A lone brown pelican leaves its perch atop a tree on the Fort George River in Jacksonville and glides above our group of kayakers. The soft whistles of egrets and herons fill the air.
Fish occasionally leap out of the blue-green water to be momentarily touched by the sun’s warmth before splashing back into their habitat.
The three-mile kayak trip I took along with my family and other adventurers with Kayak Amelia was a journey for the senses. We wound our way through the salt marsh and into Simpson Creek in the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, just minutes from the Atlantic Ocean and the bustling downtown Jacksonville area.
A 46,000-acre haven that was established in 1988, the preserve is a sanctuary for both wildlife and humans. The guided trip is just one of many offered by Kayak Amelia, and our particular adventure was relaxing and educational.
The company’s guides were entertaining and informative as they explained the history of the preserve, which lies within the city limits of Jacksonville and includes several barrier islands. Tales of Timucuan Indians and French Huguenots who once inhabited the surrounding land are spun during the trip.
While paddling and soaking up the beauty and the rich history of the area, it’s easy to forget that a large city lies minutes away. The city of Jacksonville has more land devoted to parks than any other city in the county, the guides told us. The preserve contains more than 300 privately held pieces of land and combines national, state, county and city park land.
Our trip maintained a leisurely pace, so we were able to take in the breathtaking scenery without being distracted by aching muscles. Halfway into the trip we pulled our kayaks ashore and snacked on cookies baked by one of the guides. This also gave us a chance to stretch our legs and do some exploring among the sand dunes.
Another guided kayak trip offered by Kayak Amelia takes participants past Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island. Kingsley is the oldest standing plantation in the state. Wildlife in the water and in the air is plentiful on that trip as well.
The company also offers trips outside the preserve, including a dolphin adventure at Dutton Island, near Atlantic Beach, and an overnight kayak/camping trip to Cumberland Island.
Visitors who want to see the preserve on land have the option of several miles of hiking and biking trails. There’s also a guided Segway tour.
In addition to taking to the white sand beaches and frolicking in the Atlantic Ocean, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the outdoors in Jacksonville.
The Jacksonville Zoo is a vast expanse of natural habitats on 92 acres that allow animals to roam free but also offers up-close views.
Our favorite was the 1,400-foot boardwalk through an exhibit called the Plains of East Africa that features Nile crocodiles, cheetahs, rare Cape buffalo, elephants and more. A giraffe overlook allows visitors to come face to face with the gangly animals. This was the highlight for our three daughters who took turns feeding the giraffes.
The Tree Hill Nature Center is another family-friendly spot worth a visit. The 50-acre facility has trails, a Florida Natural History Museum, butterfly and hummingbird gardens and native live-animal displays.
Another outdoor must-do, especially for families, is Shipwreck Island Water Park at Adventure Landing in Jacksonville Beach. The complex, which also offers go-karts, miniature golf, batting cages and an arcade, has several waterslides with varying thrill factors, along with a wave pool and lazy river.
Our accommodations at the Holiday Inn Express in Jacksonville Beach were within a short drive of all of the outdoor adventures, downtown Jacksonville and a half-mile from the beach. It was close to the Alhambra Dinner Theatre, the oldest such venue in the country, where we enjoyed a showing of Hairspray.
Visit kayakamelia.com more about kayaking in north Florida and visitjacksonville.com for more details on Jacksonville.