Amelia Island is diagonally opposite Marco Island, tucked away in the northeast corner of Florida, just below the Georgia border. Although locals consider “season” to be during the summer, it makes a nice spring or fall getaway or pleasant diversion on a leisurely trip north. It is about 20 minutes from Route 95, 30 minutes from the Jacksonville airport and there is a small municipal airport. It offers 13 miles of quartz beach, multiple activities, historical landmarks, and accommodations ranging from Victorian bed and breakfasts to world class resorts.
The island is 13 miles long and 2 miles wide, with the town of Fernandina Beach occupying about half of it. Quaint downtown Fernandina has historic main and side streets filled with shops, restaurants, and stately Victorian homes. The visitors center is housed in a 19th century railroad depot. The Florida House is the oldest surviving hotel in Florida, while Palace Saloon is Florida’s longest operating bar. The Museum of History, where you can learn that Amelia Island was inhabited by the Timucuan Indians possibly as early as 2000 BC and has been under the rule of 8 different flags, is housed in the former county jail. Local churches date to the 1800s. Horse drawn carriage tours of the historic core are available.
As you drive south on the island, with its Spanish moss covered tree canopy, you are reminded of the charm of Southern locales. There are park preserves at the north and south ends of the island and a marina for boaters with restaurants within walkingdistance. Egan’s Creek Greenway has walking and biking trails up to 2 miles long, while Amelia Island State Park has 200 acres of natural wilderness and, through the Kelly Seahorse Ranch, offers horseback riding on the beach.
The 1000 acre Ft. Clinch State Park features a well preserved fort that served both the north and south during the Civil War. Explore history through one of the the daily tours led by costumed reenactors or take a hike or bike ride on its 6 miles of trails. There are two campgrounds within the park, while anglers enjoy fishing from its pier or one of its jetties. Consult the park’s website for their active calendar of garrison, encampment, and other events staged by living historians. During the summer, there are candlelight tours.
The long beach and surrounding marsh lands provide seemingly endless opportunities. The largest sand dunes in Florida adorn the beach where shelling and looking for shark’s teeth is popular. Turtles nest along the beach in the summer; whale watching excursions occur November through March. View sunrise over the Atlantic and sunset on the Intracoastal harbor. Narrated sunset cruises offered by AI Rivers Cruises go around Cumberland Island, where you can often see its feral horses. Inland and deep sea fishing are popular as are both guided and on your own kayaking. There are 6 golf courses on the island.
There are two active community theaters on the island and a monthly art walk. Annual special events include a shrimp festival in May, fishing tournament in June, September’s blues festivalfollowed by the Jazz festival in October, book and film festivals in February, and Councours d’Elegance for car aficionados in March. As part of the USTA Pro Circuit, the Omni Amelia Island Plantation hosts both the men’s and women’s futures tour, while, for something different, petanque enthusiasts hold an annual tournament where more than 100 teams compete. What is Petanque (pay-tonk)? It is a form of boules (sort of like bocci), started in France and becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Who knew?
Restaurants abound on Amelia offering French, Italian, American Bistro cuisine and many al fresco opportunities. One of our favorite Spanish restaurants, Espa?a, is in downtown Fernandina Beach. For something different, the Ritz Carlton offers a sumptuous Sunday brunch, while a new addition at Hoyt House Bed and Breakfast is high tea, reservations only. Many of the restaurants hold special events during Amelia’s assorted festivals. We enjoyed a wonderful jazz brunch at Joe Robucci’s Bistro, dining in their New Orleans inspired courtyard.
The major resorts, complete with a variety of types of accommodations, are the aforementioned Omni Amelia Island Plantation and Ritz Carlton both with spas and also Summer Beach Resort. Chain hotels, motels, condos, cottages, and charming bed and breakfast inns round out the lodging options.
Fort George Island, Cumberland island, and Little and Big Talbot islands are short drives from Amelia Island. Fort George Island is home to Kingsley Plantation, where the waterfront main house, kitchen house, barn, and remains of original slave cabins date to the plantation era of the island. Tours areavailable on a limited basis, but interpretive information provides background on the plantation and its former owners, Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife, Anna, who had been purchased as a slave and freed in 1811. Cumberland Island National Seashore, in Georgia, is reachable only by boat. Little and Big Talbot islands are undeveloped, although there is camping on Little Talbot. Both are operated as Florida state parks, as is Fort George Island.
St. Augustine, about 50 miles away, is an easy day trip from Amelia Island. The picturesque drive along the coast on A1A from Ameila to Jacksonville Beach and south to Ponte Vedra or St. Augustine includes a crossing on the St. Johns River Ferry. Savannah, Georgia, at about 100 miles away is a somewhat longer day trip.
About a 7 hour car ride away, my husband and I are fortunate to have a friend who lives on Amelia Island. We look forward to our not as frequent as they should be visits not only to catch up with our friend, but also to explore a different time in history, discover new dining options, walk picturesque marshland trails and enjoy different coastal options.
Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.