Amelia Island, Florida Combines History, Nature In Beach Setting
By Karen Rubin
Cannons were hurling their fire at a frigate as we entered the fort. Later on, a man struck in the melee would be taken to the infirmary, pronounced dead, put into a wood coffin, and marched in a procession outside the gates.
We had just happened into a Confederate reenactment at Fort Clinch State Park, on the northern tip of Amelia Island. It was unusual-the monthly reenactments are usually by Union soldiers who had controlled the fort for most of the Civil War-and this one, on the third weekend in April, drew a company of Confederate reenactors from around Florida. Indeed, the General of this band was a descendent of one who fought with the Florida 7th Company B (and there really was a man in the coffin-these guys take their roles seriously).
It was one of many serendipities during our all-too-short visit to Fernandina Beach, a historic district on Amelia Island.
When we have taken the railroad down to Florida from New York, we tend to pull into Jacksonville at about 2 a.m., clanging and hissing. I have always wondered what was beyond the shadows (especially, with the prospect of another eight hours on the train ahead), but I had never been able to get my schedule right to explore.
This time, I made Florida's Northeast corner my focus, intrigued mainly by the 500-year history of St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States and quaint historic districts in St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach. What we found was so much more: sprawling nature preserves, often linked with major historic attractions, such as Ft. Clinch State Park (where we were so fortunate as to happen upon a Confederate reenactment) and Kingsley Plantation, within the Timucuan Preserve (see Discovery, 6/21); world-class museums like the Cummer Art Museum in Jacksonville; restaurants that ooze with atmosphere and culinary delights; and accommodations that enhance the visitor experience, either because they were historic, themselves, or splendid resorts, like the famous Amelia Island Plantation, renowned for golf and tennis, the Ritz Carlton-Amelia Island, and the new World of Golf Village, in Jacksonville.
Indeed, in a state better known for theme parks, where man-made machines and art attempt to mimic nature and history, it struck me that we were immersed in the real thing.
Once a booming resort destination/vacation haven for tourists steaming down from New York, the town fathers of Fernandina Beach, on Amelia Island in Florida's northeast section, made a fateful mistake: telling Henry Flagler to go elsewhere with his railroad. He did: Palm Beach and Miami, and so did the tourists who used to cruise into Fernandina Beach's port, and now rode the rail.
The 1911 Post Office-a grand edifice copied after the Uffizi Palace of the Medici because of the anticipated continued boom-by the 1930s seemed out of place. Across the street, during those dark years, the bell tower atop the Nassau County Courthouse would ring to summon firefighters; there were frequent false alarms, perhaps because they would earn $3; the courthouse, now undergoing renovation, was where William Jennings Bryan would give campaign speeches each of the seven times he ran for president. Just a couple of blocks further, is the Silk Stocking District, where there are a dozen of the most magnificent Victorians that have kept their luster.
The hard economic times were almost a blessing for Fernandina Beach, actually serving to preserve the many Victorian homes and commercial buildings from the assault of progress (that, and the formation of a Historic District in 1973 after a developer's deceit in wrecking a house in the middle of the night).
Most people, these days, come for the two major resorts which have won international renown, Amelia Island Plantation and the Ritz Carlton, which are probably most responsible for the resurgence of interest in Amelia Island beginning in the 1960s.
But we found the historic district in Fernandina Beach, which is still very much a neighborhood, pure delight-52 blocks of shady streets, many lined with gracious 19th century Victorian cottages, adorned with turrets, gables, in Queen Anne, Italianate, Chinese Chippendale, Florida Vernacular and "Mississippi Steamboat" styles. And while couples may venture to the many wonderful bed-and-breakfast and inns in former mansion homes (Amelia Island Bed & Breakfast Association, www.ameliaislandinns.com), families can still enjoy the experience of staying in the historic district and still be comfortable (enjoying a pool, continental breakfast buffet) at Hampton Suites, right in the district and overlooking the harbor (800-HAMPTON, 904-491-4911, www.hamptoninnandsuites.net or www.hamptoninn-suites.com).
We were immediately struck by the pleasant scale and pace of Fernandina Beach. We stroll up Centre Street where many of the shops are located, and wander down side streets to enjoy the exquisite architecture, multicolored brick buildings dating from 1873 to 1900. Framed by the marina on one end of the boulevard, a small Railroad Depot (it was the terminus for a cross-state railroad from Cedar Key, and its 1899 red train station now houses the Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center) and the beach on the Atlantic Ocean on the other end.
The port is what initially put Fernandina Beach on the map. The deepest natural harbor in southwest US, a Spanish galleon could come in even at low tide (it is 17 ½ ft. even at low tide). An added benefit, the river, the color of Coca-Cola, contained tannic acid which would remove parasites from the bottom of boats and add an extra year to boats, which were built of hard pine from nearby Georgia. The quality of the harbor is also what brought the pirates to town-Capt. Kidd and Blackbeard--especially after the Spanish built the fort, Castillo de San Marcos, at St. Augustine.
