Be forewarned: A leisurely visit to Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island can lead to serious, life-changing events.
One being that you might never leave.
"It's true," said Angela Daughtry, a reporter for the twice-weekly newspaper News-Leader. "I found this place on the Internet, we came down from Connecticut and stayed for a few days and then bought a house. People fall in love with the beauty of the area and end up staying here."
Amelia Island, a barrier island about 35 miles north of Jacksonville, is one of Florida's best-kept open secrets. With 13 miles of Atlantic coast beaches, dotted with thousands of acres of preserved wetlands and state parkland, and buffeted by the shifting winds of the tourism industry, Amelia Island is a weekend getaway that can easily become home if you're not careful.
That's what happened to pleasure boat cruise captain Kevin McCarthy, whose family moved from Gloucester, Mass., to Fernandina Beach 40 years ago when he was 16 years old. He could have left after graduating high school, but he fell in love with the island and the woman who would become his wife, Cecilia, and mother of their five children.
"Even after 40 years here it doesn't make me a native," said McCarthy, who spent much of his career building high-end homes on the island. "I'm still a newcomer."
A history of change
Until the last 500 years or so, everyone was a newcomer to Amelia Island. Since then, eight flags have flown over the town center, making it the only place in the United States to have its own express lane when it comes to sovereignty.
Beginning in the mid 1500s (after the land had been wrested from Indians) the roster included the French, the Spanish, the British, the Spanish (again) interrupted briefly by the Patriots, the Green Cross of Florida and the Mexican Rebel Flag.
The United States took over in 1821, but that was short-lived with the Confederate Flag flying for a time beginning in 1862.
Amelia Island today is as rich in beauty and adventure as it is in history. The 50-block downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But there's nothing ho-hum about it.
The walk-and-window-shop streets are a lined with nifty boutiques, warm bookstores, and restaurants that make you wish there were four or five meals in a day.
The genteel bed-and-breakfasts provide a reflective refuge from the daily grind of enjoying it all. And the outdoor activities are enough to keep you winded and appreciative of the respite.
Plenty of choices
Amelia Island is sort of a cross between the hurly-burly of Key West and the exquisite nothing-to-do-ness of Cedar Key. It has water, waves, golf, fishing, fine dining, interesting shopping, breathtaking nature . . . or, if you choose, none of the above.
It's all up to you.
On our recent visit we stayed at the Ash Street Inn (just blocks from the downtown shopping district) and were able to use the free bicycles to pedal through Fort Clinch State Park, a good part of the beach roads, over to the suburban strip centers for a fine early morning coffee, and back to our B&B all before breakfast.
And it was all so . . . beautiful, yet not-so-Florida-y.
Amelia Island is really more Georgian than Floridian. We just got lucky when the lines were drawn. You can fish here. You can golf here (the Amelia Island Plantation, the Ritz-Carlton and other area courses see to that.) You can surf and swim and kayak and cruise around on little scooters here.
And if you decide to stay here for good, you can even get away from all this splendor. The week we were at Fernandina Beach, the newspaper had a feature story about a great getaway for the locals. They suggested . . . Cedar Key.
Logan D. Mabe is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg.