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Jacksonville in 5...

Jacksonville might not be the first city you think of when planning a vacation to Florida (or even the second or third). But visitors who do take the time to explore the River City by the Sea find its cultural attractions, natural wonders, and small town charm the perfect antidote to over-the-top theme parks, cramped beaches, and jaded locals.

5…Beach blanket bingo

Collectively they’re known as the Beaches, but the three towns that border Jacksonville’s 20-plus miles of white sand are as different as the beachcombers, beach bunnies, and beach bums they attract.

Atlantic Beach is almost entirely residential with limited public beach access along Ocean Boulevard, but the pay-off, once you get there, is peace and quiet.

Jacksonville Beach is the complete opposite. The area around Comfort Inn Oceanfront (1515 First St. N., 904-241-2311) has a definite Spring Break feel with blaring radios and cocktails a-flowing. Surfers, fishermen, and families with screaming kids congregate around the Jacksonville Beach Pier (503 N. First St., 904-241-1515).

Neptune Beach is a hybrid of the two with a largely local crowd (with better behaved kids) that enjoy walking, running and bike riding on the beach, as well as a cold one, especially at The Lemon Bar at the Seahorse Oceanfront Inn (120 Atlantic Blvd., 904-246-2175).

Parking at Jacksonville Beach and Neptune Beach is catch-as-catch-can with public access lots and street parking scattered along First Street. Arriving before 10 a.m. certainly helps.

4…Do feed the animals

Ever been slobbered on by a giraffe, tickled by a stingray, butted by a pygmy goat, or dive-bombed by a lorikeet? These are only a few of the up close-and-personal experiences that await you the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens (370 Zoo Pkwy, 904-757-4463, $13).

Unlike some big city zoos where the animals seem far removed from visitors, the Jacksonville Zoo attempts to bring visitors as close as (safely) possible to its 1,500 rare and exotic animals with a whole herd of interactive exhibits, zookeeper talks, and animal feedings. In some cases, however, it might feel a little too close for comfort, like in the Range of the Jaguar exhibit where the only thing separating you and a 200-pound obligate carnivore are a measly post-and-rail fence and chain-link enclosure.

To fully appreciate the award-winning zoo as well as its botanical garden - thought to be the first of its kind to be integrated into actual animal exhibits - you’ll want to visit between March and November when the gardens are in full bloom. Also, consider a behind the scenes walking tour ($25) led by zookeepers. You might even catch a glimpse of the zoo’s biggest celebrity, Ali, an elephant that once belonged to Michael Jackson.

3…Welcome to Riverside, m’lady.

It’s no surprise that the merry marauders of the Shire of Castlemere, the local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism, bring their rapiers and rattan weapons to Riverside Park to do battle every Sunday afternoon between 1 and 4pm. The historic neighborhood is, after all, is where the eccentric, artistic, and just plain odd thrive. But don’t be alarmed by the tattoos and piercings; these marauders are friendly.

At the center of it all is a colorful shopping and dining district called Five Points, home to Edge City (1017 Park St., 904-353-9423), a funky women’s boutique heavy on Betsey Johnson and quirky accessories; Fans & Stoves (1059 Park St., 904-354-3768), a compact antique mall known for its original artwork (grab anything by R. Land while you can); Wall Street Lounge (1050 Park St., 904-355-6969), a dark and smoky hole in the wall with one of the best jukeboxes in town; and Al’s Pizza (1620 Margaret St., 904-388-8384), consistently voted best pizza in Jacksonville.

Riverside is also part of one of the biggest historic districts in the South and boasts the largest variety of architectural styles in Florida, including Mediterranean revival, prairie style, Queen Anne, and Tudor style. Some visitors remark that the turn-of-the-century homes and century-old oak trees draped in Spanish moss remind them Savannah or Charleston—minus the marauders, that is.

2…Art for art’s sake

Art lovers will appreciate Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens (829 Riverside Ave., 904-356-6857, $10) for its extensive collection of artifacts from ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece; paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Steen, Benjamin West, Winslow Homer and Norman Rockwell; and one of the most comprehensive collections of early Meissen porcelain in the world. Of course, you don’t need to know the difference between Dada and Degas to enjoy your visit.

The museum’s idyllic riverfront location, not to mention its two acres of historic gardens, gives it a serene vibe. Adding to the ambiance, which is anything but intimidating, are the docents, who are incredibly friendly without the slightest hint of art snobbery. Art Connections, the museum’s multidisciplinary hands-on learning lab, however, can get a little hectic at times, especially when it's overrun by school-age children on field trips.

The best way to see the museum is on a docent-led tour, given Sundays at 3 p.m. and Tuesdays at 7 p.m. Tuesday evenings are a particularly good time to visit since admission’s free between 4 and 9. And bring a sketch pad, since artists frequently whip out their pencils and paints in the garden at a moment’s inspiration.

1…A real fish tale

With its weathered exterior, unpaved parking lot, and gators in the immediate vicinity, Clark’s Fish Camp (12903 Hood Landing Road, 904-268-3474) looks—and smells—like your standard fish camp. But it’s the interior of the seafood restaurant, located on Julington Creek in Mandarin, which makes it unlike any other eatery you’ve ever seen before.

Rumored to be one of the largest privately owned collections of taxidermy in the country, Clark's menagerie of preserved animals includes lions, tigers, monkeys, bears, giraffes, deer, bobcats, and a flock of birds that gaze eerily at guests in the bar area and dining rooms.

The menu is equally as imposing with more than 160 appetizers and entrees, ranging in price from $11.95 to $25.95. There's the typical fish camp fare of shrimp, catfish and hush puppies; landlubber offerings like chicken and prime rib; and then the just plain bizarre antelope, rattlesnake and kangaroo, which, for the record, kind of tastes like pork.

On weekends, you can expect a wait for dinner (unless you arrive before 5:30 p.m.), so bring your patience, along with your appetite and sense of adventure. Just don't bring anyone who's squeamish, it could get ugly.