It’s always wonderful when a hotel offers more than a place to lay your head each night. Sometimes that means great views, sometimes it means luxury, but rarely does it mean a combination of past and present with ocean breezes.
Known as the original “Famous Beach” during the Roaring Twenties, Casa Marina in Jacksonville, Florida frequently hosted Jean Harlow, Charlie Chaplin and Al Capone before being utilized by the government during WWII as military housing. Since that time, the Casa Marina Hotel has undergone many transformations, including the addition of a tearoom, a clothing store, an apartment building, a restaurant, and finally restored to its current state as a historical Florida landmark and hotel.
Opening the door to room 201 the décor invoked memories of our own destination beach wedding near Savannah, Georgia. Each room at Casa Marina has a unique décor and this one was a mixture of southern elegance and beach hotel. 21 of their 23 rooms provide a view of the ocean, and after a quick peek from our window at the rolling waves, we traded our shoes for flip flops to begin exploring the beach.
We crossed the sand dunes to find low tide had created a huge, hard packed white sandy beach and immediately understood the black and white photos we’d seen in the hotel of motorcycle racing on the beach (no longer legal)! It’s small, nostalgic touches like these photos, and quick access to the beach, which have made Casa Marina a destination for weddings and large corporate events.
Intrigued by the history and ocean view rooms, Nike rented the hotel during the 2005 Super Bowl for their all-star guests. If you want to lay your head where the legendary Jerry Lewis has, request room 216. Feeling a bit more comedic? Ask for room 213 to conjure up laughs created more recently by Bill Cosby.
After walking along the water’s edge watching surfers and families play in the waves, we returned to Casa Marina ready to find a quick dinner. Located at the North end of the one mile boardwalk, a variety of local seafood, Mexican, and pub style restaurants are within walking distance. A quick perusal of Yelp noted that Zeta had sweet potato fries, and the decision was made.
Since the “healthy diner” me, was feeling a bit under the weather, I tried to satisfy us both by ordering the Mahi Mahi Nachos, which arrived with a large amount of fish, sautéed spinach, green peppers and onions. We asked for the sauce on the side, and a small salad with no dressing, creating a light the veggie and protein packed meal while preserving the pub food that appeals to my husband.
He further satisfied his appetite with the Beach Burger: 8oz of beef topped with avocado, bacon, cheddar and, by request, a fried egg. Conveniently, it came with sweet potato fries, and my meal was complete! (True love is never having to ask for a bite from the others plate. Marriage means eating his fries before he does!) In truth, we probably could have split a meal based on the great portion sizes, but something about dining outside with a fresh breeze makes us want to stay a little longer and enjoy everything Zeta had to offer.
Sunday Brunch: a Community Affair
We’d heard rumors that people drove in from surrounding areas (including as far as Orlando) for this brunch, but it wasn’t until we stepped in to the large dining hall Sunday morning that we really began to understand why.
A 15lb red snapper, with head, fins, and tail fully intact, was presented in the center of a single table, flanked by some of the largest shrimp we’d ever seen. Nearby, a chef stood, slicing prime rib and creating made-to-order omelets, while the dessert spread was so enticing, we nearly skipped the “real” food. The large dining room and outdoor seating constantly maintained a low hum of conversation from the small and large groups that flowed in throughout the morning.
It’s no surprise that Chef Aaron Webb serves 8-10 snappers every single weekend! At just $26, the quality of “new beach” food created by his team has made this the place to be on Sundays. But the food and location are only one reason that Casa Marina has become a sought after wedding venue and host to over 130 catered events each year. The hugs and friendly banter with Maître d’ Sterling Joyce made it clear that the Casa Marina Hotel is a thriving part of the Jacksonville community. This is a place for creating memories and gathering with friends-whether it’s for brunch, or even for Joyce’s annual charity birthday bash which last year had over 800 attendees dressed in full 1920’s flapper style garb!
In the midst of marathon training, I could not have asked for a better spread of protein (shrimp, paella, pork, eggs, snapper, prime rib) and carbohydrates (grits, fried green tomatoes, biscuits, three bean salad, mousse, cake, cobbler). The flavors created by Chef Webb are part of his “new beach” cuisine style and pair perfectly with the mixture of old and new surrounding the hotel.
My palate and tired legs were satisfied with a plate of snapper, three bean salad, roasted new potatoes, and triple chocolate cake with fudge filling. Meanwhile, David dug in to the biscuits, gravy, eggs, waffles, sausage, and then a second plate that consisted of two slices of cake and shrimp. This is what a buffet will do to sensible people, and we weren’t even partaking in the (included) mimosas.
Those who come in for a late brunch often head upstairs to the Penthouse lounge, an outdoor patio with peaceful ocean views accompanied by live music from local Jacksonville band, Be Easy. Described as “young men with old souls”, this self-taught jazz trio prides itself on their organic, soulful sound, covering everything from current pop tunes, to old 60’s hits, Motown, soul, and easy going jazz classics that would please guests of all ages. You can’t ask for much more on a Sunday afternoon.
Waking upon the final day of vacation is always bittersweet, but as streams of an orange and pink sunrise appeared, I eagerly hopped out of bed, ready for five barefoot miles in the soft, freshly packed sand brought in by the low tide. Nearing the hotel from the beach, it became clear yet again why this place had withstood the many changing of hands and rise of nearby chain hotels. It evokes feelings of another time, and captures your attention at every turn with details like the original pecky cypress dining room ceiling, to the stories woven for guests by new friend and legend-teller, Sterling Joyce.
Casa Marina Hotel and Restaurant
691 N. 1st St.
Jacksonville Beach, FL 32250
904-270-0025 | www.casamarinahotel.com | Sunday Brunch 10AM-2PM | $26
131 1st Ave N.
Jacksonville Beach, Florida 32250
Photo credits: Amanda C. Brooks, Casa Marina Hotel