at the Fernandina Harbor Marina on Amelia Island,
sliver of light peeked between the drapes of my hotel room
and woke me. The sun was not yet above the horizon, and I
watched a shrimp boat move slowly across the water, the
arms holding its trawl nets spread wide. I squinted,
looking for the halo of seabirds that follow a working
shrimp boat, but the view was blurry in the dim light, as
if the day was not yet ready to come into focus.
the sun appeared, a half-globe of deep orange, and
illuminated a small flock of sea gulls that flew close to
the water’s edge. Then a maintenance ATV noisily fired
up and drove onto the golf course immediately under my
window. My silent sunrise over Amelia Island had finished
Island is at Florida’s northeast tip, about 25 miles
northeast of Jacksonville and surrounded by water that
seems to keep the fast pace of life at bay.
the southern end are golf courses and luxury resorts. At
its northern end is Fernandina Beach, a laid-back Old
Florida town where people stroll the historic downtown
after dinner, stopping at Fantastic Fudge on Centre Street
for an ice cream cone.
of the hotels and restaurants are independent of chains,
and menus are dominated by old-fashioned Southern
favorites — crab cakes, shrimp and oyster po’boys,
pulled pork sandwiches, fried-fish baskets.
Island has a unique historical distinction: It is the only
U.S. site that has been under the flags of eight nations
(including the flag of the Confederacy). The first was the
French flag, flown by Huguenots who landed on the island
in 1562. The island was named after Princess Amelia,
daughter of King George II of England. Fernandina Beach
was named in honor of King Ferdinand VII of Spain.
miles long and two miles wide, the island has a state park
at either end — one with a 19th century fort and a
half-mile fishing pier, the other with a mile-long fishing
pier — and a continuous strip of beach along its
maze of islands, marshes and rivers that separates Amelia
Island from the mainland is part of what makes it
distinctive as a vacation spot, providing the settings for
fishing, kayaking, nature walks, bird-watching, sunbathing
Island turned out to be the perfect overnight stop — or
longer — for my road trips into the Carolinas, a bit of
a detour but a charming alternative to the budget motels
along I-95. Other times I went to Fernandina Beach just
for its own sweet self. Watching the beach from the tiki
bar at Sliders on the east side or enjoying the sunset at
an outdoor table at Brett’s on the west side, I could
feel the stress of the work week dissolving.
of life on the island is lived on the water — the
Atlantic Ocean on the east, Cumberland Sound on the north,
the Amelia River on the west, and Nassau Sound on the
centuries ago, Amelia Island’s location on the water
turned it into a center of smuggling and piracy. Later the
port was used for gun-running and for steamboats filled
with tourists from New York.
Beach claims to have been the birthplace of the commercial
shrimp fleet in the early 1900s, the first place to use
weighted bag-like otter trawl nets to catch shrimp in deep
water. The island still has a working fleet of shrimp
boats, although it is much smaller than it was a century
River Cruises offers a variety of boat rides — sunset
cruises, cruises along Cumberland Island and occasional
eco cruises, on which shrimping is discussed and use of
the trawl net is demonstrated. The eco cruises have ended
for the season and will resume in June. But plenty of boat
trips, tours of Fernandina Beach’s history, and Civil
War re-enactments are available year-round.
introduction to Amelia Island was a cruise out of
Fernandina Beach along the west shore of Cumberland
Island, off the coast of Georgia.
boat motored away from the marina and north along Amelia
Island’s west coast, past shrimp boats and Fort Clinch
State Park, where people explored the thick fortress walls
and sunbathed on the beach.
we sailed slowly along the Cumberland Island shore, our
guide pointed out some of its famous wild horses grazing
in the swampy meadow and talked about the dilemma that the
National Park Service faces — let the beasts live as
wild animals, or provide them with an artificial
environment that includes food and veterinary care?
on, we saw wild turkeys on the narrow sand beach. We
passed a dock from which visitors could walk to the ruins
of Dungeness, a castle-like mansion built by a member of
the Carnegie family, and the private dock for Greyfield
Inn, another former Carnegie mansion that has been
converted into a luxury inn.
cruise does not dock at the island, so on another trip, I
took a National Park Service ferry from St. Marys, Georgia
— not far from Fernandina as the crow flies, but 27
miles via a roundabout route — and spent the day
exploring Cumberland Island on foot.
