Elizabeth Stark came to what she called the “perfect paradise” of
in 1914. There were too many gray-haired people in the
rest of the state to suit her she quipped.
Ambitious and savvy, she and her husband bought all the land they
could: hundreds of coastal acres. It was christened Wonderwood. They built a 1,000 foot fishing pier and
several houses. They raised polo horses
and grew figs. She anointed herself the Queen of a cast of eccentric characters
that included mobsters, movie stars, industrialists and treasure hunters that took
advantage of the new rail lines It endures today as a picturesque car ferry. Wonderwood became a symbol of the developing
South and Elizabeth its defender. When
World War I broke out, she famously protected her bulwark by assembling a stalwart
troop of armed Girl Scouts on horseback that patrolled the beaches. “Although we never had any spies arrested, we
kept a lot of them on the move,” she boasted in her memoir. Mayport,
But time in her paradise was curtailed by the government. In 1940 the Marines evicted the Starks, raised Wonderwood and built an officer’s club. President Roosevelt insisted that Mayport become a military base. An officer “followed me out on the street and told me to leave and never put my foot on the property again,” she wrote. Unbowed, she found “a suitable shack” on the beach to live in which reminded her of the Girl Scout “hun hunters”. She claimed she was happy.
Meanwhile, along the nearby coast, hotels were springing up to meet the growing demand: The Continental, The Atlantic Beach Hotel, Perking House and the Palmetto Lodge. The Spanish-Mediterranean designed Casa Marina was built in 1924. Every one of those hotels except the Casa Marina burned to the ground, victims of the lethal combination of heart pine floors, lanterns and candles. It was fire proof, constructed of stucco, concrete and tile. It had the beach’s first sprinkler system. So it endured. Its tenacity is reminiscent of Elizabeth Stark’s. She could have been its muse.
The unique Spanish-Mediterranean architecture remains but the hotel has been remodeled into 18 two-room suites and 5 rooms. An attic has been transformed into a stylish rooftop martini bar with unparalleled views of the coastline and a lively, cosmopolitan scene. The ocean-side courtyard where brunch the dining room attracts a full house for Executive Chef Aaron Webb’s “new beach” cuisine: a combination of local and Southern tastes. The crowning glory is his whole roasted red snapper which is seasoned and slow roasted while poised in an upright, swimming position. It’s so photogenic; diners often want the chef to pose with it for snapshots.
Steps outside the hotel are the other attractions ofhimself the guardian of the hotel’s history which is artfully depicted in vintage photographs that line the hallways. But he also looks towards the future. “Hopefully in another 90 years, people will visit and tell their story ….. about the great experience they had.”
Jacksonville Beach: the boardwalk with its souvenir shops and fast
food, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird Lounge.
There’s a popular quarter-mile-long fishing pier. There are surfers and
swimmers, jet skis and boaters. Mark
Vandeloo, General Manager of the Casa Marina, “took a huge interest in the
hotel as I met the people who walked in the door. They had fond memories or a
story of its history and what it meant to them.” He considers
More photos are here
If You Go:
Casa Marina: www.casamarinahotel.com