The 1920s. It was the golden age of prohibition, fictitious millionaire Jay Gatsby and infamous mobsters who had the power to transform an ordinary room into a bona fide joint. It was also the decade that marked the birth of one of Florida’s most enduring head turners, and a ‘grand old lady’ she is indeed.
It’s no secret that Florida is known as the Sunshine State. One of the nation’s top spots for tourism, many are familiar with Florida’s miles of world famous sun drenched beaches, activities and historic sites. Mention “Florida” and “vacation” in the same sentence and most people will assume you’re referring to south Florida (Miami, Orlando and the Florida Keys immediately come to mind…). While sunning and funning in the subtropical climate that is south Florida might be your first destination choice, there’s more to the state than meets the squinted eye.
Consider Northeast Florida
Florida’s northeastern coast offers a bounty of travel destinations and vacation spots, including the former Pablo Beach, now known as the stunning Jacksonville Beach.
Located east of Jacksonville, there’s no shortage of things to do in the thriving beach community of Jacksonville Beach—from lazing the day away on miles of white sand beach to hitting the links for a round of golf and everything in between.
Of course, during your travels, you’ll need a place to lay your head. I was invited to spend three lovely nights at the ‘grand old lady’ herself, Casa Marina Hotel and Restaurant, a place that blends the allure of days gone by with present-day contemporary splendor.
Echoing the aesthetics of Spanish-Mediterranean design, the Casa Marina opened its doors on June 6, 1925 and became an instant favorite. Today, at 90 years old, this sophisticated lady distinguishes herself from the other hotels of her era. The Casa Marina was swathed in concrete and stucco before it was fashionable, and was the first hotel on the beach to be equipped with an automatic sprinkler system. She stood as others around her constructed of wood succumbed to fire. That resilience has earned the Casa Marina a spot on the honor roll of the Historic Hotels of America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In its heyday, the Casa Marina was a haven for movie stars as well as the rich and famous. Even infamous mobsters like Al Capone and George Francis Barnes, Jr. – better known as “Machine Gun Kelly” – are rumored to have stayed within the stucco walls of the historic hotel.
During my stay, I was one in a small group of media folks who toured the hotel and was captivated by the stories of George Hapsis, a native of Jacksonville Beach and former lifeguard with the American Red Cross Volunteer Lifesaving Corps. George, a spirited, erudite 80-something year old gentleman, delighted our group with tales of Casa Marina’s glamorous past as we wandered down the halls and listened as the past come alive through the picture gallery that lined the walls.
Joining George on the tour was Maitre D’ Hotel Sterling Joyce, a dapper, enigmatic gentleman and local celebrity who also had stories to share. A philanthropist, champion of the underprivileged and former president of the Beaches Hospitality Network, Sterling, who has been with Casa Marina for 13 years, always, always gives service with a smile. He’s such a fixture in the Jacksonville Beach community that his annual birthday bash on December 16, where he hosts a fundraiser for local children’s charities, is attended by upwards of 500-600 people.
Casa Marina celebrates many years of glory. Even though the original 60 rooms were small and cramped, the hotel was still a major draw. During World War II, Casa Marina’s proximity to the coastline made it an attractive location for the U.S. Government who commandeered it for Army military housing and occupied the space for six years.
Thereafter, the hotel changed ownership many times and, eventually, it fell into a state of disrepair and was subsequently boarded up. It stayed that way for 11 years until it was purchased by new owners. After major renovations, which included knocking out walls and combining rooms, the hotel went from 60 rooms to its current 23, which includes 18 suites and 5 singles. Casa Marina was reopened 14 years ago and has been reaping the rewards of its storied heritage ever since.
Do I Hear Wedding Bells?
Casa Marina creates a beautiful backdrop for a couple’s special day. Leading the charge for brides and grooms is Director of Catering Rebekah Lowry who works tirelessly to ensure couples have a wedding to remember. The Casa Marina is such a popular spot to say “I do” that weddings are booked a year in advance. Rebekah commented on the popularity of ceremonies held at Casa Marina.
“We do between 120-150 weddings a year. Most of the ceremonies take place in the courtyard,” she said as she gestured out the window, “but we always have a ‘Plan B’ in case the weather is inclement.”
Plan B is the majestic Dining Room. With a ceiling crafted from the wood of recovered sunken boats, windows that overlook the courtyard and seating capacity for up to 180 guests, it’s an impressive dining room.
When it’s Time to Dine …
When vacationing in Jacksonville Beach, some people look forward to sleeping in on a Sunday morning. However, those in the know set their sights on Casa Marina for their legendary Sunday Brunch, which routinely attracts a large and hungry crowd. Executive Chef Aaron Webb and his staff create a feast for the eyes and palate. Our group had an opportunity to sample a small tasting of the sumptuous smorgasbord and it certainly lived up to the hype.
Chef Aaron has been at the helm of Casa Marina’s kitchen as of 2001. Since then, the 1999 Art Institute of Atlanta Alumni has been perfecting his craft—and now that craft can be experienced in the form of ‘new beach’ cuisine. His signature red snapper is not to be missed.
For an unobstructed view of the Florida coastline, step upstairs to Casa Marina’s Penthouse Lounge which has the distinction of being the only establishment on the 40 miles of beach with a deck. Cocktails from on high while watching the sunset should be on everyone’s vacation itinerary. You can also get wonderfully fresh local and Southern cuisine for lunch or dinner, including luscious crab cakes, pulled pork sliders and shrimp & grits.
The Casa Marina also hosts corporate meetings and dinners that accommodate small and large groups.
If you’re contemplating a Florida vacation, northeast Florida and the Casa Marina should be high on your list.
Disclosure: I was in attendance on a media trip hosted by Casa Marina. The views and opinions expressed in this article are my own.