Among Florida’s Roaring Twenties grand hotels it seems Al Capone slept in many, including Casa Marina. The mid-1920s Prohibition era was profitable for Florida including Jacksonville Beach. The beachfront Mediterranean Revival club-like Casa Marina, complete with a sprinkler system, opened in 1925 to a high living bi-coastal clientele. Ninety years later on the deck of the Penthouse Lounge & Martini Bar overlooking the Atlantic’s pounding surf Casa Marina serves a premium Tequila Margareta – without the slushy ice – that I’m confident infamous Al would approve.
Popular then and now as a destination for events, especially weddings, the management team under GM Mark Vandeloo smoothly coordinates the needs of both hotel and event guests. One would hardly notice that catering manager Rebekah Lowry was balancing two weddings, that Sunday brunch was on schedule, the hotel was booked and an international airshow was engulfing Jacksonville Beach on a recent weekend if you were ensconced in a suite within the quiet interior of Casa Marina’s thick 1920s concrete walls. After all, this Historic Hotels of America listing’s front yard is long, wide, buffering white sand Jacksonville Beach with its famous fishing pier just off to the side and the vast Atlantic Ocean to the horizon.
Re-purposed during the Great Depression, World War II and changing vacation habits, a 1990s restoration won the 23-room and suites Casa Marina its designation as a Historic Hotels of America boutique property. The individually themed and air-conditioned 2-room suites range in decor from beach rattan to sleek Art Moderne. A hall with an ample closet and the separate bath joins the comfortable siting room and cozy bedroom, both with ceiling fans.
There is a European rather than American resort beach hotel feel to Casa Marina. Kim Carpenter at the front desk and manager Grace Palafox easily provide concierge level service above what’s expected with area information and phone calls if necessary. Legendary maître d’hôtel and local historian Sterling Joyce floats soundless coordinating events with a calm resonant voice. Executive Chef Aaron Webb has three arms in which to direct the Penthouse Lounge & Martini Bar, events in the dinning room including Casa Marina’s acclaimed Sunday Brunch and his new venture, Zeta. All three offer eclectic new American menus stressing the best that Florida and the South provide.
The attractive bar and the beachfront terrace through the glass French doors are the site for a complimentary hot breakfast. But on the third floor is the Penthouse Lounge & Martini Bar with panoramic views of Jacksonville Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. The Penthouse offers lunch through late night snacks and generous extra dry martinis.
Choose between fresh home made chips plain or hot topped with blue cheese and balsamic reduction. Can one decide among blackened fish tortillas, grilled shrimp topping udon noodles, crab cakes with sweet chili sauce or grilled fork tender marinated flat iron steak with sweet potato hash? Then there’s the final choice, chocolate bourbon bread pudding, another martini or the killer margarita – or all three.
Several blocks down 1st Avenue into town itself Zeta is a spacious sports bar and microbrewery created by Chef Webb and Casa Marina management. Zeta is large enough with big open windows to the street that it can’t become too noisy. Zeta label beers live up to the British models they seem to emulate.
I like traditional room temperature (cool in the UK) English draft bitters. Hops over malts pervade half of Zeta’s popular draft brews with Porter loving malts mellowing out the list. An A-list of bottled brews requires advanced education or just listen to the intelligent staff.
Plump meaty chicken wings are a specialty. A first course of 10 is a small entrée. Zeta’s selection of home made sauces and marinades are the secret. From traditional Tabasco based Buffalo to
ginger and spicy sriracha and sticky chili hoisen the wings are perfect with their cold beers.
There’s always an inherent time conflict in beach travel – balance relaxation in a unique and comfortable hotel with exploring a historic seaside location. With patience a comfort level can be achieved. For me that’s sitting in the soft sand on the edge of Jacksonville Beach dunes in front of the Casa Marina watching kite surfers, dog walkers, runners and romantics while drifting back to 1925.
Disclosure: the author was a guest of Casa Marina, Zeta and the Penthouse Lounge & Martini Bar. A special thank you to Leigh Cort of Leigh Cort Publicity – an IFWTWA member – for making the arrangements.