University of Georgia football fans have come to know Jacksonville quite well. The Florida city is home to the yearly Georgia-Florida match-up, and each fall, the town is abuzz with dueling fans.
In the football off-season, though, Jacksonville is a relaxing haven for vacationers, with lovely beaches, dazzling displays of wildlife and many historical sites.
Located a short drive over the Georgia-Florida border - about an hour from St. Simons - the city is an ideal location for area tourists looking for a quick getaway. We searched the Web for the top five Jacksonville picks.
Walk on the wild side
Without boarding a plane or getting a stamp in your passport, take an African safari with a stop at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.
Originally opening its doors in 1914, the zoo has been through major changes and renovations in the last few years. In 2004, the zoo opened the Range of the Jaguar exhibit, and has continued its expansions with exhibits such as the Giraffe Overlook and Savanna Blooms garden.
Stretching over 1,400 acres, the zoo is now home to more than 1,000 varieties of plant life and a range of wildlife. Instead of just watching the animals frolic and play, guests can also learn a thing or two through the zoo's interactive and educational offerings for children and adults. Make sure to also stop by the Wildlife Carousel, which features 34 hand-painted animals.
Admission to the zoo is $11 for adults, $9 for seniors and $7.50 for children ages 3 to 12. Children under 3 years old are free. Call 904-757-4463 or visit www.jacksonvillezoo.org.
For closer interactions with wildlife, head over to Marineland's Dolphin Conservation Center. Located on the picturesque Atlantic coastline, the marina is the world's first oceanarium and offers a variety of interactive programs to let visitors get up close and personal with dolphins.
Guests can take a dip with the dolphins with the Flipper and Fin package, or choose from a selection of other dolphin-related programs for all ages. Marineland has launched three new programs for 2007, including Seafari. This kids-only program is designed specifically for children aged 6 to 12 who want to learn about, touch and get soaked by dolphins.
Reservations are not required for general admission to the marina, though they are requested for programs. General admission is $5 for adults, and $2.50 for children 12 years old and under. Program prices vary. The marina is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Call 904-471-1111 or visit www.marineland.net.
Jacksonville is also home to a lot of history - the area was key in laying the foundation for our country. View a prime example of the city's importance to the country's founding with a visit to the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. A Spanish colonial fortification built from 1672 to 1695, this is the best preserved masonry - also called coquina - in the United States.
Crafted from stone and mortar and sitting along the beach, the fort represents the cultural clash between European settlers and the Spanish, which ended with the united nation in which we now reside. The fort was originally built to protect and defend the Spanish claim on this land, and despite being in the center of colonial warfare, it was never defeated in battle. Today, the monument site consists of 20.5 acres and includes a reconstructed section of the walled defense line surrounding the city.
The fort is open from 8:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $4 for adults, and free for children 16 years old and under. Call 904-829-6506 or visit www.nps.gov/casa.
For history buffs looking for a bit of a fright, try a tour with A Ghostly Experience. The 11⁄2 hour walking tours take guests through the ancient streets of nearby St. Augustine to dispense the otherworldly knowledge of the city. Guides dressed in period attire light the way with candles and lanterns while relating legends, lore and ghostly experiences.
The tours were founded in 1994 by lifelong St. Augustine resident Sandy Craig, whose family tree goes back some 400 years to the area's first Spanish settlers. A Ghostly Experience employs more than 20 professional storytellers, and all of the stories told are researched through records from historical libraries, church documents, and personal diaries and interviews to ensure the real deal.
Riding and sailing tours are also offered. Call 904-461-1009 or 888-461-1009, or visit www.ghosttoursofstaugustine.
This Bud's for you
Brush up on your beer history with a tour of the Budweiser Brewery in Jacksonville. At the brewery, not only can guests see where the beer is bottled, they can also discover how it is made. Best of all, the tours are free.
Tours offer an in-depth look at the beer-making process and the ingredients that go into crafting the beverages. Patrons 21 years old and over can also take a few swigs of their favorite brews. Each season, the sampling station offers different brews, including the Spring Heat Spiced Wheat Brew, Beach Bum Blonde Ale, Winter Bourbon Cask Ale and Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale.
Be sure to pay a visit the gift shop for a wide selection of Budweiser merchandise.
Tours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday and are offered year-round. Call 904-751-8116 or visit www.budweisertours.com.