This is where the modern shrimping industry was born, and continues to thrive (you can peak in at the Net House, the world's largest producer of handmade shrimp nets). Each year, the biggest event in Fernandina Beach is the Shrimp Festival, the first weekend in May, when over 150,000 come on to Amelia Island.
Fernandina Harbor Marina is still home to the shrimp fleet, as well as pleasure boats; enjoying Amelia River Cruises sunset sail (904-261-9972), we see large shrimping boats with their massive nets splayed, and also spot the white house, Posada San Carlos, known for its role as Pippi Longstocking's house in the film, on the bluffs of the San Carlos Military Site where Spanish soldiers lived in 1788.
Just 13 miles by 2 ½ miles, people think Amelia Island is small with not a lot to do, and may tend to confine their visit to one of the big resorts. But we were astonished to see the wide variety of activities and attractions, fine dining (there are 40 superb restaurants) and cultural attractions that include two community theaters and a thriving arts community (the first Friday of each month is "Art"rageous Fridays). You can stay busy without the hustle and bustle.
There is an eclectic, welcoming quality to Amelia Island-possibly a cause and effect of having lived under eight different flags (the only piece of land in the U.S. to have eight different flags of denomination), starting with the thriving Timucuan Indian population who settled the area in 2000 BC (growing so tall on a diet of oysters that they towered over the Spanish), Spanish, French, English, Patriots, Pirates, Confederates, and finally, the U.S.
We got a sense of it after taking a walking tour up Centre Street, hosted by the Amelia Island Museum of History, Florida's only spoken history museum. Housed in the renovated 1935 county jail, it offers historical objects and architectural finds but offers "more stories than artifacts." (233 S. 3rd St., 904-261-7378).
One of the centerpieces is the Palace Saloon, the most colorful watering hole in Fernandina Beach and probably anywhere else, and the oldest continuously operating bar in the state of Florida. A former haunt of the Carnegies (Mrs. Carnegie wanted a respectable place for her guests to nearby Cumberland Island) and the Rockefellers, it has hand-painted murals depicting Shakespearean scenes, hand-carved 40-foot mahogany bar and pressed tin ceiling from 1878; a large room where a live band performs also has billiard tables. We return in the evening (everything downtown is walking distance) for the entertainment in an adjacent room, featuring jazz and country.
We enjoyed strolling about by foot, but for a different perspective you can also take a historic tour by horse-drawn carriage through the Old Towne Carriage Company (904-277-1555).
Fort Clinch State Park
Just biking distance from the historic district is one of the unique attractions of Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach: Fort Clinch State Park. The combination of superb historic features and activities, coupled with nature trails and one of the best beaches in the area, the 1,121-acre park can easily make for a full-day stay.
We began our visit meeting up with a volunteer guide for the regular Saturday morning (10:30) nature walk around Willow Pond and through a coastal maritime hammock. Though you could easily do the walk on your own, the visit was tremendously enhanced by the information (not to mention a heads-up when we neared where a mother alligator and her babies were located).
The walking trail is separated from off-road biking trails which seemed absolutely fabulous.
Before visiting the fort, we had a very pleasant picnic in an area where there was a marvelous playground.
We were incredibly lucky during our visit, happening upon a once-a-year reenactment by a Confederate contingent (usually, the fort reenactors are Union soldiers), who come from throughout Florida to take on the roles of soldiers, officers, wives and children. As we arrive, they are firing cannons at a frigate.
The fort was built starting in 1847 by the federal government; occupied by Confederate forces when the Civil War began in 1861, it was taken by federal troops when a withdrawal was ordered by Gen. Robert E. Lee the following year. In 1898, the fort was reactivated for several months during the Spanish American War. The state, which purchased the fort and 256 acres in 1935, opened it to the public in 1938.
There are reenactments on the first weekend of every month, with park rangers dressed in Union uniforms carrying out the daily chores of the 1864 garrison soldier; special full-garrison re-enactments by Union reenactors occur annually in May and by Confederates in December. Candlelight tours are offered Friday and Saturday evenings from May through Labor Day (other times, Saturday evening of every first weekend; times vary, call 904-277-7274). There are also special events throughout the year.
