For a strip of barrier land just 4 miles by 13 miles, Amelia Island has had its fair share of suitors battling over it. Eight in all, including the British, who named it after Princess Amelia the daughter of King George II in 1710.
It seems the Islanders are quite taken with their British roots and even celebrate a Dickens Festival here every Christmas. I suppose we Brits should be honoured that at least one thing of ours has gained overseas approval.
Despite the eight different flags, Amelia has her own distinct feel; cool island lifestyle living and a sense of laid back prosperity. Perhaps a legacy of the well-heeled customers who came out to holiday on the island at the turn of the century and maybe a few influential guests on their way across to nearby Cumberland Island, the domain of the Carnegie dynasty who built their vast winter home there. Even though it’s just a short hop across to the mainland via two road bridges, you’ll quickly evolve into the island way of doing things; people are neighbourly, parking is mostly free and easy and strolling along the ocean is mandatory.
Technically it’s an island in Florida, but the reality is quite different. We’re in northeast Florida, just 20 odd miles from the Georgia state line, so the accent is a Georgia drawl and the food has southern influences; succotash and fried avocado are clear favourites.
The two main resorts are the Ritz-Carlton and Omni Plantation towards the south end of the island, but I’m based further north in the welcoming embrace of the Seaside Amelia Inn, a charming boutique hotel right on Fernandina Beach. There’s character here, a vintage feel that you won’t find in the resorts. The 46 rooms are large and most of them have ocean views. The parking is free, as are the beach chairs and umbrellas and the hot breakfast, and it’s just a 5-minute drive or a 20-minute walk to the downtown district.
Speaking of downtown, it’s the cosy beating heart of the island and I take a stroll around the few blocks. It’s beautifully kept and a classy mix of high-end boutiques, souvenir stores, boat supplies and restaurants and bars. It’s Friday night and after a tasty dinner at the 29 South bistro, I venture across the street to the Green Turtle Tavern to listen to some stomping live southern blues courtesy of Smoke Stack, a seriously good covers band.
Morning dawns hot and sunny, perfect weather for kayaking with Amelia Adventures but the breeze keeps us off the coast and into Egan’s Creek instead. This is a tidal estuary amid 300 acres of grassy wetlands – home to bald eagles, herons, egrets and alligators. We paddle past river-front mansions, each private dock capped with a sleek yacht patiently awaiting its owner to fire it up and sail on down Florida’s Intracoastal. A catfish leaps out of the water and grazes my kayak. Group leader Todd drawls “sure beats sitting for hours with a rod and line.” We make it as far as the old lighthouse before turning around and heading back with the breeze at our backs so it’s a lot less effort.
Down at the dock, after an authentic BBQ lunch at the Happy Tomato, I take a tour with Amelia River Cruises around Cumberland Island. It’s an opportunity to learn about the history of the area while keeping our eyes peeled for marine life. Cumberland Island proves to be the highlight of the cruise with its Carnegie family history and 200 wild horses give or take. The Carnegies were so wealthy they built a private railway to ferry their frequent famous guests from the dock to the mansion. No railway to be seen now and the house is just a ruin, but it’s a great tale nonetheless and well told by our onboard guide.
Back at the Seaside Amelia Inn I kick back and watch the afternoon turn into the sunset on the rooftop deck.
The 1,400 acre Fort Clinch State Park is just a 5-minute walk from the hotel. This civil war fort, perched on a promontory overlooking the St. Mary’s river into Georgia, never saw a shot fired in anger, but it is one of the country’s best-preserved examples. It was used by both the Confederate and Union armies and provides a fascinating insight into civil war life. There are many nature trails here and I take a 6-mile round trip hike to the fort and back sharing the trail with gopher tortoises, armadillos and steamy Florida woodland.
Florida is blessed with many barrier islands particularly on its western Gulf coast, but I’m really taken with Amelia Island. Way off the tourist radar, except perhaps for the Georgia locals, it’s a classy hideaway that will welcome you with open arms. Particularly if you’re British of course.
Fort Clinch image (c) Andy Mossack
Tell me more about Amelia Island
Visit Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau for more information on what to do and where to go.
Amelia Island is a 40-minute drive from Jacksonville Airport.
Seaside Amelia Inn 2900 Atlantic Avenue, Amelia Island, FL. 32034 T: 904-206-5300 Suites from $171 per night including hot breakfast.
Kayaking Egan’s Creek with Amelia Adventures is $65 for a 3-hour tour.
Amelia River Cruises operates daily 2.5 hour tours to Cumberland Island leaving at 10 am. $30 adults $24 children.1 N. Front St, Ste #3 Fernandina Beach, FL 32034