Whether you crave ravishing beaches, culture, or cuisine, you’ll find it in Ponte Vedra Beach, assures Donna Guzzo, executive director of First Coast Cultural Center (3972 3rd St. S., Jacksonville Beach, 904.280.0614). A Miami native, Guzzo has lived in Ponte Vedra Beach since 2003. She and her journalist husband, Glenn Guzzo, chose the town when their daughter was five, in part for St. John’s County’s excellent school system—and they’ve been delighted with their decision ever since.
“It’s a great town,” says Guzzo. “The beach lifestyle is relaxing, especially for workaholics like my husband and me. But Ponte Vedra Beach is also a modern, clean city full of art galleries and wonderful restaurants.” (Insider tip: Try the fried gator tail!) —Catherine Bindman
ART AND HISTORY
It’s tempting to linger on the beaches all day, but you’d miss the area’s many noteworthy cultural institutions. Guzzo especially recommends the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens (829 Riverside Ave., 904.356.6857 ) in nearby Jacksonville. It’s the largest fine arts museum in northeast Florida, with significant collections of European and American art. “Every time you go there, there is something new to see, and the gardens are beautiful. ”The Museum of Contemporary Art (333 N. Laura St., 904.366.6911) and the Museum of Science and History (MOSH, 1025 Museum Cir., 904.396.6674) are also well worth visiting, as is the Durkeeville Historical Society (1293 W. 19th St., 904.598.9567 ), focusing on the history of the local African American community. Movie buffs will enjoy Norman Studios (6337 Arlington Rd., 904.742.7011), a film-studio complex dating back to 1916. Guzzo’s all-time favorite is the quirky, kid-friendly St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum (12 S. Castillo Dr., 877.467.5863). As the name suggests, it’s the place to “learn all about pirates, local history, and ships.”
Inevitably, perhaps, “There are fabulous restaurants in the area and most of them serve fish. Harry’s Seafood in St. Augustine (46 Avenida Menendez, 904.824.7765) is amazing. It is New Orleans style. My husband loves the jambalaya, and the eggplant-and- crabmeat Napoleon is to die for.” Guzzo’s top pick is Palm Valley Fish Camp (299 Roscoe Blvd. N., 904.285.3200 ) in Ponte Vedra. She loves the grilled octopus on white bean salad as well as the fried gator tail. (While it might not be an official local delicacy, Guzzo has found gator tail on the menu at four area restaurants.)
“Living in Ponte Vedra, you have a great sense of the outdoors,” Guzzo says. Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (505 Guana River Rd., # 6527, 904.823.4500 ) offers “miles of park right between the ocean and the intercoastal” and is her go-to place for bird-watching, bike riding, and me-time. She also loves the beach at Mickler’s Landing (1109 Ponte Vedra Blvd., 904.209.3740 ). “You can find sand dollars, sharks’ teeth, and dried starfish” on the pink sand.
Guzzo’s commitment to expanding arts education has been tested during the pandemic; the Cultural Center’s building was sold and its operations moved to a studio five minutes up the coast in Jacksonville Beach. But she has brought its arts- enrichment programs into schools and is raising funds for a new structure, with glassblowing, sculpture, and ceramics areas, as well as studios for artists. “My motto? Success is imminent.”