A hopscotch sojourn among islands and history.
The area's natural lowlands
With around 850,000 residents, metropolitan Jacksonville is the most populous area in Florida. But travel just 30 miles east and you’re in the heart of the sprawling 46,000-acre Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve (nps.gov/timu). And as the city vanishes, nature arrives to escort you to Florida circa 1940.
SMOKEMOB/CC BY 3.0
Big Talbot Island's Blackrock Beach
Big Cypress Reservation
To travel back in time, start in Mayport on the banks of the St. Johns River. Bridging a gap in A1A, at $6 the St. Johns River Ferry (stjohnsriverferry.com) is a cheap thrill. Providing a 30-mile shortcut, this pleasant mini-cruise departs every half-hour for its mile-long crossing. Once on the opposite shore, turn north on A1A and watch for a sign that points the way to the historic Kingsley Plantation on the Fort George River (nps.gov/timu/learn/historyculture/kp.htm).
For miles the dirt road drifts through a jungle and although you’ll think you’re lost, stick with it and eventually you’ll reach a semicircle of 24 squat, whitewashed structures. These are the ruins of slave cabins whose residents toiled on what was once a 32,000-acre plantation. Tour the main home to learn how slaves were forced to produce indigo and cultivate Sea Island cotton, citrus, sugar cane, and corn.
Returning to A1A, several miles north is a collective of preserved areas known as the Talbot Islands State Parks. One of the state’s few undeveloped barrier islands is Little Talbot Island State Park (floridastateparks.org/park/little-talbot-island). Blessed with five miles of preserved shoreline, it also offers picnic pavilions, fishing, hiking, kayaking, and a wide bicycle path that stretches the distance of the park. A few miles north of Little Talbot Island, A1A spans Nassau Sound at the southern entrance to Amelia Island. On your left is a rare sight: A bridge and pier that’s also a Florida state park.
Ruins near the Kingsley Plantation
On any given day at the George Crady Fishing Pier State Park (floridastateparks.org/park/george-crady-bridge), dozens of anglers are rolling carts filled with fishing poles, tackle, food, radios, chairs, and umbrellas along the mile-long pedestrian bridge. After parking it at their favorite fishing spot, they drop a line and wait to hook up with whiting, jack, drum, and tarpon. Although upscale Fernandina Beach is only about 10 miles north, here on a bridge east of Jacksonville, everyone appears content with the simple life.
Aside from camping at a state park, lodging choices are limited. With that in mind, consider two accommodations on Amelia Island.
Elizabeth Pointe Lodge, a Nantucket-style boutique bed and breakfast, sits directly on the Atlantic (which may explain the rates). If you can swing it, the B&B has a range of rooms, suites, and guesthouses. elizabethpointelodge.com
At the entrance to the shopping village at Fernandina Beach, Hoyt House is a 1905 home with 10 spacious guest rooms, gardens, a swimming pool, and a hot tub. Refreshments, bicycles, and a complimentary breakfast are included. hoythouse.com
Near the south shore ferry landing in Mayport, Singleton’s Seafood Shack is the kind of rustic seafood restaurant travelers crave. Although the décor resembles a salvaged shipwreck and the food is average and served on foam plates, the place is a picture postcard from Florida’s past. 904-246-4442.
Across the river on the north shore, the Sandollar is comparably more refined. A restaurant and marina, there’s a large indoor dining area enhanced by a wraparound deck with tables overlooking the water. sandollarrestaurantjax.com
Just north of the fishing bridge, you’ll enter Amelia Island, an upscale destination known for its oceanfront Ritz-Carlton, Fort Clinch, bed and breakfasts, and the antique/boutique/restaurant-filled shopping district of Fernandina Beach’s Centre Street. And be sure to check out Florida’s oldest watering hole, the circa 1903 Palace Saloon. It’s a classic. For more variety, consider Amelia Island as a base for your exploration of Jax East. ameliaisland.com