Fort George Island: Sandollar Restaurant and Marina

by Tim Gilmore, 8/20/2016

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She was a little girl, and those red pleather armchairs were so terribly big. And sticky. She loved going out on the boat with her father, but she dreaded sinking into those armchairs coated with dried layers of years of sweat.

Today Jacksonville writer Hurley Winkler stands beneath a sailfish affixed to the blue wall and watches it warily past a plastic bouquet and a model sailboat.

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The place feels exactly the same to her, until she notices that the Sandollar Restaurant and Marina is missing its marina. Her father always pulled the pontoon boat up to the dock, but today she’s driven her Prius onto the Mayport Ferry and crossed the St. Johns River from Mayport to Fort George Island, two and half miles inland from the ocean.

Whenever we’ve gotten together for lunch lately, I’ve picked seafood restaurants. Hurley has a cheeseburger. She doesn’t eat seafood.

I eat the blackened shrimp, because I know they were caught in the Mayport waters, not farmed by slave labor in Thailand.

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Out on the deck, a big plaster sand dollar hangs on the wall behind the beer taps, and the menu offers a Sandollar Salad and a Sandollar Sandwich. The sandwich is “blackened redfish grilled to perfection,” but Hurley says they use sand dollars for bread, hence the name.

Her favorite Sandollar memory is when her parents brought her Uncle Lee here on the boat. Uncle Lee was the exact opposite of his sister, Hurley’s mother Lynn, but the two of them loved each other dearly. “She always lit up around him,” Hurley says.

In “My Uncle’s Lake,” a memorial Hurley wrote for Perversion Magazine a couple years back, her uncle tells long, exaggerated stories of following the Grateful Dead on his motorcycle.

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“I don’t know if Uncle Lee was a good fisherman,” she writes. “I can’t remember if he ever caught a fish. But he shared his boat and his lake and his beer with anyone who would come along for his company.”

On the afternoon Uncle Lee accompanied Hurley and her parents by boat to the Sandollar, they passed a big Crowley container barge in the river. It was four o’clock and Uncle Lee was pretty drunk. Suddenly excited, he declared that the barge was a pirate ship, turned to his niece, and said, “Hurley! Let’s play Somalia!”

Then he stood up in the boat, faced the “pirate ship,” cupped his hands on either side of his mouth, and yawped an Indian war cry across the waters.

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In March 2012, a fire shut the Sandollar down for eight months, causing an estimated $300,000 worth of damage.

When the restaurant reopened in November, owner Jay McKenzie said, “The Sandollar’s been here since 1988 and it’s going to be here a long time past today.” The Sandollar’s website, however, says it opened in 1954, identifying its original owner only as “a gentleman.”

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“This was when Heckscher Drive still had bridges that were made of wood and moved with the tide.”

It was a long time before Somalian pirates operated container barges just off the remnants of old Florida fishing villages.