The park also offers campgrounds (62 family campsites in shaded hammock and near the beach); a natural beach on the Atlantic Ocean; access to Amelia River, Cumberland Sound and the Atlantic for fishing speckled trout, striped bass, redfish, drum, sheepshead, flounder, whiting and pompano, or fishing off the pier (Fort Clinch State Park, 2601 Atlantic Ave., Fernandina Beach, FL 32034, 904-277-7274
Amelia Island, lush with vegetation that includes majestic oaks, palmettos, Spanish moss, is ringed by 13 miles of white sandy beaches flecked with quartz, washed by the sea from the eroding Appalachian Mountains; you can kayak its marshes (Kayak Amelia offers tours, which can be arranged through resorts; 904-321-0697), or take a five-mile, guided horseback ride along the beach (Sea Horse Stables, 904-261-4878; or Kelley Seahorse Ranch, $35, 904-491-5166); arrange fishing or boat rides (Amelia Island Charter Boat Association, 904-261-2870); or a sailing charter or lesson (Windwind Sailing School, 904-262-9125).
Families will enjoy the Island Falls Adventure Golf (1550 Sadler Road, 904-261-7881), offering 18 holes set amidst waterfalls, tunnels and meandering streams with a Florida-style clubhouse atop a 20-foot waterfall. We also found public tennis courts and a community center, on Centre Street; and Fernandina Beach Golf Club, offering 27 holes, is considered one of the finest public courses in the country (904-277-7370).
Day Trips & Diversions
Just offshore from Fernandina Beach, is Cumberland Island, Georgia, once a private refuge of the Carnegies (snubbed from buying five-acres on Jekyll Island, he bought the entire 17,000-acre Cumberland Island and then hosted the "swells.") The Cumberland Island National Seashore can be visited by ferry (there is one bed-and-breakfast inn, The Greyfield Inn, founded by Lucy Carnegie Ferguson). There is a unique herd of horses, descended from those brought by Spanish missionaries 400 years ago. The island offers 17 miles of secluded, white sandy beaches, dunes, saltwater marshes, and picturesque ruins of Dungeness, the Carnegie home which once hosted Gen. James Olglethorpe, Nathaniel Green, Eli Whitney and others, and Plum Orchard, an 1898 Greek Revival mansion (921-882-4335).
Another day trip from Amelia Island visits Okefenokee Swamp Park, in Waycross, Georgia (featured in 10 major films), where you can explore a half-million acres of islands, jungles, forests and prairies via Indian Waterway boat tours, deep swamp excursions and a 90-foot observation tower (912-283-0583, www.okeswamp.com). Kayak Amelia has a package, "From the Swamp to the Sea," that combines the salt marsh of northeast Florida with the fresh water Okefenokee Swamp, where you can watch alligators and turtles ($95/pp, 904-321-0697, www.kayakamelia.com).
Big Talbot Island State Park, has five hiking trails which wind throughout the grounds, affording visitors a spectacular view of Nassau Sound, the only unaltered inlet in northeast Florida. A special place on the island, BEAKS, Inc., is the Bird Emergency Aid and Kare Sanctuary-dedicated to caring for and rehabilitating injured wildlife, especially Florida's wild birds. Some 2,000 endangered and common bird species are cared for each year, from bald eagles and wood storks to blue jays and wrens (904-251-2473).
Little Talbot Island State Park offers 2,500 acres, including five miles of wide, sandy beach and undisturbed salt marshes which serve as nurseries for sea life. There is kayaking, canoeing (for experienced canoeists), and guided horseback rides (904-251-2320)
During our stay in Fernandina Beach, we had the chance to sample a few of the dozens of superb restaurants, displaying the range of styles and ambiance.
Beech Street Grill is sophisticated but unpretentious, and showcases the best local seafood and herbs, but drawing upon different culinary influences to essentially reinterpret Floridian cuisine. We dine upstairs, where John Spruger is playing the piano (during the course of the evening, we get into a competition with other tables to identify Broadway showtunes). The menu is outstanding, incorporating tantalizing combinations of seasonings, flavors and treatments: starters included pan sauteed lobster tail and grilled pineapple with mustard mango coulis ($10.50) and Johns Island She Crab Soup ($6.95); stone ground cheese grits cakes with blackeye gravy and collard greens ($5.25); entrees included Parmesan crusted red snapper with mustard basil cream and tomato caper confetti ($23.95); Mayport Scamp Grouper with Macadamia Nut Crust and Curried Citrus Cream with Mango Chili Salsa ($23.95); Grilled tenderloin of Beef with Jarlesburg custard potatoes, red chili bearnaise essence and apple smoked bacon ($27.50); and incredible desserts such as white chocolate cheese cake with raspberry sauce. The restaurant itself is in one of the magnificent Victorians (904-277-3662, www.beechstreetgrill.com).
Down Under Restaurant, a name that captures the atmosphere (and also refers to the fact it is literally down a dirt road and under the A1A Bridge and right on the Intercoastal Waterway), is an outpost for fishermen and kayakers. It is really fun, casual, loaded with local atmosphere. Featuring fresh local seafood and daily specials, it is famous for its Hush Puppies (fried corn bread); and Key Lime Pie and modestly priced (dinner selections are about $16.95-$18.95; children's menu available; 904-261-1001).
