Take an immersive nature vacation, no camper required.
Google Maps will advise you to take scenic A1A to Amelia Island whether you’re leaving from the Jacksonville airport or driving north from Boca Raton. I like to think this is not because it’s the fastest route but because the drive along the St. Johns River and over Nassau Sound showcases the glittering blue of the Atlantic, and the marshes and coves of Northernmost Florida the way they might have been a century ago.
Along this stretch of AIA near the Georgia border, towering live oaks dripping with Spanish moss emerge from a tangle of cabbage palms, slash pines and scrubby undergrowth. Glimpses of the St. Johns River peek between understated mansions, and the docks and shipyards along the way hint at Old Florida and the simpler days.
Amelia Island is 13 miles long, the southernmost of the Sea Island barrier islands from Florida to South Carolina. Wide, white sandy beaches and a dense tree canopy define the island, which is home to Amelia Island Plantation and the adjacent historic American Beach, founded as the “negro beach” in 1935, during the Jim Crow segregation days. The Plantation qualifies as a luxury resort, but the vibe is small-town southern, with a little pirate magic (nearby Fernandina was a stronghold back in the day) thrown in for good measure.
WHERE TO STAY
The Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort is all about vacation luxuries and beach views. The breezy lobby leads out to a multi-tiered pool deck with fire pits, hot tubs, lounges and the Oceanside restaurant. Led by Chef Daven Wardynski, Omni’s nine restaurants are driven by attention to detail and quality ingredients, with a barrel room (for everything from whiskey to pickling) and greenhouse on site. Omni also boasts two golf courses on the marsh, tennis courts, a spa and Segway tours of the property.
WHAT TO DO
The island is best enjoyed on the sand, or better yet—on the sand on a horse. Amelia Island Horseback Riding offers one-hour rides ($100 per person) along the beach, plus special sunrise and sunset outings that are every bit as dreamy and romantic as they sound.
Peters Point Road, Amelia Island; 904/753-1701; ameliaislandhorsebackriding.com
If you had to pay me in Amelia Island shrimp, I’d take them—they’re that good. On May 4-6, the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival serves up thousands of plump shrimp in all kinds of preparations. For a more upscale seafood experience, attend the fifth-annual Fish to Fork at the Omni (May 17-20), where regional chefs will cook fish fresh from the docks and compete for best dish.
For Fish to Fork, call 904/261-6161
With a lovely blend of salt marsh and open sea, kayak tours are necessary outings on the island. Kayak Amelia offers a variety of guided ecotours: a marsh tour through the arteries of the islands, a sandbar hop along the ocean, a sunset tour and more. They’re all $65 per adult and last about three hours.
WHERE TO GO
In downtown Fernandina Beach on the northern part of the island, walk along Centre Street and pop into quaint stores, with the zany among them being Pajama Life, a bedtime outfitter. Catch Pajama Dave chatting and sipping a drink at the bar next door—in his pajamas, naturally. The Palace Saloon is as historic as Pajama Dave is unusual. Opened in 1903, it only closed for Prohibition, and today folks can drink a cold one served by their friendly bartender, aka the mayor.
Pajama Life: 12 S. Second St., Fernandina Beach
Palace Saloon: 117 Centre St., Fernandina Beach
Local artist Casey Matthews suggests leaving Amelia and taking a trip to Cumberland Island, just off the coast of Georgia. Take the ferry over, and hike, bike or walk the beaches and trails and rest your head either in a tent or in the stately Greyfield Inn, originally built by the Carnegie family in 1890.
National Park Service, Cumberland Island: 912/882-4336
WHAT TO EAT
If the proximity to Georgia is giving you Southern feels, then stop at Fernandina’s Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen. Chef Kenney Gilbert of “Top Chef” fame infuses love and slow-cooked barbecue into his menu, loaded with dishes like alligator ribs, Anna’s mac and cheese, smoked brisket and more, all cooked with fresh and seasonal ingredients. This guy cooked for Oprah Winfrey, so, enough said. But beware; Gilbert’s is closed on Tuesdays and Sundays.
510 S. Eighth St., Fernandina Beach; 904/310-6374