The Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Presidents Harry S. Truman and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Jean Harlow, Charlie Chaplin and Al Capone. Cheryl and Matthew. These are some of the distinguished guests who may have graced Casa Marina with their presence, and probably tracked in some Jacksonville Beach sand, too.
For obvious reasons, I did not share an elevator or trade a quip with any these special individuals, though I did read about most of them in my first-floor suite. I found “A History of the Casa Marina Hotel” resting on the coffee table (the lobby also has a short stack) and nestled into the couch for storytime.
In the entertaining yet brief biography, certain phrases popped out: “Grand Opening . . . June 6, 1925,” “playground for the rich and famous,” “first . . . automatic sprinkler system” and “gangsters.” Other words — specifically “Cheryl” and “Matthew” — did not appear in the literature. I learned these names from the wedding souvenir fans left behind in the bar.
The 24-room property on Florida’s east coast wears a Historic Hotels of America tiara and draws romantics with its Spanish-Mediterranean magnetism. The front entrance arches dramatically and glows with mood lighting. On the back side, a princely courtyard leads to a wood walkway that doubles as a built-in wedding aisle to the beach. I also discovered a third portal: a door that — whoops! — busted into a couple’s reception. Replay that scene Sunday morning and my faux pas would not have been so embarrassing. In fact, I probably would have blended in with the other occupants — diners feasting on brunch.
The wedding chewed up most of the scenery; the first-floor bar, courtyard and grand parlor were off-limits to everybody but friends-of. The celebrants also spilled over into the lobby.
“Was that a shoe that just flew by?” asked my startled mother. I nodded, casting my eyes toward a wedge sandal near a column.
Despite the ruckus, the staff was in the zone, handling all of our queries and requests with aplomb. A front-desk employee quickly delivered blankets for the pullout couch (my haystack for the night). She also offered a winning restaurant suggestion after we opted out of the hotel’s choice, the third-floor Penthouse Lounge, which was serving light appetizers set to the soundtrack of a live DJ. Her tip: Zeta, which had a deep menu of pizzas and dinner-appropriate sandwiches. When we returned from our meal, my mother asked for a printout of directions to the airport; the staff member smiled and said that she had already slipped it under our door.
When it comes to old hotels, I often suffer from a severe case of empathy, similar to my soft spot for senior cats with matted hair and bad hearing. When my father said the room smelled musty, I told him that was the scent of a long and full life.
Based on my handy Casa Marina bible (the pamphlet, not that other book commonly found in hotels), each room is decorated in a style that represents a particular era. However, our furnishings did not scream one specific period. The main living area, with its urn-shaped lamps, side tables and small TV and fridge, seemed to be circa Grandma. In the bedroom, the piece de resistance for my parents was the queen-size bed with the carved headboard and satiny blue coverlet; they choose that item because, well, they got to sleep in it. As for me, I was impressed by the solid cabinetry attached to the sink. I imagined Keebler elves vacationing inside.
While my parents prepped for bed (unfortunately, all of the bathroom facilities were on their side of the suite), I took a spin through the property. In the hallways, I studied the vintage black-and-white photos of Jacksonville Beach from back when bikini bottoms were as sexy as pull-up diapers and the Ferris wheel provided the biggest buzz. (Today’s beach scene is more like an endless spring break.)
In the crow’s-nest lounge, I batted off a bouncer who asked for ID, explaining that I just needed a spoon for the coffee I planned to make in the room. I crossed through the social space, noticing a lot of mouths moving but hearing no voices over the pounding beat. I stepped onto the balcony, feeling the rush of the ocean.
By the time I returned to the room, my parents were already self-tucked in. I made up my bed, which at full length nearly touched the table holding the TV. The in-between space was too narrow to fit the coffee table, so I dragged it toward the door, blocking the exit. Maybe the theme was 21st-century Manhattan hotel.
The hotel serves a free breakfast of scones, yogurt, eggs, sausage, bowl of apples and oranges, etc.; however, my flight left before feeding time. While awaiting my cab, I stepped into the back courtyard, now empty of revelers. In the gray ocean mist, I imagined a tipsy Harlow twirling in her bare feet or Truman savoring a quiet, human moment to himself. Or maybe Matthew and Cheryl holding hands, looking outward at the ocean and their future as a married couple.
When it was time to go, I returned to the circular driveway and heard a crackle underfoot. It sounded like crushed seashells, but it was only a souvenir from the wedding, a broken beer bottle.
Casa Marina Hotel
691 N. First St., Jacksonville Beach, Fla.
Rates from $129.
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