Tag Archives: Jacksonville

Casa Marina Hotel, Jacksonville Beach: Hometown Get-Away

Sunrise at the Casa Marina

Getting Away in my own Hometown

Sometimes it takes a push to get out the door in your own hometown. When you’re on the road and away from home as much as I am, who stays in a local hotel?  However, the International Food, Wine and Travel Writer’s Association, of which I’m a member, was holding a two day conference  in nearby Jacksonville Beach.

So, I checked in, though somewhat embarrassed to admit I’d never set foot in the Casa Marina Hotel before. The Historic Hotel of America is a grand dame dating back to 1925 and restored to reflect the timeless glamor of the era.

Seems that Jacksonville was an “in” spot during the Roaring Twenties when the hotel first opened her doors. Why the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, John D. Rockefeller and President’s Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman visited the area. Jacksonville Beach boasted a boardwalk, dance casino’s, restaurants, amusement rides and wide beaches where automobiles were allowed to drive. (You can verify this by viewing the old photos lining the hallways.)

Casa Marina

During the war years of 1939 to 1945 the government appropriated the Casa Marina for military housing. Afterward a succession of owners and renovations took place.

Recently the Spanish Mediterranean-style hotel was recognized by The Knot Best of Weddings 2010 as one of their “Top Wedding Professionals.” Brides agree as  nearly 150-175 weddings are held in house each year. And please realize, this is an intimate  27-room hotel.

The seclusion of the inner courtyard, the view from the third floor penthouse and the nearness of the ocean bring an enchanted calm to the inn.  The food is outstanding and the treasured staff are most gracious and trusted by general Manager, Mark Vandeloo.  He must be doing something right as turnover is rare.

Visiting a Jacksonville hotel turned out to be a real treat in my own backyard.

My room in the Casa Marina

The Friday Night Feeding of Lions and Tigers – No Bears

The Catty Shack, Jacksonville, Florida

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of a place named The Catty Shack.  Visions of Bill Murray, moles and golf courses came to mind, but the spelling is ‘catty’ not ‘caddy’ shack. And its not about gossip. The Catty Shack is a rescue center for large cats like lions, tigers, leopards, cougars and panthers.  And it’s right here in my hometown– Jacksonville, Florida.

The newspaper announced a public fundraiser: A chance to watch the felines feast for fifteen dollars. Game on.

I gathered a friend and her daughter and drove over to the north side of town, not far from the airport. Directions said to look for a mailbox with a statue of a lion. We certainly weren’t in Kansas, no wheat fields around, rather a residential neighborhood. Do they really house 40 big cats in a normal suburban setting?  Oh my!

We entered though a security gate, then passed by a 15-foot-high stockade fence.  Ahead, as far as my eyes could see, were enclosures with large animals. First up was a lovely lion whose mane reminded me of the Cowardly beast in the Wizard of Oz.  Next to the lion was a scarecrow. No. A napping white Siberian tiger with the most gorgeous blue eyes and gigantic, supersized paws. His claws bespoke power; they were visceral weapons. Further along, three tigers frolicked  in a swimming pool. Really now, there’s no place like home.

These sleek felines looked professionally groomed; their coats were shiny and their nails clean. I later learned they are given vitamins with each feeding, once daily, of 10 to 25 pounds of beef, chicken, or fish.

Biggest question — How did these magnificent critters end up here?  Turns out a number of people obtain licenses to own large cats, but don’t maintain proper standards.  The state also confiscates for illegal ownership or maltreatment. They are moved to Catty Shack and once a kitty arrives, it stays for the rest of its life.  None are ever sold.

Curt LoGiudice, Executive Director/Curator or as I refer to him– Top Cat, has been running the sanctuary since its inception 25 years ago. He has a personal relationship with each animal, whom he refers to by name. Courageous Curt walks right into the enclosures with the feeding bowls.  And, let me tell you, these carnivores (sometimes weighing 500 pounds) are ominous. When they go after their food, the fur flies. Couldn’t miss the loud, guttural growl of one tiger, as he bared his saber teeth, to another yet-to-be fed, cage mate.

On the night I visited, dinner was a huge bowl of chicken legs and wings. The sound of the cats crunching their food is akin to the noise branches make when a tree falls. Imagine amplifying the Frito Bandito’s bite into a chip by about a thousand. You’ll remember the snap.

I turned to my friend and said, ” Watching and hearing these cats devour their meal is one of the strangest things we’ve done in a long time.”  And to this, my friend who parties at  Mardi Gras, rode donkeys on Santorini, and dogsledded with me- agreed.

If you live in the area, just ‘wiz’ on down the road to The Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary for the up-close adventure of a  Friday night feeding. You’ll support a worthwhile cause and as Tony the Tiger would say, “It’s grrrrrreat.”

Telephone 904 757-3603


St Marys, Georgia: Small Town with Big Connections

Cumberland Lady
Cumberland Lady

Everyone's wired these days: my husband works from his laptop, my daughter texts from her cell phone–while listening to her i-pod, I use Facebook to stay current with my friends and my 89-year-old mother sends e-mail. Goodness! Sometimes we need to disconnect.

Nearby Cumberland Island is the place to escape, but you can't get there from here. No, you've got to go to St. Marys, because St Marys is the hub, the little town with big connections.

The National Park Service runs a ferry from the wharf of St Marys to Cumberland Island. The barrier island, whose domain name ought to be www.wilderness beach, lets you become the browser on her shores. Search for wild horses, shells, loggerhead turtles and historic mansions. On Cumberland, bikes are the high-speed mode of transportation.

You must obtain a permit to camp overnight, or else you'll have to return home. Some prefer to stay at the only hotel, the elegant Greyfield Inn. The lodge requires a two-night stay and provides guests with a private water taxi.

St Marys is just 20 minutes north of the Jacksonville airport making it easy to reach the quaint seaside village. I felt like I'd stepped back to pre-computer days when the pace was slower and somehow more personal.

Marianne's Cafe

In St Marys colorful cottages line tree-shaded streets, yards are nicely kept, and people ride around in golf carts, for heaven sakes. Meander her sidewalks and you'll find Market on the Square- the general store, the Riverside Cafe which serves breakfast all-day, a cigar company, bait shop, bookstore, gift shops and a saloon.

Pirate Welcome at Goodbread's B&B
Pirate Welcome at Goodbread

Of course the most relaxing way to spend the day on Cumberland
is to plan a full weekend retreat. Spend a night in one of many St Marys B & B's, such as the Goodbread House, a Victorian style inn. Mardja, the proprietor, serves a scrumptious breakfast in time to catch the 9 AM ferry. But if you must, Goodbread's offers free WiFi!

Another connection to and from St Marys links with Fernandina. The new Cumberland Sound Ferry transports people while they listen to an ecosystem narrative and cross into beautiful Georgia low-country. Sometimes passengers get lucky and spot a submarine from Kings Bay Naval Base.

Save a day this summer and drive to St Mary, then access Cumberland Island. It is definitely the place to shut-down.

St. Marys Harbor
St. Marys Harbor

This article appeared in the July 2009 edition of The Mandarin Newsline.

If You Go:
www.stmaryswelcome.com St. Marys Welcome Center and Visitor Information
www.nps.gov/cuis/ Cumberland Island National Park