Hidden Jax

[nggallery id=6 images=1]Think you know the River City? Of course you are familiar with the major attractions like the zoo, EverBank Field, TPC Sawgrass and St. Johns Town Center. But what about the hard to find, the odd and unusual?
This month, we sought out some of the more off-the- beaten-path locales, everything from nature parks to funky restaurants. Join us for a boat ride to a deserted isle near Cumberland Sound and visit a historic site you never knew about. If all of this is old news to you, well…our hats are off to your intrepid desire to experience and learn about Jax and her surrounding communities.

Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens What was once a barren, sandy dune is now a lush forest of trees in the heart of the city. Open seven days a week, the Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens (1445 Millcoe Rd., jacksonvillearboretum.org) is a 120-acre nature preserve that developed organically after decades of neglect. Mined for minerals in the 1940s and '50s, the property was acquired by the city in the 1970s and left idle for more than 30 years. A group of volunteers organized a nonprofit to develop the site into an arboretum, which opened to the public in 2008. Seven beautiful trails showcase 13 distinct ecosystems including freshwater creeks, upland hardwoods, saltwater marshes and even spring-fed ravines. Check out the endangered rosemary scrub, where native rosemary grows wild in an ecosystem unique to the park, or enjoy a nice stroll over stream crossings and through a stand of century-old oaks. Trails are identified as either easy or moderately difficult. The main trail, Lake Loop, encircles a two-acre lake. —A. T. and D. P.

Daisy May, the Possum The possum's name is Daisy May, and she came to MOSH (1025 Museum Cir., 396-674) two years ago after her mom was hit and killed by a car. Daisy May was just three weeks old and still in her mother's pouch with her four brothers and sisters, who were killed in the accident. Daisy May was taken to Hayley Wynn, a naturalist at MOSH, who took care of Daisy until she was four months old. Wynn then brought her to MOSH's Florida Naturalist's Center, a science exhibit where all of the museum's live animals reside. The furry orphan has a posh set-up at the center. She lives in a tree house in a glass enclosure she shares with two gopher tortoises named Emmette, 76 years old, and Gooder, 22 years old. Show up on Saturdays at 2:30 PM for Marsupial Madness, and you can pet and play with Daisy May, or watch her eat watermelon, her favorite food. "People think possums are mean because they hiss and show their teeth," says Wynn, "but they are really pretty friendly, misunderstood animals." —K. F.

Artificial Reefs There are some unusual objects that have been sunk purposely off of the Northeast Florida coast. "There are four press boxes from the Gator Bowl that are now out in the ocean 15 miles east of Mayport," says Joe Kistel, TISIRI (Think It, Sink It, Reef It) executive director. "Scuba divers can even swim through the bathrooms." Later this year, 100 tons of surplus concrete made up of bridge beams and other scraps from construction projects will be submersed about 12 miles east of Ponte Vedra Beach in an area called Floyd's Folly. Tuff-E-Nuff, once the oldest tugboat on the East Coast is also now a reef. The boat was built in the 1890s, making it older than the Titanic. Not only are these reefs hard to find, but many times, companies or people that sponsor a reef ask for coins, letters and other sentimental items to be concealed on the reef. —K. F.

Shark Teeth You probably know about the Civil War history of Fort Clinch (2601 Atlantic Ave., Fernandina Beach), but you may not know that from now until the end of March, it is one of the prime places for beachcombers to find shells, shark teeth and fossils washed up on the beach. Every three to five years, the Cumberland Sound is dredged to keep the channel deep enough for the U. S. Navy's Trident submarines that pass through. The channel needs to be kept at a depth of 60 feet to accommodate the subs, which can be as long as two football fields. This year, Great Lakes Dredge & Dock will dredge from Kings Bay, Georgia to the end of the Fernandina Harbor until March 30th. That means hidden treasures deep from the ocean bottom are washing up on those beaches. —K. F.

Right Whales Up to 200 of the estimated 350 right whales that exist worldwide migrate to the coast of Jacksonville every year. “The majority of the whales are pregnant females that swim here from the Northeastern United States and Canada to calve,” says Tom Pitchford, a wildlife biologist in charge of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Right Whale Project. They mostly travel through our waters from mid-November to mid-April. “This is the only place in the world we know these whales calve,” says Pitchford. “Most that come through are pregnant females, while the other females and males stay behind. Some males and juveniles also come down, but we don’t know why.” The whales can come as close as 100 yards off shore, but most people miss seeing them because they just aren’t flashy swimmers. He says that viewers may be more likely to see a humpback whale, another endangered species that passes through our waters. “The humpbacks come through in fewer numbers, but they lobtail—which means they create a huge splash using their tail (fluke) or flippers.” “If you catch a glimpse of some large black floating object off shore, you probably saw one,” he adds. A team of researchers heads out in a Cessna Skymaster every flyable day of the season to report sightings in real time to the maritime community. People are more likely to see the odd-looking white aircraft with bright orange stripes and propellers in the front and back than they are the whales. Look for them flying off the coast between 9 AM and 4 PM daily. —K.F.

