Born and raised in San Diego, California, my sister, Gillian, and I were spoiled. We grew up skating to school every day, surfing after class, playing beach volleyball and going out in our friends’ boats on the weekends, and watching Chargers games with our dad every Sunday during football season. When we had families of our own, naturally our kids continued that lifestyle. With plenty of sun, sand, surf, and a culture rooted in sports and the outdoors, why go anywhere else?
When Gil took a job in Jacksonville, Florida last year, I was flabbergasted. Granted, I knew little about the city itself, but my impression of the East Coast—besides New York and Miami—was that it was a homogenous stretch of country that offered little in the way of excitement. But Gil raved about her new home, claiming it had a surprisingly West Coast feel, with a particularly East Coast flavor.
So, when she invited me and my two young kids to visit, I decided to see for myself. After a painless travel day, we were met at the Jacksonville International Airport by my sister and her own wild brood of pre-teens.
After settling in and grabbing a quick dinner at Gil’s adorable vintage home in the historic San Marco neighborhood, we decided to stretch our legs at Kona Skate Park, just a short fifteen-minute drive east. While San Diego has its share of skate parks, none of them compare to the “world’s oldest skate park,” which opened in 1977 and has seen every evolution of the skating, skateboarding, and BMXing industry in its more than 40-year history. In fact, Kona was the birthplace of the vert ramp, which transformed extreme sports, allowing for the big air necessary for aerial spins and tricks that make skaters like Tony Hawk famous. Essentially, Kona is skateboarding Mecca, and many of the sport’s legends have made a point to ride Kona’s concrete playground.
When we arrived, the kids took off like rockets, joining skaters of all ages and experience levels. It had been a while since I’d ridden myself, but it quickly came back to me as Gil and I rolled through the windy snake run at a much more leisurely pace. As evening fell and the park’s big floodlights came on, we staked a spot on the grass, catching up while our more limber family members took turns trying to out-trick each other on the rails in front of us.
The next morning, we traded one board for another and hit Jacksonville Beach, a thirty-minute drive from San Marco. Whereas the beaches in Southern California are windy and broken up by scrubby hills, the beaches in Jacksonville are long and flat, stretching endlessly in both directions, with a strip of fine white sand separating the waters of the Atlantic from the multi-tiers condos and hotels.
While I might have been rusty on the skateboard, I had been surfing nearly every day since I was old enough to paddle out, and I was eager to try out the surf in Jacksonville. It did not disappoint. The chest-high waves near the pier were a joy to ride and the water temperature was notably warmer than it was back home, thanks to the northbound Gulf Stream that brought warm Caribbean waters up along the coast of Florida.
When I told my kids that we’d be going to Florida to visit their cousins, all they could talk about was spotting a live alligator. We just couldn’t leave without seeing one, or so I was told by a very adamant 10-year old. After rinsing off the salt and sand, strapping our boards back on the top of Gil’s SUV, and grabbing some oversized burgers at Col Mustard’s Phat Burgers, we piled back in and headed toward Adventure Landing & Shipwreck Island Water Park.
Located off Beach Boulevard, near the Intracoastal Waterway, Adventure Landing is a huge complex of family-friendly activities, including a waterpark with slides, a lazy river and a wave pool, a tiny-tyke roller coaster, two 18-hole miniature golf courses, a go-kart track, arcade, batting cages, laser tag, and of course, Gator Alley, where visitors can pay $4 to feed real, live alligators.
The water park was already closed for the winter months, but everything else was fair game. First stop: the alligators. Just inside the entrance to Adventure Landing, visitors walk along a wooden planked bridge, where behind one netted side is a waterfront scene overlooking a small pond. There, floating lazily in the murky water, we could see the leathery backs of several juvenile gators. Several more were sunning themselves on the small wooden dock jutting into the pond. While they were smaller than I had imagined, the kids were ecstatic nonetheless at getting such a close-up look at the little prehistoric reptiles.
With that item ticked off their Florida vacation bucket list, their attention quickly turned to go-karts and laser tag, in which Gil and I invariably found ourselves the unwitting—yet game—players in an “us vs. the grownups” challenge.
Gil had snagged us some tickets to the home game of her newly adopted football team: the Jacksonville Jaguars. Playing out of the TIAA Bank Field, the Jaguars are one of the youngest teams in the National Football League, having joined in 1995 as an expansion team, they went on to win two straight division titles shortly after. While the 2018 season didn’t treat them nearly as well, the Jaguars always guaranteed a good show.
So, that Sunday was all about sleeping in, getting pancakes and grits from Metro Diner—a Southern staple—and getting ready to head to the stadium that afternoon.
The kids and I hadn’t been to a football game since the Chargers made their controversial move to Los Angeles, and as I slipped on the borrowed teal and black jersey, I realized how much I missed it all: the buzz and energy of tens of thousands of spectators in the stands, the good-natured ribbing of the opposing team and their fans, cheers and high-fives with random strangers seated nearby whenever a score was made, and the rich smell of buttered popcorn and greasy chili cheese hotdogs... a guilty pleasure. Although the Jaguars lost in a very close game to the Washington Redskins, and I lost my voice rooting for a team I didn’t even know, I couldn’t have been happier. It was a perfect end to the weekend.
As we drove back to Gil’s home that night—the kids already snoring softly in the back—I realized that while my sister might be living on the opposite side of the country, she had found a place that offered everything our own hometown boasted: sun, surf, sand, and plenty of good vibes… with an East Coast twist.