I next returned to Amelia Island, a visit to Fort Clinch
was at the top of my agenda. The brick fortress, built in
the mid-19th century after Spain ceded Florida to the
United States, is the heart of Fort Clinch State Park.
Visitors can walk atop the walls, where cannons point
toward the sea. On the first weekend of every month,
costumed volunteers do historical re-enactments of the
life of Civil War soldiers, and rooms are set up with the
tools of that era.
park has campgrounds, beaches, and a half-mile fishing
pier. Only a few anglers were using the pier on the day I
walked out to the end; most of the people were there for
the walk in the salt air. A pelican, unperturbed by people
that posed next to it for photos, perched on the railing,
its eyes fixed on a fisherman.
the opposite end of the island is Amelia Island State
Park, which has a mile-long, pedestrian-only bridge across
Nassau Sound, where people fish for whiting, redfish,
flounder, speckled sea trout, jacks and tarpon. Just
across the sound are the far reaches of the city of
Jacksonville, but no sign of urban life intrudes here,
just the quiet of Little Talbot Island State Park, a
barrier island with beaches on one side, salt marshes on
Seahorse Ranch conducts horseback rides along the beach in
Amelia Island State Park. I took the ride on an overcast
fall day, when brisk winds and a slow drizzle made the
beach feel less like Florida and more like Northern
was on Blaze, a chestnut American quarter horse, as our
guide led us along a narrow trail that was lined with
cabbage palms and Live oaks, across a creek, over dunes
and onto the beach, where dredges were replenishing the
sand on the eroded shore.
wind got under my worn canvas fisherman’s hat and sailed
it across the sand. At the edge of the sand was evidence
of how powerful those winds can be: beheaded palms and
oaks that stood naked, their leaves and small branches
stripped by the wind.
rode into the water at the ocean’s edge but never got
above a leisurely pace.
several trips, I got better acquainted with Amelia Island
on tours — a guided nature walk at sprawling Omni Amelia
Island Plantation Resort, an unguided nature walk at Fort
Clinch State Park and a walking tour of Fernandina Beach’s
historic buildings, guided by a free app I downloaded to
my most recent visit, the walking tour took me to the old
depot that was built for a train that ran from Fernandina
Beach to Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast; the Victorian-style
Nassau County Courthouse, now 123 years old; 19th century
houses and churches, still in use.
ended at the old county jail, a no-nonsense brick
structure that now houses The Amelia Island Museum of
History. The small museum includes old jail cells as well
as exhibits on the Timucuan Indians, the island’s first
residents; Spanish missions; the Civil War; and the island’s
left as the museum closed and I debated where to go next.
In the early evening, the answer was easy: Watch the
sunset. I walked to the marina and Brett’s on the
Waterfront. The wait staff quickly filled drink orders for
other sunset-watchers, and the air was scented by
sun lowered toward the horizon, painting the sky with
orange and pink, against which the masts of sailboats
docked at the marina were silhouetted. Just before the sun
disappeared, I spotted the shrimp fleet docked beyond the
sailboats, perhaps including the shrimp boat I had watched
at sunrise on a different morning.
to Amelia Island
there: The Jacksonville airport is 26 miles from
Fernandina Beach. JetBlue and Silver Airways fly nonstop
from Fort Lauderdale, American Eagle flies nonstop from
Miami, a trip of about an hour and 20 minutes. Roundtrip
airfare from Fort Lauderdale starts around $120, from
Miami around $220, in late November. The drive from
downtown Miami is about 380 miles along I-95 and Florida’s
Hotel at the Beach, 1997 S. Fletcher Ave., 904-206-5600;
www.ameliahotel.com. Basic, moderately priced hotel a half
block from the beach. Low-season special from $59
weekdays, $79 weekends.
