Casa Marina Hotel Ushers in a New Era

written by CATHY H. BURROUGHS | photography courtesy of THE CASA MARINA HOTEL

image002The joke goes that Jacksonville Beach, Fla. – also known as “Jax Beach”, originally known as the town of Ruby, then as Pablo Beach – is so close to Georgia it could practically be adopted as honorary Georgian. Just east of the city of Jacksonville, the 22 miles of wide, white uncrowded beaches are a five-plus hour drive from Atlanta or one-hour trip by air. With its hospitality and charm, Jax Beach and surrounding beaches have their own divergent and surprisingly glamorous story.

It was here, in the height of the 1920s, that the very rich, the very famous and just about everyone else flocked. Women wore the somewhat shocking figure-hugging vintage sleeveless tanks and men wore Clyde-striped, two-piece bathing costumes with matching socks and straw hat. On this wide swath of sand, both auto and aviation history were made. Its turn-of-the-century amusement park with both Ocean View and Beach Pier Sea Walk Pavilions (this one still exists and costs $1 unless you’re under the age of 6) and a record-breaking 93-foot tall roller coaster (later deemed too dangerous) attracted tourists in droves to “Little Coney Island.” Beach lovers could find a boardwalk, dance casinos, swim room, bowling alley and roller skate rinks that are no more. Model T Fords were parked on the beach and you can still see the auto ramps that allowed cars to access and park on the sand as late as 1979.

Gracing the dunes of this legendary beach is the lovely and welcoming Spanish revival beige stucco with traditional red tiled roof The Casa Marina Hotel. The area’s Grande Dame celebrates and embodies the last vestiges of what was a beguiling and heady era with its renowned rooftop restaurant and night club, hand-painted mosaic tiled and fountained Grand Ballroom, widely lauded and attended Sunday brunch, and exotic Art Noveau décor. This notably historic and authentic Spanish Mediterranean hacienda style hotel (listed on the National Register of Historic Places and originally opened in 1925) remains the area’s last connection to those momentous glory days. A stay here will not be forgotten any time soon as this still flourishing grand hotel remains a testament to Florida’s golden age of romance and history.

Untitled (3)This unique boutique hotel is remarkably reasonable with its rooftop restaurant, serving tapas-style dinner and signature martinis and later converts to a discothèque night club. Take a twilight romantic walk out to the pillared stone and brick framed courtyard and patio, and enjoy the hotel’s house margarita, sangria or lemonade on the veranda or partake in the hotel’s oceanfront happy hour with a wooden walkout directly to the beach as well as regular live music, wine tasting and lost couples’ weekends.

With 23 uniquely designed boudoir deluxe rooms and parlor suites (21 have ocean views), the 90-year old hotel perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the 20’s at its resort prime. In its early days it boasted an automatic sprinkler system and was the first modern fireproof venue on the beach. Nearly a century later, the last remaining building left standing from the prohibition era has been lovingly restored so that each room has fixtures and decorative touches that reflect the hotel’s different time periods. The gleaming cherry wood floors, comfortable furnishings and outstanding service –– all contribute to the air of a refined private residence. 

image003 (1)Our roomy suite – almost a private apartment – in shades of plum, mulberry and brown had an Oriental theme with ornate rod iron bed (though many had four posters), antique style furnishings, hard wood floors and a terrific ocean view and ocean waves to lull you to sleep.

Our first night there we enjoyed crab cakes and the fruit plate in the penthouse restaurant/lounge watching the fireworks until the lightning eclipsed the pyrotechnics and we were swooped inside with our newfound friends. There we shimmied and boogalooed as our very accommodating DJ made the switch from fusion to Motown without missing a beat.

A short 12-minute walk takes you to the Beaches Museum & History Park for a fascinating historic display and park with replica houses and locomotive in and around a striking contemporary building with its impressive Executive Director Christine Hoffman. Also close by and within walking distance are bike and hiking trails and during the summer months a free trolley will carry you from place to place. 

On Sunday morning we headed back the 45 minutes to enchanting Amelia Island for an exceptionally fun and adventurous Craig Cat catamaran group tour, two to a boat essentially like a go cart on the water. For three-and-a-half hours we navigated from Egan’s Creek to Fort Clinch and on to Cumberland Island’s 150 wild ponies, wild turkeys, aardvarks and the ruins of the Carnegie castle (the same island where JFK Jr. was married). There were plenty of up close and personal dolphin sightings but no manatees that day. We zipped, doughnuted and joy-rode the wave caps, crossing the lines to both Georgia and Florida twice and just made it under the wire back for the last brunch seating at Casa Marina. On our last day we went over one (or maybe two) of the many bridges that make Jacksonville “the city of bridges,” driving the 30 minutes to downtown – a surprisingly progressive city with both historic and new architecture, bricked roadways with lots to see and do, and a spectacular Museum of Contemporary Art.

As one takes a final walk through the Casa Marina’s expanse of gleaming wooden halls over fern and black carpet runners, shining white stucco walls with its moss green wainscoting, historic photos and early postcards boasting “World’s Finest Beach,” it doesn’t take much to imagine the likes of Jean Harlow, Charlie Chaplin and even Al Capone passing through these corridors, dancing the night away at the hotel’s dazzling parties to the Charleston, Black Bottom, Texas Tommy or Fox Trot or taking a dip in the Atlantic.

During this period, when the railroad to Jacksonville stopped nearby the First Street hotel and the movie industry rocketed such luminaries besides Chaplin, such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, financier John D. Rockefeller, President Harry S. Truman and FDR made appearances and film stars Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, the scandalous Fatty Arbuckle, later, Humphrey Bogart, and the thought to be trysting Hepburn and Tracy were known to frequent the “the World’s Most Famous Beach” and “the One and Only American Beach,” many signing the hotel’s guest book.

The Casa Marina Hotel, the place to stay then and now on the beach, has witnessed it all – when everything and anything seemed and was possible and now ushering in a new era, these possibilities are still going strong.