There’s a good reason why Conde Nast Traveler magazine readers regularly name Amelia Island as one of their favorite vacation destinations. In fact, there are a lot of great reasons. Less than an hour drive from the Jacksonville airport along Florida’s “First Coast,” Amelia Island is an easily-accessible spot that offers a wide range of opportunities from luxury resorts to natural parks to historic neighborhoods to down-home funky local bars and restaurants. Add in a very pleasant climate including an apparent hurricane shield (please don’t let me jinx it!), and it’s easy to see why tourists are visiting in droves and retirees are choosing Amelia Island as their new forever home.
The luxury resorts dominate the southern half of the island in the form of the posh Omni Amelia Island Plantation and the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, the latter of which literally epitomizes the term “ritzy.” These two massive properties offer all the high-end amenities and gourmet dining opportunities that a traveler could ask for, although other nearby restaurants like Lagniappe attempt to lure resort guests away for a meal or two during their stays by offering a clever menu of Creole and elevated Southern food. Golfers also enjoy staying at the Omni and the Ritz for the easy access to most of the 99 available golf holes on the island.
For a more economical, but still entertaining vacation, consider the central section of Amelia Island. Situated around Fernandina Beach, the only incorporated town on the island, this region offers all sorts of great lodging options. The historic district of town is spotted with lovely Victorian homes, some of which are available for rent through the Amelia Island Bed & Breakfast Association of charming properties all within walking distance of downtown. Fairbanks House is a personal favorite of many travelers thanks to convivial owner/hosts and a nightly social hour in the mansion’s parlor. Each room is unique and well-appointed, but none of them will break the bank.
Amelia Island is bordered by the Amelia River on the west and the Atlantic on the east. This means you can enjoy some of the first sunrises in the continental US if you stay at the Seaside Amelia Inn right on the beach across the narrow island from Fernandina. The sunset views over the river marsh are beautiful as well, so you can catch the colors twice a day if that’s your preference. The Salty Pelican Bar & Grill and Brett’s Waterway Cafe are both excellent casual hangouts to enjoy some of the area’s famous shrimp dishes and a cold beverage while you watch the sun dip behind the marsh grass.
Brett’s is also located on the marina where excursion tours leave to carry visitors on boat and kayak trips to explore the flora and fauna of nearby marshes, the famed wild horses of Cumberland Island just across the river in Georgia and even the quirky local home that served as the backdrop for the “Pippi Longstocking” movie remake back in the late ‘80’s.
You can certainly spend your days during an Amelia Island vacation lounging on the wide beaches covered with soft sand or looking for seashells and prehistoric sharks’ teeth, but carve out a little time to discover the island’s historical locales. Civil War buffs will love Fort Clinch, a well-preserved bastion built to provide cover to the river channel thanks to cannons pointed in many directions. Most of the original buildings have been restored, and a small museum and costumed docents are great ways to discover what 19th century military life was like in the southernmost state.
You can certainly stop by the Amelia Island Welcome Center to get some assistance from the helpful staff to plan your itinerary or just grab one of their walking maps and wing it. Downtown Fernandina Beach is filled with charming little shops and pubs, and the area’s history as a hotbed of pirates means you might even encounter a buccaneer walking along the sidewalk with you.
Combine history with entertainment by visiting The Palace Saloon, the oldest operating bar in the entire state. (And that’s saying something if you’ve ever seen the Flora-bama!) The Palace is a popular nexus for locals and tourists, which makes a lot of sense when you realize that one of the bartenders is the mayor of the town. Another quirky tavern across the street is worth sticking your head into, just to meet the proprietor. Pajama Dave’s Beer and Wine Garden is owned and operated by a guy named Dave who, you guessed it, only wears his pajamas all day, every day. He has parlayed his schtick into a lifestyle brand called Pajama Life with a little shop adjacent to his comfy beer garden.
For fancier food and drink, check out downtown restaurants, especially for seafood. 29 South, Timoti’s Seafood Shak and Cafe Karibo are all excellent choices for fish dishes or anything made with the shrimp that the local fleet brings home in their trawl nets. If steak is what you’re seeking, drop in at Baxter’s for a great piece of meat served in a comfortable, neighborhood vibe.
For a nightcap with the possibility of hearing some great live music, Green Turtle Tavern is the spot! The casual bar boasts a Key West vibe with local bands playing on the rough-hewn porch, cheap beers and well-crafted cocktails that don’t carry big city prices. In fact, the Green Turtle is a nice microcosm of the entire Amelia Island experience, affordable, fun, laid-back and encouraging interaction between locals and visitors. It seems like the whole island is on an eternal happy hour, so you’d better show up ready to have fun!