Amelia Island: The Grand Dame of Florida

Amelia Island is the Florida of days gone by – summer homes along the shore, beaches lined with boardwalks and independent restaurants grilling up locally caught fresh shrimp, seafood chowder and fish tacos you take outside and eat at picnic tables under a canopy. Either Boomer or Jazz lead two horse-drawn carriages, owned by island resident Cyndi Myer, that take visitors on regular and pre-booked tours of downtown Fernandina Beach’s historic Victorian properties. Myer regales passengers with stories about founding families, nuns dedicated to nursing fever victims, and houses with carousel horse-adorned porches that have inspired their own tall tales. All the while, she simply voice-commands her well-trained draught horses through the streets of central downtown.

Amelia Island, 18-miles (29km) long and three miles wide, is in the northern part of Florida, just south of Georgia and a one-half hour drive from the Jacksonville International Airport. In fact, the not to miss two-and-a-half hour boat tour by Amelia River Cruise & Charters led by the quirky Captain Pajama Dave takes participants along the island’s shores (ideal for viewing Osprey, Pelicans and Great Blue Heron) then past Cumberland Island in Georgia that’s 90 percent protected park land and home to herds of majestic wild horse, whose ancestors were left behind by missionaries a century ago.

Carrigage Horse Amelia Island

As playful Bottle-nose dolphins swim alongside the boat, passengers learn about one of the island’s largest employers – a paper mill factory – and see what’s left of the local shrimping industry (a few boats left in a small fleet). However, the shrimp that is still caught, bought and sold to local restaurants here will spoil you for shrimp elsewhere, whether it’s incorporated into fine cuisine at restaurants such as David’s or paired with beer at rowdy beachside bar and grills such as Sandy Bottoms.

The island is so proud of its shrimp it has celebrated the creepy crustacean for fifty years with an annual festival in May, called none other than Shrimp Fest when the streets of downtown Fernandina Beach closed to walking traffic only and restaurants showcase their best shrimpy creations. Fernandina Beach, the soul of Amelia Island, is foodie focused to a level few economically-priced (and to some extent family-focused) tourist towns elsewhere in Florida can replicate.

The Crab Trap, for instance, is two levels of wooden floors, has a central bar and offers large plates of fresh crab, oysters and fried shrimp – so much shrimp – that have been the catch of the day for 34 years – the last 25 years owned by the Germano family, who’ve also retained the same chef, Jimmy Green, for a quarter century (almost unheard of in the restaurant business). Originality is a significant part of Fernandina Beach’s downtown charm. Along Centre Street, and its off shoot streets numbered lowest to highest from the river shoreline at one end to the beach a 3-minute drive in the opposite direction, are independently-owned restaurants and shops. No chains, large corporations, or even Starbucks. That’s right, no Starbucks. Downtown, anyway.

Fort Clinch Beach Amelia Island

But it’s the beaches that attract most people – because what is Florida without sun, sand and shoreline? Amelia Island has the later in abundance: 13 miles (21km) of beaches attract families, couples, and multi-generational travelers throughout the day thanks to available change rooms, gazebos, boardwalks, and beachside restaurants. Also, beach fishing is permitted (particularly common in the morning), and this is the only area in Florida that allows horseback riding on the sand. Three stables offer this service, most trailoring horses to Peter’s Beach, including the family owned Stay’ N Country Ranch.

One-hour long rides are usually begin at 11 am and must be booked in advance. Depending on the company, the rides are generally slow walks or trots for beginners mostly in the sand, but the horses are equally comfortable with the waves dancing around their hooves at the water’s edge.

Activities on Amelia Island are about leisurely taking in the shoreline views: watching the sunset (or rise) from an outdoor patio, methodically casting a fishing line into the slow moving morning waves, or enjoying the commentary of a boat tour. For full day fishing excursions, there are many river and sea charter options originating at the Fernandina Harbor Marina.

One of the best outdoor excursions is a self-guided bike (or slow car tour) through Fort Clinch State Park, which claims to be the ‘real’ Florida. This is Florida’s first state park, established in 1935, and named after the shoreline Fort onsite that dates back to 1847 but was never completed or subjected to battle despite serving as a military post during the Civil War, Spanish-American War and even World War II. Today, the Fort is restored to its 1864 manifestation, and costumed historic interpreters weave tales about 19th century military life and play the flute against the backdrop of quiet beaches and crashing waves.

Nature is what this park is really about. The less travelled beach is ideal for seabird watching and shell and shark tooth collecting, and a one-half mile (.8 km) long pier meanders into the ocean defying the crush of seawater ebbing into the of the bay each day. A mile-long dramatic canopy of Spanish Moss draped trees encase bike riders as they enter the park along a paved road that leads to the Fort, the beach, and access to miles of hiking trails and wetlands including Willow Pond, a natural habitat for alligators and turtles. There are two campsites with electricity and water, a guided hiking tour of Willow Pond Trail every Saturday and bike rentals at the Fort.

If camping is not your style, there are two large resorts along the Amelia Island coast: Omni Plantation (with its own scenic shopping cluster of boardwalk linked stores), and a Ritz-Carlton Hotel. But most visitors prefer to stay around the 50-square block of historic district, spattered with stately Victorian properties (many on the National registry) originally private homes of the area’s most prosperous founders, and many turned into apartments and Inn-like Bed and Breakfast accommodations.

The flagship property – known as the Island’s Castle – is the Fairbanks House, a short walk from Center Street and the marina. Here, the stately opulence of the building’s physical presence blends with the pistol personality of Inn Keeper Theresa Hamilton to create an experience that’s part down home charm and part upscale antique posh. Theresa, along with her husband Bill Hamilton, bought the property 16 years ago, while still in their 40s (early by inn keeper standards) because they wanted a specific career change, not only a retirement project.

“Many people want to be inn owners,” Theresa says, “not in keepers.” The latter involves a genuine love of people, a dynamic personality and a passion for hospitality – all of which Theresa has in spades. So much so, many couples return year after year for several days to a week at a time and the Hamiltons have become personal friends with many. Larry and Diane, for instance, come for a week each spring, and another now retired couple has been visiting once a year from England for 15 years.

Outside, the Hamilton’s grow herbs and fruit such as blueberries that often end up in the morning gourmet breakfast included with each stay, and although there’s no smoking and no kids allowed, Theresa strives to create a place that’s not stuffy and has few restrictions. Guests can come and go as they please, eat breakfast on the patio and borrow bikes to cycle around town, or through the state park.

Romance or elopement packages are available for those wanting to renew, or create, marriage vows, though no weddings happen on site. “We want the property to be for the guests staying here and not restrict anyone from enjoying everything,” Theresa, clearly a people-person, says. “It’s important to be present for guests and make sure they are happy.”

Breakfast isn’t the only meal on the menu. There’s an evening social each day at 5pm in the drawing room of the house and that’s when Theresa, an unapologetic foodie, books dinner reservations at select places making sure everyone experiences island living at its finest.

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