Sunbelt Excursions
The Casa Marina Hotel and Jacksonville Beach
Where Fun, History and Culture Reside
By Debra Pamplin

The moment I stepped bare toes onto Jacksonville Beach, I could tell there was something different about this section of shoreline.  The description can be summed up with one word:  Superb.  Perfect.  Unique.  Okay, so it took three words to define.  The point is, the East Coast features several comfortable beaches, but Jax Beach, in my opinion, is one of the best.

What would a beautiful beach be without a beautiful beachfront hotel?  A staple in Jax Beach history, the Casa Marina, located at 691 First Street North, held its grand opening celebration back in 1925.  As a matter of fact, the doors opened the very day that the town was officially renamed Jacksonville Beach.  Originally, in 1884, the town's name was "Ruby," and then a year later the beach town was renamed Pablo Beach.

In addition to the beautiful Spanish-Mediterranean design, the two-storied Casa Marina, now noted for its Historic Hotels of America designation, introduced a new building concept to the beach.  The building, built with stucco, concrete and tile, was labeled as fireproof.  There was an extra step built into the hotel that was unique to the beach.  The Casa Marina had the first built-in automatic sprinkler system.

The Casa Marina was my home away from home for a relaxing, three-day stay.  Residing in one of the first-floor suites, I lounged in front of one of two flat-screen TVs before ordering room service.

The food from the hotel restaurant, The Penthouse Grill, was delicious.  So many tasty options made it difficult to choose, but I went with the crab cakes.  Two good portions of crab cakes were promptly delivered to my room.  They were drizzled with honey grainy mustard and ginger chili sauces, and the last bite was just as delicious as the first.

The Historic Casa Marina Hotel
Jacksonville Beach, Florida

That night, we made our way a few blocks up the road to the hotel's other dining establishment, Zeta Brewing Company, at 131 First Avenue North.  I shouldn't have been surprised that the food was just as mouth-watering as the Penthouse's, as Chef Aaron Webb makes the menus for both eateries.  Entering his thirteenth year at Casa, Chef Webb draws from his creativity, ensuring a fresh and exciting menu that changes each season.

Just as Casa Marina introduced us to a new line of safety, Zeta Brewing Company has introduced us to a new way of experiencing beer.  With an in-house brewery, Zeta's flavors range from English-style pale ales and brown porters to its own twist on the lite beer.

Power to the Porter, a mild roast with a chocolate-like quality, is among their extensive selection.  Also brewed in-house is Ruby Beach, their take on American wheat beer.  Ruby Beach is described by management as having "a grainy wheat character with a medium body."  In addition to its in-house brewing operation, Zeta takes beer to the next step.  Numerous menu options incorporate new beer flavors.  For example, their seafood boullibaise (mahi mahi, shrimp, scallops, and rice, baked in a rich stock) is paired with the brewery's own Twin Finn Lager.  Zeta is kid-friendly, offering a variety of dishes that are perfect for little fingers.

My first morning began before dawn.  While waiting on the chance to snag the "perfect sunrise photo," I found myself experiencing the beach in a different way.  Still dark, all I could hear from the wooden access that would eventually lead me to the sand was the loud, thunderous sounds of waves breaking forcefully.  In that time of darkness, I closed my eyes and took in the beauty that was already surrounding me, long before it was visible to the eye.  I had the beach all to myself, but only for a brief few minutes.

The pre-dawn brought out the surfers, joggers and bicyclists.  Joining them to celebrate the morning was a single seagull.  The bird wasn't alone for long.  Within a matter of minutes, a family of baby seagulls and about thirty other adult seagulls met up with the loner.

Storms had hit the night before, leaving the waves crashing hard, but the surfers were holding their own.  Though it was too cloudy to view the sunrise properly, it was beautiful to see the sun trying to peek through the clouds once or twice. 

A small, buffet table laden with ham quiche, fruit, coffee and juice, was Casa Marina's take on continental breakfast, and this proved to be a great morning starter.

It was in the afternoon when I walked about 0.6 miles to the Beaches Museum & History Park.  There was a lot to discover about the area, along with five other communities:  Mayport, Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach, Ponte Verde and Palm Valley.  You can even learn about the original lifeguard chair, another creation from Jacksonville.  There are 25,000 historic photographs and archaeological materials.  Guided tours are available, which also include the two-acre outdoor park.  The park features the recently-relocated 1887 Carpenter Gothic-style church, a steam engine and a post office-turned-house.  The tour was a short, yet informative one, perfect for those visiting with kids.  Bring along some pocket change for the hurricane simulation machine, as I am sure it is a hit with many youngsters. 

Another fun attraction at Jacksonville Beach is Adventure Landing, which is a short drive (less than two miles) from the Casa Marina Hotel.  From go-karts to the water park, mini-golf to a roller coaster, this is an exciting stop for all members of the family.  Seasonal hours, ticket information and driving directions are accessible via Adventure Landing's website.

On my final night at the Casa Marina, I made my way upstairs for another dinner from the Penthouse Grill.  This meal was just as scrumptious as the lunch.  I ordered shrimp and grits.  The evening atmosphere at the Penthouse has a younthful, vibrant vibe.  The maître ď, Mr. Joyce (the area's historian), credits the restaurant's signature tapas and martinis for attracting younger patrons.  The hotel's general manager, Mark Vandeloo, also points to the penthouse level's patio, which provides miles of panoramic beach views, making it a great place to unwind after work.

The Casa Marina is also a premiere wedding destination.  It's no wonder, with the large dining room that is often used for wedding receptions, a beautiful outdoor courtyard that often doubles as the perfect wedding ceremony location, and plenty of rooms for wedding guests to stay a few nights.  Casa Marina's Rebekah Blakely Lowry says, "Creating cherished weddings and special events is what we do best!  The Casa Marina exudes a feeling of classic, timeless glamour and elegance to every bride and groom who envision their wedding day as the most unforgettable moment of their lives."  In regard to food options for wedding receptions, there is an abundance of hors d'oeuvres, two buffet desserts and four bar packages.

This initial trip to Jax Beach has left me anxious to return. This city has so much to offer, and is truly a beautiful, friendly destination.  Whether you are a guest at the Casa Marina for a wedding, on a family vacation, or traveling for business, the friendly staff will treat you like family, making sure your visit is the most pleasant and relaxing as possible.

Karl E. Holland (1919-1993)
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Beach-goers at Jacksonville Beach, May 1973
Florida Memory:  State Archives of Florida

"Casa Marina Hotel & Restaurant:  1925:  History,"  The Casa Marina Hotel.  Retrieved November 29, 2014:

"Florida Memory:  Jacksonville Beach," Florida Memory.  Retrieved November 29, 2014:
Author:  Debra Pamplin.  Published November 29, 2014.
Southern Edition

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