Firefly Gatherings Fireflies come to Northeast Florida in a short burst for around two to three weeks between the months of March and May every year. The dates are hard to pin down because the short lifespan of the fireflies combined with factors such as weather and food supply make it difficult to determine exactly when and for how long they will appear. Just as hard is finding an accessible place to view them. One of the best places to catch the fireflies is the space between the service road that loops around the edge of Fort George Island and the Fort George River. The problem is getting there, since the only parking available is at the Ribault Club (11241 Fort George Rd.), which is only open Wed. to Sun. until 5 PM, long before the hour after sunset that is best for catching the blinking lights of these tiny bioluminescent creatures. Kayak Amelia (13030 Heckscher Dr., 251-0016) guides trips down the Fort George River to hidden spots to see the fireflies. Owner Ray Hetchka calls the park rangers periodically to check and see if the flying critters have shown up yet, and then schedules the dates for the tours. Also, check the wooded areas of the 4,000-acre Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park (13802 Pumpkin Hill Rd.) on the north side of town. —K. F

Tyger Island Almost everyone has heard of Cumberland Island, the tiny island that stood in the national spotlight when John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife Caroline were married there. Not far from Cumberland is another island almost as long but barely an eighth-of-a-mile wide. This virtually unknown location is called Tyger Island. Besides being the dividing line between Florida and Georgia, Tyger also has the distinction of housing the largest population of rattlesnakes in the United States. "It's because the St. Marys River is the Atlantic Ocean drain for the Okefenokee Swamp. The snakes get washed out of the rivers during a rainstorm, and grab onto Tyger Island before they get washed out to sea," says Ellyn Morgan, who has been guiding trips out to the island with Amelia River Cruises for the past 10 years. "We will see pigs, deer and coyote making the short swim across the channel," says Morgan. "The pigs like to eat the rattlesnakes." That's a brave swim, she adds, considering that the sound between the two islands is also the largest breeding ground for hammerhead sharks on the East Coast. Also, around the perimeter of the island are aquifers, which are basically fresh water springs that attract Manatees in need of fresh water to drink. —K. F. 

Davis Dog Park Nestled in Palm Valley, Davis Park (2455 Palm Valley Rd., Ponte Vedra) is a rambling 138-acre recreational facility made for the athletes in the family. Soccer, softball, baseball and football fields are all here, plus a playground and four stocked fishing ponds. There's also space for your four-legged friends to run free and get dirty. Two fenced-in areas (one for smaller dogs and the other for larger breeds) are wide enough to give both you and your pooch a workout. Each has a pond and benches, some of which are shaded. Waste bags are plenty, but bring your own toys, bug spray and shampoo (it'll come in handy at the fenced-in wash station). But best of all, this dog park is free. —A. T.

Zine Collection The Main Library downtown (303 N. Laura St., 630-2665) is home to the largest circulating collection of 'zines in the Southeast. If you ever printed out a homemade magazine full of poetry, rants and band interviews, chances are it will be there, prompting young readers to ask, "What exactly is a Fugazi, anyway?" Housed in the Popular department on the first floor of the Main Library, this selection of small circulation personal magazines has been the library's hidden gem for over a year. Encompassing a wide range of subjects, from popular culture to living off the grid, the 'zines can be checked out for up to three weeks. —S. A.

Dames Point Park It's a tiny chunk of land and to call it a "park" is a bit generous. Sure, there are the mandatory benches, trash barrels and few picnic tables. Local fishermen know the spot as a place to cast a line or two. However, don't expect grassy fields and scores of shady trees. What you do get is the most unusual perspective of the Dames Point Bridge around—from directly underneath the north approach of the towering, two-mile-long span. The deck of the bridge stretches 175 feet above the St. Johns River. The two cable towers reach up some 470 feet. The perspective from the park is a dizzying must-see. Not postcard pretty but a view that will make you say, "man, that bridge is high..." —J. W.

Checker BBQ and Seafood The local favorite here is the “Trailer Trash” special—a pulled-pork sandwich, 20 shrimp, hand-cut French fries and fried green tomatoes for just $9.99. Owner and chef Art Jennette founded Checker (3566 St. Augustine Rd., 398-9206, artofcrackercooking.com) in 2006. The unique set-up includes a family-style buffet dinner on Friday and Saturday nights, where Jennette rings a dinner bell promptly at 7 PM to signal the 60 or so guests that it’s time to dig in. The buffet consists of peel-and-eat garlic shrimp, deep-fried Southern-style whiting fish, crab cakes, collard greens with smoked pork, cheesy-cheese grits, smoked ribs, fried green tomatoes and fried corn. During dinner, Jennette, almost always wearing a brightly patterned chef’s hat, walks around and serves blackened shrimp in an iron skillet to the tables. The $18.95 buffet also includes homemade dark chocolate or ginger cookies for dessert. Food is prepared in an old-fashioned cooking pit built in 1967. Grab lunch Monday through Thursday from 11 AM-3 PM and dinner from 6-8 PM. He calls his food “cracker-style cooking,” which he says comes from the Irish slang word for “entertainer.”  —K.F.

