Before leaving on a recent trip to the St. Augustine, Florida area, a family member gave us a tip for what was promised to be a fantastic Italian restaurant. According to this family member, the restaurant, Benito’s Pizza & Pastabilities, had Northern New Jersey and Italian roots, which was enough to convince us.
We entered the address into the rental car’s GPS system and set out to discover this oddly named eatery. When we were just a few minutes away, we entered into the strange, almost otherworldly beach town of Vilano Beach. As we drove down the main strip, we were met with an array of 1940s and 50s era buildings, all in pristine condition and all completely deserted. There wasn’t another car or pedestrian anywhere on the road. I was instantly reminded of a 1950s mock city used to test nuclear weapons and I began to wonder where in the hell we were.
With some reservations about the apparent no man’s land we had chanced upon, we found Benito’s and were pleased to see that it was packed – the only sign of life on the entire strip. Our family member was absolutely correct in his review of this unfortunately located Italian restaurant. Scott had the veal parm and I enjoyed an amazing, homemade pizza. But the real story is the town of Vilano Beach.
I asked the server what was going on in the neighborhood, but she didn’t know much about it, only that it has never been very popular. As we left, we slowly drove up the main road marveling at the beautiful 50s era design work and at the equally vacant buildings. Why wasn’t anyone there?
When I returned home, I tried to research the area, but didn’t find a lot in the way of solid information. All of the tourist offices call Vilano Beach a “best kept secret” which is the travel way of saying there’s nothing there and no one ever visits. Further research revealed that the area was hugely popular in the 1920s and 30s when a large, luxury hotel was built. However, tremendous storms hit the area in the late thirties and destroyed the building forever. A post-war revival was attempted, hence the buildings we bore witness to, but that effort seemed to fizzle by the mid-1960s.
I would love to know more about the neighborhood and to hear some of the stories that must exist, but in the meantime I must be content with knowing very little about this North Florida enigma. Hidden amongst several popular tourist meccas, this quiet beach community is indeed a secret treasure.
37 thoughts on “The Strange Tale of Vilano Beach”
Please read more about Vilano Beach at my blog: http://www.realtown.com/bjenness/blog. Or feel free to contact me via e-mail: [email protected]. I have been involved in the redevelopment of Vilano Beach since 1998 and am the vice-chair of North Shores Improvement Association. Vilano Beach changed in 1995 when the location of the bridge was moved. Previously all the traffic to St. Augustine from the north on Scenic & Historic A1A went through Vilano Beach. Much has been accomplished since then including getting the infrastructure in place as your photos show, changing the zoning to Town Center Mixed Use, and developing architectural guidelines. We had a Sunday Market, but will soon have a Sunset Celebration on Saturday nights. We will be getting a grocery store soon. Benito’s is a great Italian restaurant. The Vilano Beach Hampton Inn is one of the best hotels in the St. Augustine area. Twocan Terry’s has the best crabcakes in the area. Fast Boys Grill will be opening soon on the Intracoastal with an expanded deck and Sam’s Restaurant just opened for breakfast and lunch. Frugal Fashionista is a great shop for upscale resale. And I am guessing you missed our nature boardwalk over the marsh under the Vilano Bridge. For fishing, the Vilano Beach Pier is one of the best fishing spots in northeast Florida and at the other end of Vilano Road is the beach pavilion with beach access. Visit http://VilanoBeachFL.com and http://staugustine.com/northshoresnews for the latest news. I hope to see you during your next visit!
We were at the Hampton on Vilano Beach and the beauty of the whole experience was the quiet. Wish it could stay a “best kept secret”, high rises would destroy the vista and ambiance as it has on the beaches of Jacksonville (and Panama, et al).and Caps on the Water Restaurant was absolutely incredible!
Yikes, that IS empty!
Wow… that is a little creepy. :X
My parents actually live there!! What time of day were you there? It’s totally small town feel even though it’s only 30 mins. from Jacksonville and a short bridge away from St. Augustine. Since there aren’t that many people, the beaches are relaxed, peaceful and so beautiful! There isn’t much going on- even though they tried to build a Publix (local supermarket) but after the recession started that plan was put on hold- indefinitely! My parents have to go over the Vilano Bridge, into St. Augustine to get any food!! There is a gas station… where you can grab over priced milk and beer on the way home.
