Amelia Island: A Tranquil Treasure
Picture this. You awaken early to witness the most amazing citrus-colored sunrise coming up over the Atlantic. You grab some cereal and fruit before heading off for a seaside bike ride under a shady canopy of moss-covered trees. Afterward, gathering towels and beach pails, you “shore up” family time beyond the dunes, where soft white sand and rolling waves await you. Topping off the day, a delicious seafood meal is shared at a charming eatery with picturesque views of the sun setting over estuarial marshlands.
Then you wake up and do it all over again—-this time, maybe adding a freestyle seaside horseback ride or fishing trip to the agenda, or an exploration of historic forts and buildings where soldiers and even pirates once lived.
After the holiday rush, dreams like this are comforting. And the good news is that they don’t have to be simply dreams. They can be realized on tranquil, understated Amelia Island, the northernmost barrier island off the east coast of Florida.
This little treasure is part of the chain of barrier islands from South Carolina to the Sunshine State including Hilton Head, Jekyll Island and St. Simon’s Island, to name a few of the more well-known spots.
Only a 45-minute drive from Jacksonville, Amelia Island is 13 miles long and approximately 4 miles wide and affords the unique opportunity for visitors to get back to nature and, for added zing, explore a bit of history.
Since 1562, people from neighboring Mexico and as far-reaching as Spain have called Amelia Island home, which ultimately led to her nickname, “Isle of Eight Flags.” In addition to “Old Glory,” flags from France, Great Britain, Spain, Mexico, The Confederate Sates of America, The Patriots of Amelia Island and the Cross of Florida, have flown proudly here, giving the island rich depth of “Old Florida” culture.
Beaches, Beaches and More Beaches
Offshore breezes coupled with lush seaside landscapes of sand dunes, palm trees and tropical flowers serve as the backdrop for beachside family fun. Beaches run wide and deep throughout the island and public access is plentiful. Of course, if you choose to vacation at one of the coastal resorts such as the well-recognized Ritz Carlton or the famous Amelia Island Plantation, the white sand is at your tippy toes. And, shark teeth are an easy find while combing the sand for other sea creatures and shells.
Lovely Fort Clinch State Park is a great choice for a day trip. In fact, even if you do have private beach access from your hotel, a jaunt or a leisurely bike to this park is a must-do! Here, there are plains, sand dunes, tidal marshes, hiking and birding trails and, for the kids, the highlight might just be the 19th century brick Fort Clinch.
A Historic Harbor Village
You can also go back in time while sightseeing around Amelia Island’s charming, well-preserved historic port town of Fernandina Beach—-a 50-square block area, designated as a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places. Featuring Victorian, Queen Anne and Italianate homes in and around the square, the village draws visitors to Center Street, where specialty shops and quaint restaurants are plentiful. Here, you will find the oldest operating bar in Florida, The Palace Saloon. This more than century-old drinking establishment is a masterpiece with inlaid mosaic floors and stunning hand-painted murals. So, stop in and get a feel for how ship captains and former visitors such as the Rockefellers and the Carnegies bellied up to the elegant wooden bar. For a more in-depth look at the town’s past, walking and guided tours and even a narrated horse-drawn carriage ride can be enjoyed.
Having spent a four-day summer weekend here not long ago, I experienced first-hand why Amelia was voted #4 among Top 10 North American Islands by Conde Nast Traveler’s 2009 Reader’s Choice Awards, and a top 10 pick three years in a row. From sunrise to sunset, this belle of an island is a laidback yet hip vacation destination that draws folks from all walks of life. I particularly love it for families because of its charming combination of quietness and quaintness. The best time to visit is during April, May and June when the air and water temperatures are moderate and humidity levels are comfortable.
Amelia Island Picks
Where to Stay:
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
4750 Amelia Island Parkway
Amelia Island, FL 32034
Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort
6800 First Coast Highway
Amelia Island, FL 32304
Hampton Inn Amelia Island at Fernandina Beach
2549 Sadler Road
Fernandina Beach, FL 32034
In addition, there are numerous award-winning bed and breakfast inns such as The Williams House (www.williamshouse.com) and various lodging choices that comfortably meet any budget. Or, connect with the ocean and the great seaside wildlife by camping out at Fort Clinch Park.