Disclaimer: Visit Jacksonville paid for airfare, meals and activities.

WINEormous at Jacksonville ZooJacksonville, Florida held many surprises for me, not the least of which was their spectacular zoo. On a grey December morning we arrived at the zoo for a guided behind the scenes tour. I hadn’t been to a zoo in ages, and I felt like a little kid all over again as we got up close and personal with the elephants,  leopards, rhinos and exotic birds. Dan Maloney, the zoo’s director of conservation and education, exemplified the passion I saw in all the folks I encountered here. He turned us over to Bob Chabot who heads up the horticulture and facilities aspects of the zoo. “I look for people that exhibit a passion for plants and gardens.” When you explore the zoo there are examples of artistic landscaping at every turn, but it’s all done with a subtle touch. For lunch we sat down with Executive Director Tony Vecchio who shared his excitement about renovations and expansion underway at the zoo. If you visit Jacksonville, make sure you set aside time to visit their remarkable zoo.

WINEormous Airboat Ride

Drew Mesiano

Remember the TV show “The Everglades“? Don’t feel bad if you don’t, it only aired for one season in 1961. That’s where I first saw an airboat and I remember always wanting to go for a ride on one ever since. That wish came true on this day. Drew Mesiano operates Trophy Inshore Charters at the Old Florida Fish Camp. Four of us joined him aboard his airboat and set off for about a  45 minute ride through the Intercoastal. It’s clear Drew knows these waterways intimately. He was able to point out eagles’ nests from quite a distance and showed us several things we clearly would have missed had he not drawn our attention to them. It was loud, fast and a hell of a lot of fun!

WINEormous at Moxie

Moxie Owners Sarah Johnston and Tom Gray

Moxie was weeks away from opening its doors during our visit, but what I saw made me want to return to Jacksonville to experience a meal there. Owner/Chef Tom Gray says he wants you to “feel like you’re in our home.” It’s a pretty big home, 7,000 square feet with 180 seats inside and another 80 outside. The idea for Moxie came to Tom more than ten years ago. Simply put, Moxie means courage and determination and it took a lot of both to get this project off the ground. The kitchen prepared small bites for us, emphasizing his focus on fresh and local. Moxie has eight beers and/or ciders on tap and an extensive wine list with a majority of the wines from California. I can’t wait to dine there. WINEormous at Ovinte

With our appetites warmed up, we headed to Ovinté.  Ovinté is young, hip, noisy and delicious. Managing partner Chad Munsey made certain we tried a wide selection from their menu, including bacon-wrapped date, ceviche and a tender and flavorful New York strip. They call it “European Dining” with an emphasis on tapas, small plates so everyone can share a taste. Chad is also a sommelier and is well-versed in Ovinté’s extensive wine list.

WINEormous at The BrickWe began the last day of this eye-opening trip with breakfast at The Brick. I love a good breakfast and am quite fond of bloody Marys and The Brick was up to the task on both items. The smoked salmon Benedict with cheese grits was excellent and the spicy Habanero bloody Mary was just what I was looking for in the heat department. Everyone’s plate was attractive with lots of fresh fruit and pretty garnishes.

WINEormous at Jacksonville Farmers MarketNot only do I like spicy foods, I love going to farmers markets and Jacksonville has perhaps the best I’ve ever seen. Open 365 days a year, the market not only features a wide array of fresh fruits and vegetables, but also regional treat. One taste of the boiled peanuts and I was hooked. Soft, moist and packed with flavor, I couldn’t get enough. My favorite part of the market though was the people. I’ll never forget some of the faces I saw.

WINEormous at Intuition AleTwo poodles walk into a Jacksonville brewery. It sounds like the setup to a joke, but when we arrived at Intuition Ale, there were two standard poodles at one of the tables. Riley Leuthold is Intuition’s tap-room manager and was our host extraordinaire. He made sure we were able to taste all the beers we wanted to including their I-10 IPA plus their pilsner and stouts. While we toured the property we learned Intuition opened in 2010 and in 2012 become the first Florida micro-brewery to can their beers. A visit there makes it clear why they have such a loyal local following.

WINEormous at Royal Palm

Seared Calamari at Royal Palm

That evening we visited Royal Palm Village Wine & Tapas. If you’re looking for a wine bar that has a terrific selection paired with a staff who know their wines, look no further. Operating partner Kori Blacker made us feel right at home and chose a few selections from their more than 1200 bottle selection. As if that wasn’t enough, they also have an amazing menu and we tasted several of their “tapitas” including seared calamari and the incredible Royal Palm salad.

WINEormous at Azurea

Fennel Dusted Hawaiian Sea Bass with Maine Lobster

I could easily have been satisfied staying there for dinner, but we took a  short drive to Azurea at  One Ocean. One Ocean is drop dead gorgeous. Seeking the right adjective is challenging because it is truly extraordinary. Lighted water features await you outside and contemporary design inside. We were seated at a long dining table and Executive Chef Ted Peters and his team had prepared a “Chef’s Adventurous Palate” dining experience for us. Had I know what was in store I would have gone without eating for a week. Decadent is simply the best word I know to describe it. Following an amuse bouche in a spoon we enjoyed a silky butternut squash bisque. After that was a fennel dusted Hawaiian sea bass with Maine lobster. Our second entrée was pheasant with red lentils and grilled Bermuda onion. To cap it off was a chocolate peanut butter torte with cocoa coulis and a gold chocolate croquant. Each dish we had was paired with just the right wine. I can’t think of a better way to end an exceptional trip. I can’t wait to visit Jacksonville again.

Tom Plant launched WINEormous in 2009 and is a member of the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association. Based in Temecula, California, he offers intimate winery tours for no more than seven people. Tour details and pricing are available at www.temecula-tours.com. Call now to book your Temecula Winery Tour at (951) 907-9701! Ask about special discounts.