It’s not much- but I love going home to it compared to living in the hustle and madness of Los Angeles!! Also, the hotel rooms there are each decorated differently with a fun theme. The room we stayed in had monkeys everywhere! awesome!
My husband & I recently moved to South Ponte Vedra Beach, and discovered Villano Beach while exploring the area. The mock city description was the most accurate one I’ve seen, to date. It could easily be mistaken for a movie set. I’ve read all the stories about the bridge being moved, etc. What I don’t understand is what’s being done by the town to turn this around? Where’s the marketing, advertising, promoting, special events? It’s such a shame because it’s one of the coolest, most eclectic beach towns I’ve ever seen. Such a great mix of fishing village with art deco style buildings and a splash of small town.
Hopefully one day, Villano Beach will create a CVB or other position so that I can work the town and change the visitor landscape!
Thanks for the comment and I agree, it’s almost surreal. We enjoyed our brief visit there, found by chance on the way to a restaurant as I noted. Hopefully someone will take more of an organized interest and really help this place!
I was born and raised on Vilano bch ,youngest son of several generations of my family to do so . MY father grew up on the beach in the 30’s and 40’s along with the Usinas and Carcabas families fishing and riding horses on the beach ,there was nothing there then but a couple of fish camps a gas station and in the late forties an old liquor bar called the “lazy sands” Our family homestead located on Surfside ave was built in the 20’s was the last house to have the luxury of elecricity on the peninsula north till getting to jax bch till well after world warII. My father often spoke of many wild times and even more wilder characters. During the 60’s and 70’s vilano was known for its more than consistent surf ,which in any era on the east coast is a novelty,but vilano was epic to say the least,sometimes maybe known for its colorful and over aggresive locals the surf scene at Vilano was legendary.
It is truly a shame what has happened to our quaint lil piece of paradise ,where the arrure of a convienant store with pinball and slushee machines have now given way to A publix as well as several other out of place commercial enities all in the name of progress and or the almighty dollar ,In my opinion Vilano should have been left to its own as it had in the past to morph into whatever it was meant to be
not a what a few greedy realestate and slumlords are forcing to be …
the old Vilano is soon to be lost all of its buildings torn down and its original inhabitants pushed out and all its character to die away
All this misplaced nostalgia you have and for what? a formerly blighted area full of abandoned buildings and hotels populated by vagrants? And you take it out on the poor merchants who are only trying to make a go at helping your community. People need groceries, a place to eat, basic services. Most people here don’t want to go over the bridge if they don’t have to. But people like yourself come into Publix and the other shops and are rude and nasty to the people working there. All this complaining about the economy and you take it out on someone who is just trying to do their job. If it was up to you they wouldn’t even have a job. How are any of these businesses out of place? a frozen yogurt shop a block from the beach? A sunglasses store? a Grocery Store? A Pizza Shop? A Cleaners and a Salon? Before the Town Center people were driving thirty minutes each way to get these things. You act like you are so put out, as if a giant wal-mart opened up overnight and blocked your ocean view. Shame on you.
I assume you’re talking to the other commenters as I never made such statements.
haha so funny you wrote about this!
First of all, I am born and raised in New Jersey and just moved down here 2 months ago. Benito’s is definitely the ONLY place in town you can get decent north east pizza. There is one place in DT saint Augustine called Pizza Time and the owners are Italians from Brooklyn. I love going there b/c it reminds me of the pizza by the slice style places I grew up with.
… I am a pizza fanatic and am extremely picky in what I consider makes a good pizza… the crust, the cheese, the cause, the oil, the crunchiness… it must be perfect! haha :-P
Second of all – Vilano Beach. It is seriously one of the best kept secrets! All the surfers actually come out here. But after you cross the Vilano bridge and you turn left and go for about 5 miles…it totally changes. Then you find the bigger houses and developments, and if you drive about 20 minutes you find million dollar mansions. This area is slowly changing…and hopefully it finds a happy medium between the classic nostalgia and the ritzy materialism.
