February is a romantic month, thanks to Valentine's Day. But, because it specializes in weddings, the Casa Marina Hotel in Jacksonville Beach focuses on romance year-round.
Built in 1925, the Mediterranean-style oceanfront hotel offers couples a choice of pretty locations where they can say, "I do," including the beach or a seaside courtyard. They can also hold their receptions a few steps away in the historic dining room. And guests can stay in one of the hotel's rooms, some of which overlook the ocean.
Some weddings book all of the hotel's 24 rooms and suites for the occasion, director of catering Rebekah Blakely said at a wedding media conference last week.
"It's like having a big beach house," she said.
The Casa Marina showcased its charms to a group of travel writers from throughout the Southeast during a 2.5-day conference Feb. 7-9 at the hotel at 691 First St. North. Guest speakers included a florist, photographer, wedding cake chef, and Maarten van de Guchte, executive director of the Beaches Museum and History Park.
The hotel's glamorous past is part of its present romantic allure. It is a member of the Historic Hotels of America organization, which is sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. About 230 hotels nationwide belong to the organization, and the Casa Marina is the only one on the beach in Northeast Florida.
Van de Guchte put its history into context during his presentation.
The hotel opened the same day that Pablo Beach was renamed Jacksonville Beach, June 6, 1925. It was during the heyday of Florida's first land boom, a glamorous time when couples dined and danced in the moonlight, and the town's beach was billed as "the world's finest."
Visitors began traveling to Jacksonville Beach resorts by train beginning in the mid-1880s, but by the time the Casa Marina opened, most of the area's grand resorts had been destroyed by fire.
"The Casa Marina is very special, because it is a living monument of historic preservation," van de Guchte said.
He added that being located in an area with a long and interesting history gives depth to the hotel's own story.
For decades before the creation of Disney World, Jacksonville Beach was the place to go, he said. Between 1928 and 1960, it was a very "happening" place.
Hurricane Dora in 1964, and the big theme parks in Orlando, "changed the face of tourism," he said. "It is a miracle the Casa Marina is still standing."
The hotel underwent several transformations through the decades, and at one time was a 37-room apartment building.
Since its restoration over the past decade to its original appearance and glory, an increasing number of its visitors are brides and grooms and their guests.
General Manager Mark Vandeloo said that, in 2004, about 30 weddings took place there; in 2011, there were about 100.
The recession has shrunk the budgets of many families, "but people are still getting married," he said. "They just spend less."
The hotel's 42-member staff works with local vendors including photographers, wedding cake designers and florists, and will offer their recommendations. Couples also can chose their own vendors.
For some couples from out of state, the hotel is the spot for a destination wedding, said Blakely, who oversees all Casa Marina weddings. Other couples grew up at the beach and have moved away, but still have family members in the area. Many more are current Beaches and Jacksonville residents who like the hotel's setting. About 80 percent who have their receptions at the hotel also hold their ceremony there, Blakely said.
Only one wedding takes place at a time, to assure exclusivity. And, since the hotel specializes in oceanfront ceremonies, staff members offer expertise in getting beach permits, chair rentals, tide information, sunrise and sunset hours, and back-up plans in case of uncooperative weather.
The hotel staff also handles all wedding day logistics involving the ceremony, photographs, cake-cutting and toasts.
To match the setting, many couples want flower arrangements that feature a beach theme, said floral designer Lynette Self, owner of Rose of Sharon Florist.
Some popular beach-themed floral arrangements incorporate shells, driftwood and starfish, said Self, who provided some demonstrations during the conference.
Couples also want their wedding cakes to incorporate a beach theme, so chef John Krupinski and his wife Carol, owners of Classic Cakes in Jacksonville Beach, offered examples of how that can be done with white chocolate sea shells and brown sugar sand.
The beach also offers a romantic backdrop for wedding photographs. Many couples time their ceremonies and receptions so they can pose for pictures at sunset, said Emily Martin of Emily Martin Photography. Sunrise is also an excellent time to take romantic pictures, although Martin said early morning weddings are not nearly as popular as late afternoon ones.
Martin and her husband Brian Edmond brought newlywed clients Sarah and Joey Peters to the hotel at sunrise one morning so conference participants could photograph them in their wedding attire.
Sarah Peters said she was happy for the opportunity to wear her wedding gown again. Married Jan. 21 at the Casa Marina, the Jacksonville Beach couple had just returned from their honeymoon.
"Our wedding was small and intimate with family and very close friends," Sarah Peters said. "Everything was gorgeous."
Maggie FitzRoy can be contacted at (904) 302-3394.