I’ve been heading to the hideaway hamlet of Atlantic Beach, which sits just east of Jacksonville, for as long as I’ve been a Floridian, which is to say more than a quarter of a century now (time flies when you’re having fun).
Fresh out of college at the University of Florida in Gainesville, my surfer boyfriend and I gravitated east for a lifestyle of reliable waves, morning beach walks before work, passing dolphins, and a seasonality you don’t always find in Florida; we enjoyed huddling around beachfront bonfires on brisk winter nights. Eventually he and I moved away and apart. But if there’s one place in Florida that always draws me back, it’s this tight-knit coastal town that tends to get bypassed by visitors fixated on better-known Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach to the north and St. Augustine, just south.
It’s easy to overlook Atlantic Beach. After all, it’s hardly lined with hotels and condos. There are just two places where you can stay near the beach—the oceanfront One Ocean Resort & Spa and the eleven-room boutique gem Hotel Palms. The Atlantic Ocean here lacks the clear blue quality of points farther south (the mighty St. Johns River empties into the Atlantic Ocean just north of Atlantic Beach). But these shortcomings are also its assets.
“Atlantic Beach has been the best of both worlds to raise a family,” says Anne Marie Moquin of Beaches Go Green, an environmental education nonprofit based in the area. “We have this amazing nature out front, peace, and solitude. Then a few short blocks away we have awesome restaurants and cute shops we can ride our bikes to.”
And then there are the neighbors. “We have North Atlantic right whales that calve off our coast, and pods of dolphins we can see on a daily basis,” Moquin says.
Florida travelers used to more manicured stretches of sand will notice Atlantic Beach looks wilder, which feels intrinsic to its appeal. You can imagine the landscape as it existed before humans lived here. “The sea oats are spectacular,” Moquin says, “and our dunes provide a home to threatened animals like gopher tortoises and indigo snakes.”
A car-free lifestyle prevails in Atlantic Beach, too, especially along the residential street set just back from the dunes. “On any given day, Beach Avenue is packed with walkers, dogs, people,” Moquin says. Here’s a walker’s (or cyclist’s) guide to enjoying the best of Atlantic Beach:
Cafe and boutique hopping at the Corner
Locals refer to Beaches Town Center—where Neptune Beach meets Atlantic Beach just a block from the surf—as “the Corner.” Morning to night, there are plenty of reasons to stroll out here for something entertaining or delicious.
Surfers fresh from dawn patrol and families with kids and dogs linger on weekend mornings over avocado toasts and flat whites at Southern Grounds in Neptune Beach. Local art decorates the popular coffee house, which offers shaded outdoor seating in a bricked courtyard. A few steps away, browse the Book Mark for titles by Florida authors, or hit Bali Cargo Company for jewelry, gifts, and wood furnishings made from upcycled Indonesian fishing trawlers.
For lunch and dinner, bookmark Sliders Oyster Bar to feast on platters of the bivalves in an open-air setting, Flying Iguana for great watermelon margaritas and chunky tableside guac, and Salumeria 104 for something more Mediterranean a la antipasti and charcuterie plates and the sublime housemade gnocchi.
All about the beach
The wide, packed-sand shoreline in Atlantic Beach isn’t of the sugar-fine, blinding-white variety you find along Florida’s Gulf Coast and Panhandle. But it’s perfect for rummaging for shark teeth and pedaling a beach cruiser, particularly come low tide.
Beach Life Rentals can deliver beach bikes and electric bikes as well as boogie boards, surf boards, paddleboards, and other beach toys to wherever you’re staying. If you pedal south from Atlantic Beach about three miles along the sand or street, you’ll reach the Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier. It’s worth paying the few bucks to stroll out and see what fishermen are reeling in, and to watch the surfers cruise the curling waves.
Head about the same distance north from Atlantic Beach along the sand to where the beautiful oceanfront homes (no high-rise condos or hotels in these parts) peter out, and you’ll have arrived at the incredible 450-acre oceanfront Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park. Hiking and mountain biking trails wind through an old-growth forest of live oak trees, and the beach here is almost never crowded.
Worth the short car ride
Drive about six miles north of Atlantic Beach to reach the lost-in-time fishing village of Mayport, an authentic working waterfront where shrimping boats laden with nets hug the St. Johns River. Come hungry—you can buy fresh Florida seafood or stop for a lunchtime feast at Singleton’s Seafood Shack, which has been selling local fish and shrimp since 1969, or Safe Harbor Seafood Restaurant, where you can watch as boats offload their catches right out front.
If you want to continue the pleasure drive north, hop the St. Johns River Ferry (cars allowed) for the minutes-long crossing to the Fort George Ferry Landing and meander north through more gorgeous oceanfront parks, including Huguenot Memorial Park and Little Talbot Island State Park. You can easily wind all the way to Amelia Island. That beautiful spot might be the main destination on most folks’ itineraries in this part of North Florida, but if you’re staying in Atlantic Beach instead, consider it a great day trip before heading back south to my favorite Florida surf town of all.