Also, I wish I had known you were down here!!! I would have loved to have gotten together and done some cool adventures – hiking, exploring DT, etc.! St. Augustine is such a cool place – the downtown area is so beautiful you at times feel like you’re walking around a small quarter in the Riviera :)
I hope you enjoyed St. Augustine! It’s a melting pot of randomness that’s for sure :)
Also, it is weird Vilano is empty like that. But it’s changing. What happened was a few years ago when the whole crash hit a lot of businesses pulled out of building there. RIght now it should be more of a mini downtown area with shops and restaurants and such. Then everything shut down and FL got hit really hard.
They’re actually just starting to get things going again and have started construction on some new buildings over in that Vilano DT area.
So, be sure to come back in a year… Benito’s will be packed :)
Don’t change anything. Why would you want to?
Things are quiet here, but just like the beach, they are constantly changing and eveolving. I live in Vilano not too far from Benitos, and I absolutely love it! We have a Publix and a few other stores currently under construction at the base of the Vilano bridge. While it will be nice to have a grocery store so close by, I hope it doesn’t ruin our secret little town. Fast Boys Wings came …and went. We now have a great restaurant in that spot called Beaches of Vilano. It sits on the intercoastal next to the fishing pier with a sandy beach and outdoor seating. A great place to wind down the day. You have to try the pasta with seafood dinner dish.Clams in their shells, shrimp, scallops…..yummmm! A new Cuban restaurant opened in one of those old art deco buildings you mentioned. Hopefully they make it. Our beach is known as one of the best spots for skim boarding as well as surfing and the fishing around the point is a great way to spend the day.
Um… I live in Vilano? Yes, it’s kind of deserted but that’s the way everyone likes it here, it’s called QUIET! Now that Pubix is up it’s not going to be as quaint and relaxed as it use to be which is not good for us who like QUIET around here! The town is as normal as any back woods town you would find off of route 66, but it is full of charm and the people are great.
Everyone that posted here doesn’t understand what Vilano is all about, and that’s ok, keep thinking it’s a weird movie set and STAY AWAY! We like it QUIET!
i think the beach is wonderful ,it reminds me of my past ,i grew up in st. augustine , not a lot has changed. we use to fish there at night we’d walk on the sands and watch the green lights glow in our foot prints (moma use to tell us it was magic) you could see the sun come up like a ball of fire or the moon go down like you could reach out and touch it. they even had two bars one daddy like because all his buddies hung out there it was called p. j. it was close to the pier. the other was this way called the lazy sands that was moma’s place daddy would take her dancing every weekend. when i get to go to st.augustine ,vilano is one of my first stops . i wish they”d open the places back up .oh yeah and that was the main place to get a smoked mullett . it was always quiant.
Thank you Polly for sharing such beautiful memories. You paint a wonderful image, one which I think most of us would love to enjoy.
vilano is a great place, unfortunately the business`s on vilano road have some poor luck.
benito`s is closed, a former waiter then manager stabbed benito in the back, and did a deal with the owner, its called 180 grill now, they mainly flip burgers for food.
the cuban restaurant went out of business, thats no loss, nothing was fresh.
beaches on vilano, their food sucks, all frozen. it is a nice place to have a drink.
anyone in the area, reading this, go to caps on the water, kingfish grill or fusion on san marco road for a good dining experience.
50`s mock city used to test nuke`s lol.
I lived and worked in Vilano in the summer of 2011. I loved it there! I had a room at Haley’s and worked at the St. Augustine Beach House. I could walk to work. I want to move back there one day. I think the Publix will help. I know it would have helped me to have a grocery store right next door. It wasn’t finished before I left and moved back to OH. I met some very nice people there and some are most likely still in the area. I think many of the homes and rentals are too expensive for your average person. I would not want the place descended upon by boatloads of tourists either. It is a quiet, out of the way place with the beach just down the street and I can understand why the lifers would want to keep it that way. The old buildings and the art deco are just so cool.
I live in England and will be in Vilano Beach,would like to fish, what tips can any local give me, also thinking about boat hirvyl2e so any info for boat fishing would be great.
I recently moved to Vilano Beach after vacationing here many times. The Publix is great and during the spring and summer it stays very busy. With Publix came a wonderful pizza place as well as Chinese and a very nice surf shop was all added to the town center! It really is a happening little place now!
