There are few places better to start a trip on Florida's St. Johns River than on the Ortega River located near Jacksonville. The choices for weekend jaunts abound. Start at either the Ortega Yacht Club Marina, (904-389-1199, oycm.com), known for its helpful and friendly atmosphere, or Lambs Yacht Center (904-384-5577, lambsyachtcenter.com), which has served the community for many years and where you can reprovision before heading out. Both marinas provide transient dockage and a number of other services. From here you are only a long walk or good bike ride from the riverside Avondale historic district (riversideavondale.org). Attend the saturday morning Farmers Market, shop in any number of interesting stores or dine at superb restaurants.
It will take less than an hour by boat to get to the downtown Jacksonville area. Begin your cruise of the St. Johns River at Jacksonville Landing, another Rouse Company creation, for those of you familiar with the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. The free, very long floating dock can accommodate any number of vessels; however, there is no power or water available, and it is first come, first served. As an alternative for shore power, tie up across the river at River City Marina (904-398-7918, rivercitybrew.com), which offers fuel and 32-ounce beer growlers. Eat at one the waterfront restaurants, which include Chicago Pizza, American Grill, Fionn McCool's and Benny's Steak and Seafood, to name a few.If you're lucky, there will be live music at the pavilion located in the midst of the restaurants. During our last visit, we enjoyed an acoustic guitar performance of some Jimmy Buffett favorites.If you need to go ashore to stretch your legs, visit the highly regarded Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. Other options include the Jacksonville Maritime Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, right near Jacksonville Landing, or the Museum of Science and History just across the river.
From the Landing, head an easy 30 miles upriver (south) to Sixmile Creek to the Outback Crab Shack (904-522-0500, outbackcrabshack.com). After passing under shands Bridge at Green Cove Springs, cruise to the eastern side of the river and into Palmo Cove, where the restaurant boasts a long floating dock. There is no power or water available, but dockage is free as long as you eat at the restaurant, and who doesn't mind eating out two nights in a row? The seafood boils are out of this world. Once you've feasted, enjoy a peaceful night's sleep in this beautiful, protected creek.
Make another 30-mile run the next day to the floating downtown dock in Palatka. This little town has a lot of potential, and hopefully someone will take the beautiful old buildings near the waterfront park and return them to their former splendor. You can visit the Bronson Mulholland House (bronsonmulhollandhouse.com), a lovely riverfront home built by abolitionist and former circuit judge Isaac Bronson in the mid-1800s. Palatka may be best known for 146-acre Ravine Gardens State Park. This wonderful retreat features a 1.8-mile driving loop, or hike the trails to spot any number of species of birds and butterflies. Ravine gardens is famous for its stunning azaleas. Pets are welcome in the park on a leash.Once you've hiked to the gardens and back, try Angel's, the oldest diner in Florida, just a few blocks from the Palatka City Docks. You can also anchor out and dinghy ashore or tie up downriver at Boathouse Marina (386-328-2944, boathousemarina.com), which has 40 slips, restrooms and laundry facilities and WiFi. In operation since the 1930s, Angel's is renowned for its burgers, fries and onion rings and is open 24/7. Not in the mood for burgers? The floating dock at local hotspot Corky Bell's Seafood is just a short run upriver in east Palatka. Dockage is complimentary with your meal. And don't miss the Magnolia Cafe before departing Palatka. The menu showcases locally sourced foods and wonderful organic, fair-trade sweetwater coffee. Delicious. It serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week and dinner Thursday through saturday. Daily specials are announced on its Facebook page.It doesn't get better than this cruising in protected waters, visiting quaint, small towns and eating in great restaurants. The only thing better might be the beautiful lower St. Johns River. But we'll save that for another trip.