Pointe Lodge, 98 S. Fletcher Ave., 904-277-4851;
www.elizabethpointelodge.com. Directly on the beach with a
B&B feel: Rocking chairs on the porch, huge buffet
breakfast included, complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres
in the evening. Straight shot on Atlantic Avenue into
town. Rooms $245-$555.
Amelia Island, 39 Beach Lagoon Rd., 904-261-6161;
sprawling beachfront resort with golf, spa, kayaking,
nature walks, shops and restaurants, plus shuttles to get
guests around the property. When I arrived and found I had
inadvertently booked the previous weekend, the hotel
honored my discount vouchers from Travelzoo anyway. Rooms
South, 29 S. Third St., 904-277-7919;
www.29southrestaurant.com. Creative updates of Southern
traditions: pulled pork spring rolls, catch of the day
served on succotash with bacon, sweet tea brined pork,
lobster corn dog with vodka-spiked ketchup. Small plates
$5-$12, dinner entrees $18-$28.
on the Waterfront, 1 S. Front St., 904-261-2660. Mostly
standard but well-prepared Southern dishes including
shrimp and grits, oyster po’boys, burgers and fried fish
sandwiches. For sunset-watching, ask for a table on the
deck overlooking the marina. Dinner entrees $9-$24.
Pelican, 12 N. Front St., 904-277-3811;
www.thesaltypelicanamelia.com. Raw bar, sandwiches,
upscale bar food and casual entrees, plus mac ‘n’
cheese made with bacon, jalapeños, and smoked cheddar and
served with chicken or shrimp. For sunset-watching, get
there early for a seat at the second-floor window ledge.
Sandwiches $10-$15, dinner entrees $11-$18.
Seaside Grill, 1998 S. Fletcher Ave., 904-277-6652;
www.slidersseaside.com. Sliders is on the beach on the
Atlantic side, so no sunset-watching. I like eating at the
tiki bar, facing the water. Live music. Variety of seafood
entrees plus beef and pasta. Entrees $14.95-$28.95.
River Cruises, 1 N. Front St., 904-261-9972;
www.ameliarivercruises.com. A variety of tours are
offered. The Cumberland Island tour, a two-hour tour that
runs daily, costs $28; seniors $26, children $22.
Fudge, 218 Centre St., 904-277-4801;
www.fantasticfudge.com. Fudge hand-made in the shop, other
candy, ice cream.
Seahorse Ranch, 7500 First Coast Hwy., 904-491-5166;
www.kellyranchinc.net. Open Tuesday-Sunday; one-hour rides
Clinch State Park, 2601 Atlantic Ave., 904-277-7274;
www.floridastateparks.org/fortclinch/. Half-mile fishing
pier, bicycle and hiking trail, camping. Historic
re-enactments the first weekend of each month at Fort
Clinch. Park admission: $6/vehicle with 2 to 6 people;
fort admission $2/person; camping $26.
State Park, eight miles south of Fernandina Beach on SR
A1A; 904-251-2320; www.floridastateparks.org/ameliaisland.
Horseback riding on the beach; surf-fishing or fishing
from George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier. Admission: $2.
tours: Download map for a self-guided walking tour at
www.ameliaisland.com (click on "activities") or
get the free app from iTunes. For a tour by horse-drawn
carriage, Old Towne Carriage Co., 904-277-1555;
www.ameliacarriagetours.com. Thirty-minute tour $15 adult,
$7 children 12 and under 13, infants 1 and under 2 free;
one-hour tour $30 adults, $14 children.
Island Museum of History, 233 S. Third St., 904-261-7378;
http://ameliamuseum.org/. Open daily. Admission $7 adults,
$4 students and military.
Island National Seashore, www.nps.gov/cuis; click on
"plan your visit" for information on the ferry
from St. Marys, Ga.