If you’re looking for a wonderful beach without all the commercialized over populated hotels, condos, and resorts….this is the place !
I’ve lived full time in Vilano about three years in the same cottage my grandfather built in 1940s. I guess we are one of the original families to settle there. Roots go further back to Minorca and 18th century. Unfortunately, VB is often too packed with people and traffic. Growth is not always progress.
Moved here, Vilano Beach in 1999. Will never live anywhere else.I have no idea how many places in the USA have what we have. I could do without the Publix at the beach access but it is convienent. We go to the beach almost daiky, drive our stuff on the beach enjoy intercoastal, inlet and the atkantic from our home. This place is gonna happen which, I could do without.
Stumbled upon this post years after it was written. In some ways Vilano is still the same but with the addition of Publix, Mojo Tacos, 180 Vilano and other restaurants and shops we have all we need to spend days without needing to cross the bridge for anything (although downtown St Augustine is only a couple miles a way) it is a great place to live and we love the laid back, hometown feel that many tourists haven’t discovered! My favorite hobby is sharks teeth hunting and Vilano is the place to do it! 1800+ teeth collection and counting!
My family and I used to visit and stay in Vilano Beach back in the 1960’s through 1970’s. I was just a little girl back then, but I still remember it as if it were yesterday. There weren’t many paved roads, no Publix, only a small local grocery, and not really anything else. There was a quaint Italian restaurant where they boasted delicious pasta dishes set on top of traditional red and white check cotton tablecloths, complete with candles on the table. My family used to rent a trailer right there on the beach. There were some locals who lived on Vilano Beach who always were friendly towards us. It was always my most favorite place in the world! I had dreams of moving there one day because it was so pristine and peaceful. Now I am in my fifties, and I haven’t had a chance to go back. My brother has and has told me that it has been infiltrated by hotel chains and such. Part of me doesn’t want to see it that way. After all, it was a place that always gave me such joy.
I’m glad to have found this thread. The fact that people accidentally run across the post and feel the need to comment should say something to past, current and future residents. ANYONE LUCKY ENOUGH TO HAVE VILANO BEACH PLAY ANY PART IN THEIR LIFE SHOULD INDEED BE THANKFUL . At this very moment the area is 2.5 weeks post Hurricaine Matthew. The beach side of St Augustine, Vilano Beach and South Ponte Vedra Beach have been changed forever. Nothing came thru the storm unscathed. Many of the beach front homes along A1A are damaged beyond repair. The dunes have given way to a flat beach from the road to the water’s edge. Like St Augustine, many of the homes in Vilano that are located on the small, quaint roads just off the beach have suffered some damage. And like St Augustine, the Vilano Beach area needs help to move forward. Sometimes great things come out of the darkness. While I want that for Vilano Beach, I’m selfish enough to know that I don’t ever want that little town to change. There are plenty of tourist towns on the Ocean, they don’t need Vilano. If Vilano Beach is only known as the town stuck between Jax Beach and St Augustine that few visit and even fewer have ever heard of….GREAT!!! What that little beach town offers everyday is more than most tourist areas offer in a lifetime. You can’t buy serenity. You can’t buy calm beauty. You can’t buy peace and happiness. But you can spend a little time in a beachtown where time stands still (even with a Publix) and experience all of that, if only for a few days. We’re headed back north after 6 months in Ponte Vedra Beach while my husband was detailed to Mayport NAS on special assignment. We’ve been fortunate enough to travel a great deal for the DOD. We’ve been to some of the most beautiful, remote and unusual areas in the world, but I assure you it will be the A1A corridor from the Guana Reserve to Vilano Beach that we come back to. Vilano Beach is definately a locals paradise. It’s the first place I want to invest in and the last place I want to leave. Protect your property values Vilano….BUT DON’T EVER CHANGE. One day the rest of the state will catch up….just please God, don’t let it be in our lifetime. We’ll be back for good one day!!!
I just stumbled upon this thread and love reading the comments from people who live, or have lived, in Vilano Beach.
We discovered Vilano Beach while driving around on a visit to St. Augustine, a few years ago.
We saw the Magic Beach Motel and swore we would stay there the next time we came.
