Amelia Island’s split personalities mean there’s never a dull moment.
Reading about Amelia Island in some slick travel publications could give you the impression that the barrier isle on the Florida-Georgia border is a private refuge for the rich. “Luxury,” “first class” and “exclusive” pop up all the time in stories written about it. But the hype describes only part of the island. The southern part, to be exact. That’s where the high-end resorts The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island and The Omni Amelia Island Plantation are located. Stay at one of them and you would be hard-pressed to leave its grounds and travel seven miles to the northern end of the island. That’s where the island’s “historic,” “charming” and “affordable” part, Fernandina Beach, is located.
A seaport village of circa 1800s B&B’s and storefronts, downtown Fernandina Beach is an appealing contrast compared with its sophisticated, modern neighbors to the south. Together, though, they give visitors the best of both worlds—local ambience and privilege.
Amelia Island can indulge almost any interest, too, from history (founded in 1562, it is the only U.S. location to come under eight flags) to nature (the Atlantic on one side and an ecosystem of salt marshes on the other) to recreation (kayaking, sailing, golfing and fishing) to, well, indulgence (spa treatments and fine dining at The Ritz or Omni).
At more than three hours by car from Orlando, Amelia Island is at least a three-day getaway. But don’t be surprised if a long weekend ends with you feeling like you barely got to experience the island’s disparate trappings.
What to Do
Check in at Omni Amelia Island Plantation (omniameliaislandplantation.com) so you can play GOLF on any of its three picture-postcard beautiful courses — Long Point, Oak Marsh and Ocean Links (winter rates, $125-$150). The Ocean layout (left) features five oceanside holes, offering views of sunbathers and surf. For a SPA treatment, The Ritz-Carlton Spa’s (ritzcarlton.com/Amelia Island) Heaven in a Hammock (below; 60 minutes/$180) is as unique and soothing as it sounds. While gently swaying in a hand-crocheted cotton hammock set in a candlelit room, you’ll drift off to sleep as a massage therapist works her magic on your back, legs and shoulders. Learn about the ecosystem of the salt marshes on a three-hour KAYAK trip (above; $60) with guide Ray Hetchka, owner of Kayak Amelia (kayakamelia.com). Located in Talbot Islands State Park just below Amelia Island, Kayak Amelia also rents kayaks and canoes for independent paddles. Take in some SHOPPING in the boutiques that line Centre Street (below far left) in historic downtown Fernandina Beach. While there, stop for a BEER at The Palace Saloon (below left; thepalacesaloon.com), the oldest operating pub in Florida. Investigate the island’s HISTORY with visits to Fort Clinch (floridastateparks.org/fortclinch), a well-preserved 19th-century fortification on the island’s northern tip, and the Amelia Island Museum of History (ameliamuseum.org) in Fernandina Beach.
Where to Eat
Get a taste of Southern hospitality while eating breakfast or burgers off plastic plates bearing college football team logos at T-RAY’S BURGER STATION (above left; 202 S. 8th Street, Fernandina Beach, 904-261-6310). Owned by Ray Mullis, 72, and son T-Ray, 48, (above left) the diner is set in the Exxon station they once ran. Visitors have a hard time finding the restaurant because there is no “T-Ray’s” sign out front, only a small painting of a hamburger. Look for a gas station with a lot of trucks parked near it. The polar opposite of T-Ray’s is SALT, the swanky restaurant at The Ritz (ritzcarlton.com/AmeliaIsland). Dinner here is an adventure, with chef de cuisine Richard Laughlin leading you on it. His Chef’s Adventure Menu ($130 with wine pairings, $85 without) features four courses, including tuna carpaccio with heirloom beans, purple potatoes and quail eggs (above right), Florida pink prawns with Georgia grits, and steak and eggs served on a 250-million-year-old Himalayan salt block. If romance is the occasion, this is the place for it.
Where to Stay
Historic bed and breakfast, luxury resort, boutique inn or vacation home rental? You can have your pick here. Joining The Ritz and Omni resorts on the south end of the island is SUMMER BEACH RESORT (summerbeach.com), a luxury community with fully equipped beachfront rental properties ranging from condos to huge townhomes (below). Summer Beach also has a private golf club that guests can use. In Fernandina Beach, the FAIRBANKS HOUSE (fairbankshouse.com), a 12-room B&B built in 1885, and ELIZABETH POINTE LODGE (elizabethpointelodge.com), a 25-room, oceanfront boutique hotel, get high ratings on tripadvisor.com.
MARK THIS DATE: May 4-6, the 49th annual Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. Held on Fernandina Beach’s historic Centre Street, the event combines music, art and, of course, shrimp. The annual Pirate Parade is on May 3 at 6 p.m.