1917 Brick Road At Tillie K. Fowler Regional Park (7000 Roosevelt Blvd., 573-2498), across from the main gate of NAS Jax, are the remnants—covered partially by sand, partially by water—of a series of brick roads dating from 1917. Today’s NAS started out as a National Guard camp, but it was taken over by the U.S. Army when the country set out to lick the Kaiser in 1917. Renamed Camp Joseph E. Johnston, it became a “Remount Station” and as such had to accommodate 4,000 horses and mules in addition to 27,000 troops. This led to expansion to the area that is now Fowler Park, an area then so swampy that barracks had to be built on stilts. Roads connecting it with the main base, reads the historic marker, were “built with tons of fill, then covered with sand and brick for movement of men and animals.” NAS safety officer Ron Williamson, author of The Illustrated History of NAS Jacksonville, wrote that Camp Johnston was one of the healthiest camps despite swampy conditions. But one ex-doughboy, William Hottinger, said deaths from meningitis and malaria were common. He wrote that 6- to 10-foot alligators were “thick as fleas” and as much ammunition was spent on them as was expended on the rifle range. —T.C.

Chamblin's Uptown Bibliophiles, be warned: There is no such thing as a quick trip to Chamblin's Uptown (215 N. Laura St., 674-0868). With more than 600,000 books packed on the shelves of the store's two floors, along with free wi-fi and an endless cup of joe from the onsite cafe, it's easy to see how time can get away from you. Oh, and there are a couple of chess sets standing at the ready—just in case the books aren't enough to occupy your time. Guests can browse books from more than 100 different categories (the Jacksonville history collection is a must-see). Once folks make their selections, they can grab a chair and enjoy. And because the second floor is also carpeted, you'll often find people just sitting on the floor reading. It's casual, quiet and cool. Before you leave, don't forget to check out the two display cases up front that showcase rare and interesting books such as a vellum edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and a 1939 copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf, which, by the way, sits next to The Curse of Lono by Hunter S. Thompson. —D. P.

Culinary School Eats Black pepper duck ravioli, Moroccan-spiced pork tenderloin and coq au vin could run quite a tab at a typical restaurant. But a handful of local eateries are anything but typical. Enjoy fine dining at rock-bottom prices and help budding chefs develop their talent by dining in one of the area's culinary labs. Reservations are suggested and operating days and hours vary. Enjoy delights like pan-roasted beef shoulder chasseur with broccoli and tangerine custard at Walter's Reef at First Coast Technical College (2980 Collins Ave., St. Augustine, 547-3455). Passport at The Art Institute of Jacksonville (8775 Baypine Rd., 486-3000) features a gourmet to-go lunch menu with items such as a smoked chicken panino and tofu souvlaki. Check out The Mallard Room at the North Campus of Florida State College at Jacksonville (4501 Capper Rd., 766-5555), where the menu each week has a different regional theme, such as Hawaii, New England or Southwest.

Clara's at the Cathedral at St. John's Cathedral Church (256 E. Church St., 356-5507) is a collaboration of the Clara White Mission School of Culinary Arts and St. John's Cathedral where diners can enjoy live piano or violin music. Lunch is served every Friday. —A. T.

Virgin Mary Statue A statue of the Virgin Mary set in a grotto in the grass next to St. Michael's Catholic Church (411 N. Fourth St., Fernandina Beach, 261-3472) has a much more interesting history than the plaque on its base suggests. It only tells visitors that it was built by Frank and Florence Mayer in 1950, but how it was made is its own story. The 3-foot base and 6-foot grotto are made from stones painstakingly collected by Frank in the harbor around Amelia Island on the northwest side of the island now called Old Town. The dark-colored rocks are ballasts—materials used to balance an empty boat—that came from the bottoms of the ships sailing in from other countries. The ballasts were placed in the cargo hold until the ship came to shore, when the crew would toss the rocks overboard to replace them with cargo. Frank, who passed away in 1993, modeled the grotto after one in the small town of Sonthofen, Germany, where he was born. His widow, Florence, 96, still visits the memorial. —K. F.

Contributors: Scott Adams, Tom Cornelison, Kaki Flynn, Tori Gibbs, Dolly Penland, Alison Trinidad, Natalie Wearstler, Joseph White