When I lived in the Tampa Bay area, I loved exploring the Gulf Coast’s barrier islands, from Caladesi to Captiva. Now that I’m in northeast Florida, I’ve discovered their Atlantic Coast counterparts. My favorite is Amelia Island, just south of the Georgia border, at the mouth of the St. Marys River.
About a morning’s drive from Tampa Bay, Amelia feels like another world entirely. Like many barrier islands, Amelia has miles of pristine beaches, luxury resorts and recreational activities, from golfing to kayaking to horseback riding on the beach. But what sets Amelia apart from others is the inescapable feeling that you’re part of history — just one more in a long line of travelers passing through this stretch of sand and oaks.
First came the Timucuans, who fished Amelia’s waters more than 1,000 years ago. Then the French, Spanish, English, even a delusional Scotsman vied for control of the island with its protected, deep-water harbor. Pirates, slave ships and smugglers sailed Amelia’s coastline. Confederate, then Union soldiers stood watch during the Civil War at a brick fort on the island’s northern edge. And in the late 1800s, newly minted millionaires came by steamship to the seaport of Fernandina Beach, building elegant Victorian mansions as winter getaways.
Visitors can tap into a bit of this rich history by stopping at landmarks like the Palace Saloon on Centre Street in Fernandina. Just a block from the Intracoastal, the Palace is Florida’s oldest bar, serving sailors, ship captains and civilians since 1903. You can take a selfie with the life-size pirate statue at the swinging doors, then belly up to the 40-foot mahogany bar. But don’t stay too long. Amelia has too much to offer.
While in Fernandina, you can meander through a dozen or so blocks of independently owned boutiques, antique stores and art galleries. Sober up a bit with coffee from Amelia Island Coffee, get the kids some sugar down the block at Fantastic Fudge, then duck around the corner to Villa Villekulla Toy store. (If that name reminds you of Pippi Longstocking, ask the owner about the local connection.) While the small people are perusing the toys, adults can chat with local artists at the gallery upstairs.
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When hunger strikes, options abound in the historic district. On the weekend, have a fried green tomato BLT for brunch on Leddy’s Porch at the Florida House Inn. Any day of the week, pick up a fish taco at Timoti’s Seafood Shak or enjoy shrimp and grits on the patio at Cafe Karibo. For a candlelight dinner, reserve a spot at Le Clos, a 1906 cottage serving French cuisine. Or wander a few blocks north of the hubbub for Asian street food at the Wicked Bao, where the owner welcomes you like an old friend.
End your day with a ghost tour or live music on the porch at the Green Turtle Tavern. Or get cheap thrills by walking the public docks, ogling megayachts as they fuel up before heading back into the Atlantic. You can also make plans to get on the water yourself by booking a fishing or sailing charter, taking a Cumberland island tour or renting Go-Cat boats, which look like mini-catamarans.
When you’ve had enough of commerce, head east down Atlantic Avenue toward the ocean side of Amelia. If you’ve still got the history bug, stop at Fort Clinch to get a sense of what life was like for a soldier in the Civil War. Birders might catch a glimpse of roseate spoonbills nesting along nearby Egans Creek.
Follow the coast south along 13 miles of beaches, past bike paths, nature trails and dozens of golf courses. Watch for the signs for American Beach, an oceanfront haven for African Americans during the Jim Crow era of segregation. And be sure to give yourself time on the way home to stop at Kingsley Plantation, about a half-hour south of the island. The oldest standing plantation house in Florida, Kingsley was managed for years by the owner’s African-born wife, a former slave.
If you’re planning a trip to Amelia, make it a long weekend and treat yourself to a stay at one of the oceanside resorts, like the Ritz-Carlton Amelia or the Omni Amelia Island Resort. Or stay in the historic district in a Victorian mansion like the Williams House Bed & Breakfast.
The local tourist bureau’s website, ameliaisland.com, has links to lodging, shops and restaurants. It also has info on special events like the Amelia Concours for auto enthusiasts in March, the annual shrimp festival in May and the “Dickens on Centre” holiday fest in December. These events attract big crowds, so plan ahead to avoid disappointment.