Spring Break will be our SECOND stay at Magic Beach Motel. The Art Deco vibe is fabulous and it’s just steps from the beach.
We love Vilano Beach and dream of living there, someday.
It has been a real pleasure reading through all these comments that I stumbled upon today. I lived on Surfside Avenue at Vilano Beach in the late 1950s. We moved away in 1961. I’ve lived in a number of other places since then, but our humble home at Vilano Beach still holds a place in my heart like nowhere else. I visited in recent years and was disappointed to see that our beautiful wide beach has narrowed considerably. The ocean seems to be steadily reclaiming the beach. I just had to chime in here. So many memories of Vilano!
This is a Wonderfull place.
I graduated high school in 1957 and Vilano Beach became one of my favorite places to ‘hang out’ at that time. My favorite teacher lived there, Mrs. Hillier, and I visited occasionally. The area was mostly sand dunes with a few residences and a nice beach, along had one gas station.
Live in Vilano currently and absolutely love it. Quiet and peaceful- it’s in the air! Seashells for days, super soft sand! Do yourself a favor
We are moving to Vilano in Sept and I can’t wait! Love this thread! I will update after the move!
i grew up on Vilano Beach in St. Augustine, in NorthEast Florida (i’m the baby in the pic @1953)
notice how EMPTY and LARGE the beach is. not today. the population has increased over 15 times what it was in the 50s.
i had the best life growing up. we lived a 5 minute walk up the street from the beach. collecting sanddollars and scallop shells, avoiding the occaisional beached Sperm Whale; playing on the Channel Jetty between the Ocean and the Matanzas River, getting cut by the barnacles; playing in the dunes until dark; NO ONE on the beach , could sunbathe topless in between the dunes (who me?) ; would watch the waves FOR HOURS, watch the storms come in and out; such an idyllic childhood.
My wife and I have visited Vilano Beach a few times over the past 15 years (since retirement) — mostly passing through or camping (once). Last May we finally stayed for a week and I have to agree that, while changed, VB remains a pretty special place. We will be returning again in May for another week and to consider Vilano as a long term home place. Change it will, but being off the mainland and with it’s own “nook”, hopefully that change will retain a “Key-like” minimalism. Two near-back-to-back major hurricanes (Matthew and Irma) have certainly taken a toll, but the place appears to have a remarkable come-back ability that somehow keeps it’s original charm.
I had escaped to Vilano Beach many times to get away from Ohio winters. It was pure serenity for me. I took loads of shells back home to remind me of the peace I felt there. Now I live in NC and on my last 2 trips to Vilano, I was sad to see the storm erosion, but it still is my peaceful place.
I started visiting Vilano Beach more than 20 yrs ago when there was a Pizza Hut on one corner & a fish restaurant (now a Publix) on the other. The fish restaurant is where I first tried alligator tail, loved it! A fine restaurant at the beach end & a red-neck bar/pool-hall/video store combo at the pier end. I’ve now been living here on Vilano Rd. since 2005 & love the “location, location, location”. Luckily no flooding or very bad building damage from hurricanes in 2016, 2017. For fishermen, the dredging of sand from south Ponte Vedra Beach to south of the St. Augustine Pier probably has made fishing not very good. But the small Vilano town is starting to build multiple hotels on my street & probably will eventually force me to leave this “quaint drinking village with a big fishing problem”! We’ve recently have washed a shore a manatee (recovering at Jax Zoo) & a 1500’s? wooden carcass of a boat that is being carefully studied. I know I will miss this place when I leave :(…..
I built my home in North Vilano Beach some 20 years ago as this is the best small town to live in. The shelling, surfing and fishing are also right here. The hurricanes have come and gone and ruined the stupid homes that were built on top off a dune that should never had been called home. They are all returning to the sea as I get to finally watch the stupids loose their real estate and money. Some folks do not deserve this horrible erosion but the sea will take away what was once it’s home. I love this place as it’s a sanctuary to all who come for the quiet and pristine of Mother Earth. I hate to say it but I’ve say I will have waterfront but that will be many moons from now. I hope the ocean front homes keep building bulkheads and protect themselves. It is so beautiful here and sure hope it never becomes too commercialized like our friends to the south. Love!
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