. This was the elite area of town as the city began to grow in the early 1900s.
Back in Orange Park 150 miles, 12 hours and four crossings of the river later, we had enjoyed a great motorcycling adventure. What about Thomas Wolfe and finding my inner self? Well, I thought I recognized my old self a couple of times at some of the old haunts. Places like Fort Clinch, the Mayport Ferry and the Palace Saloon sure stirred up some great memories. One thing’s for sure, “A river still runs through it.”
-Jacksonville, Florida: Has an estimated population of 800,000 and a metropolitan population of 1.5 million which includes the surrounding area known as the First Coast region of Florida. The St. Johns River flows through the city and empties into the Atlantic Ocean 20 miles to the northeast of town.
-Mayport, Florida (a part of Atlantic Beach, Florida): The Mayport Ferry (aka St. Johns River Ferry) transports vehicles and passengers from the beaches area of Jacksonville across a narrow section of the St. Johns River to Fort George Island. The ferry is a part of State Road A1A. It has operated continuously since 1948.
-Singleton’s Seafood Shack at 4728 Ocean Street, Atlantic Beach, Florida, is a legendary seafood restaurant located on the Mayport side of the river. Expect a rustic setting, riverfront seafood dining at its best and reasonable prices.-Fernandina Beach, Florida: The website provides good history and visitor info on this beautiful little seaport town: www.fernandinabeachfl.org
-The Palace Saloon at 117 Centre Street, Fernandina Beach, Florida, is Florida’s oldest saloon, operating at the same location since 1903. It is pretty much the same as it was 100 years ago. Just a great place to have a drink and relive history: www.thepalacesaloon.com
-Florida House at 22 South 3rd Street, Amelia Island, Florida, opened as a hotel in 1857. Many of the rich and famous have been guests here over the years. It is now operated as a bed & breakfast and is an excellent restaurant. Florida House has 50cc scooters for rent. Overnight guests get a scooter for four hours at no charge: www.floridahouseinn.com
-Fort Clinch: The entrance to Fort Clinch State Park is located right in Fernandina, however, once inside the 1,400-acre park you feel like you’re hundreds of miles from any other civilization. Fort construction was begun in 1847. It was used by both Union and Confederate forces in the Civil War (1861), by the U.S. Army in the 1898 Spanish American War and by the U.S. forces as a communications outpost in World War II: www.floridastateparks.org/fortclinch