By Glenda Winders
The sky was bright blue, the water was still and a tattered French flag fluttered gently in a light breeze. We were touring Fort Caroline at the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve on the Atlantic Coast in Jacksonville, Florida. This is idyllic, I thought to myself. I can see why the French chose to make their settlement here.
But then the guide told us how the land had been in dispute between Spain and France and that the Spanish king had sent Admiral Pedro Menedez to destroy the encampment. In the early morning hours on Sept. 20, 1565, he arrived at the colony with 500 men to make the attack. They massacred 140 settlers, and when they found French soldiers shipwrecked farther down the coast, they killed 350 of them, too.
My husband and I had not come to Jacksonville to study its history, but now that we had learned a little bit, we wanted more — and we were in the right place.
Along with the fort, the preserve is home to the Ribault Club, which houses natural and cultural artifacts, birds and wildlife, and good hiking trails in the Theodore Roosevelt Area. A short drive away but a part of the same complex is the Kingsley Plantation, established in 1814 by Zephaniah Kingsley and his African slave wife, Anna, who ran the plantation after she was freed. Today the house is open for tours only on a limited basis, but it's always possible to see the barn, the gardens and the remains of 25 slave cabins.
We had rushed through the museum in the visitors center, but now, with our appetites whetted, we went through it again more slowly on the way out. We found the "Where the Waters Meet" exhibit, which chronicles events here where the St. Johns River meets the ocean, to be especially informative.
The next logical stop in our quest was the Museum of Science and History, lovingly known to locals as "MOSH." The "Currents of Time" exhibit that covers 12,000 years — from the earliest Native Americans to the present — confirmed what we had learned at the fort and taught us much more of Jacksonville's history. Re-created storefronts and rooms in homes illustrate how the city has changed over the years.
The interactive science exhibits were state-of-the-art and eye-popping. One teaches about energy choices, another about health and nutrition. The Space Science Gallery contains space suits and other mission artifacts as well as the Bryan-Gooding Planetarium, with daily live programs about the night sky and the exploration of space.
The "Atlantic Tails: Whales, Dolphins and Manatees of Northeast Florida" exhibit brings the Atlantic Ocean to life, and a naturalist's center acquaints visitors with indigenous creatures. The museum works with the Jacksonville Zoo to make sure the animals are cared for properly. Outside, the Hixon Native Plant Courtyard displays species native to the region. An exhibit for children under 5 teaches them science and history at a level they can comprehend.
For a look at Jacksonville's more recent, urban past we signed up for the "Top to Bottom" walking tour, and it didn't disappoint. We set off from Jacksonville Landing, a riverside shopping mall that doubles as a nightlife hub. From there our guide, Laura Reardon, took us to the top of the Bank of America building, the tallest in the city, for fantastic views and then to the hidden tunnels between banks that were once used by employees to move money. We also got to see the safe in the basement of the Atlantic National Bank that in 1962 was a fallout shelter, where the original cans of emergency water are still in place.
Along the way Reardon regaled us with stories about her city - like how it was once a movie-making capital before that industry moved to Los Angeles and how Elvis Presley performed at the Florida Theater, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places. She explained that the town's original name was Cowford because it was where cows were able to cross the river and that it was later renamed to honor Andrew Jackson, who never visited the area. Much later, on May 3, 1901, 146 blocks of the city burned to the ground. It was completely rebuilt in 1903, making it Florida's most modern city.
When we got back to our starting place we met up with Gary Sass, the owner of the tour company, who was just returning with his group. He was dressed in the character of Jackson and had taken some schoolchildren marching (literally) on a field trip they will probably never forget.
WHEN YOU GO
For general information: www.visitjacksonville.com
We stayed at the Lexington Hotel Jacksonville Riverwalk, which gave us access to the River Walk along the St. Johns River: www.redlion.com/Jacksonville-riverwalk.
A great way to start the day is at Chamblin's Uptown, a bookstore with some 800,000 new and used books where you can also get coffee and pastries or a full breakfast: www.chamblinbookmine.com
Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve: www.nps.gov/timu
Museum of Science and History: www.themosh.org
Walking tour: www.adlibtours.com
Glenda Winders is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.