Lunch at the Florida House Inn, dating from 1857 and Florida's oldest surviving hotel, captured the romance of Fernandina Beach. It is the equivalent of Hemingway's haunt in Key West. We sat at large tables "boarding house style" and joined two local gentlemen who regaled us with stories about local life. The food was a showcase of traditional Southern cooking: gigantic platters of the best fried chicken in the world (KFC doesn't come close), ribs, corn bread; beans, corn (lunch, $6.95; dinner, $11.98; Sunday brunch, $8.98; children's prices according to age).
Florida House Inn, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has entertained Ulysses S. Grant, the Carnegies and Rockefellers, Mary Pickford and freedom fighter Jose Marti also has a delightful pub (the snowshoes on the wall seem out of place, then you remember that this part of Florida can get frosty in the winter) and a pleasant parlor, a magnificent brick courtyard with a sprawling 200-year live old oak tree.
BnB's and Grand Resorts
The Florida House Inn is a marvelous accommodation as well. It offers 14 rooms, each distinct, and furnished with a blend of antiques and period pieces. There are romantic four-poster beds, quaint iron beds, quilts and handmade rugs, some with Jacuzzi and some with wood-burning fireplaces. Tree House Rowe has rooms overlooking the courtyard. Rates range from $79 to $179 for a deluxe king with wood-burning. Guests have a full Southern breakfast served each morning, wine and cheese hour for guests, guest laundry facilities and bicycles for guest use (children are welcome) You can check out all the rooms on the website, which more than half the guests do, at www.floridahouse.com, or call 800-258-3301).
Amelia Island Plantation, which when it opened in the 1960s really put Amelia Island back on the vacation map, is a most unusual resort. As luxurious as they come, its architecture and ambiance are geared to being environmentally friendly. One of many impressive programs is the Nature Center, which conducts tours (for non-guests, as well). We walked the beach with Christina Nelson, Nature Program Manager, who used her keen eye to spot shark teeth; there is even an Amelia at Night tour when they call the screech owls in ($7.50/adult, $5/child 12-4-1 ½ hr., 904-321-5082).
The luxury resort offers 660 units, 54 holes of championship golf, an award-winning tennis program with 23 Har-Tru clay courts, 21 swimming pools, seven miles of nature trails for walking, biking and jogging; a supervised children's program (Kids Camp Amelia), six restaurants; health and fitness center, fishing, sailing, kayaking, and nature program with an on-site, full-time naturalist. Family activities include birding tours, edible plant hikes, crabbing expeditions, bug hunts, and shell and shark tooth excursions (888-261-6161, www.aipfl.com).
The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, an AAA Five Diamond resort with 449 rooms and three restaurants (including one of only three an AAA-Five Diamond restaurants in the state), offers privileges at the Golf Club of Amelia Island at Summer Beach golf course, nine-court tennis complex, state-of-the-art workout facility, two swimming pools, biking and The Ritz Kids program (904-277-1100, 800-241-3333 www.ritzcarlton.com)
Families who prefer to stay in the historic district of Fernandina Beach but who do not want to stay in a bed-and-breakfast (though several accommodate children), will greatly enjoy Hampton Suites, right in the district and overlooking the harbor. You get all the charm of a bed and breakfast but all the space, service and amenities of a fine hotel, including an extremely pleasant swimming pool. There is a lovely breakfast room and lounge, beautifully decorated in a nautical Americana where each morning, guests can help themselves to a Continental breakfast (assorted fruits, juices, cereals, oatmeal, fresh toast, bagels, coffee, hot chocolate, served 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.).
Even the architecture, with a façade that seems to be a row of townhomes, blends in with the neighborhood, and you are within walking distance of everything. The lobby is lovely, utilizing large-plank boards that had been salvaged from a support beam of a church in Jacksonville that was being torn down historic building; and a mural in the lobby ceiling of a giant time piece with hands of a clock. The rooms are very comfortable, and provide cable television (some with separate living rooms, oversized whirlpools, fireplaces and balconies). There are complete business services, guest laundry, exercise room and a small convenience store. Owned by Miriam Tyler Panos, who also has a property in Mooresville, NC, the service was extremely welcoming. Rooms $129-$179, check web of hotel for rates: (AAA, AARP discounts and you can take advantage of Hilton Rewards, 1000 bonus and can double dip with hotel & air. 800-HAMPTON, 904-491-4911, www.hamptoninnandsuites.net or www.hamptoninn-suites.com).
For further information, contact the Amelia Island Chamber of Commerce, 102 Centre St., Fernandina Beach, FL 32034, 800-2AMELIA, or www.ameliaisland.org.)