Besides welcome warm weather in Jacksonville, Florida, we are exposed to an amazing musical kaleidoscope ranging from concert hall refinement at one end - an exceptional philharmonic orchestra - to an annual pop festival held at a laid-back beach venue, patrons wandering around in casual attire, sipping beer. In fact, Jacksonville is the birthplace of Southern Rock.
.38 Special and
JJ Grey and Mofro are native sons.
The Allman Brothers Band was formed here. Add
Elton John & his band playing at Veterans Memorial Arena, and you have quite a selection from which to chose.
At the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, I am amazed by the power exhibited by the "King of Instruments" a 6,215-pipe
Bryan Concert Organ. It celebrates its century mark in the evening's performance of Saint-Saëns Thundering Organ Symphony, conducted by Grammy-nominated maestro Julian Wachner. It literally drowns out the entire orchestra and truly merits the moniker "King of Instruments" because of its sheer massiveness - mimicking the size of a two-story house. The incredible tonal array begins with "piccolo" pipes the size of a pencil to the 32-foot "bourdon" that rumbles like thunder. Built in 1914 in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, the instrument now has 97 ranks, 80 stops and weighs nearly 20 tons. It was originally installed in the First Baptist Church of Syracuse, New York.
For contrast, we take in the
Belk Music Festival along Jacksonville's 21 miles of wide, inviting beaches, a fifteen-minute drive from downtown. Adjacent restaurants and nightlife, souvenir shops and oceanfront hotels blend into the scene with musical entertainment that ranges from country to jazz. We wander amidst myriad tents that hawk everything imaginable as well as tasty food. There's a wide, paved boardwalk beside the endless sand and water. The Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier projects a quarter of a mile into the Atlantic Ocean and offers great views of the coastline. Admission is $1 for pedestrians; fishermen, $4.
One morning, we drive to the
Riverside Arts Market featuring outdoor craft and a food market, located conveniently under the I-95 underpass in the historic Riverside neighborhood, close to the
Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, one of the most visited museums in the Southeast. We enjoy its small yet eclectic collection of art with its prized porcelain collection, the third largest of its kind in the world. Surrounding gardens along with their sculptures are beautiful and they centre around a magnificent sprawling live oak tree easily 150 years old.
Another morning, from our room on the top floor of the Crowne Plaza Riverfront hotel, we watch thousands of competitors streaming across the Main St. Bridge in the
15 km Gate River Run, the US National Championship 15 km since 1994. In 2007, it became the largest 15 km race in the country and was voted one of the top US Road Races for the last 20 years by Runner's World Magazine.
Watching all that running creates an appetite. For dining, we try two restaurants in San Marco, an inviting collection of historic shops with an art deco movie theatre, located just south of the Crowne Plaza Riverfront. At PeterBrooke, we try their famous chocolate covered popcorn, but the main courses are at the European Street restaurant (wonderful German beer, sausage and sauerkraut) and Bistro Aix, an exceptional eatery patterned after a similar bistro in Aix en Provence, complete with exposed brick walls, a wood fired oven, and an open chef's kitchen that creates a warm dining environment. Attached to the main dining room, is a bohemian watering hole, Bar X, with a glowing backlit onyx bar. Cool! Matt Mannick, the amiable GM recommends the smoked tomato soup, and it is delicious!
City Council President Clay Yarborough claims that with its moderate temperature year round, Jacksonville is naturally home to numerous festivals, national and international sporting events, exceptional golf courses (1,220 holes of golf to be played here), world-class arts and culture and much more. "Jacksonville is where Florida begins!"
And it's big! At 840 square miles, Jacksonville is the largest city in the United States. Indeed, the "River City by the sea" boasts wide, uncrowded beaches, nearly 40 miles of Intracoastal Waterway canal and the longest stretch of the St. Johns River making the area a boater's dream-come-true. And back on land, it is home to the largest urban park system in the nation with 10 state and national parks ready to be explored. The downtown boasts 5.6 miles of riverfront including 3 miles of River-walk perfect for a stroll or jog or simply to enjoy the city skyline.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune, Niagara Falls Review and Seniors Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.