What can you say about a picturesque seaside town that celebrates its scandalous past with pride and boasts a mayor who tends bar? The city of Fernandina Beach on Florida’s Amelia Island has a cheeky sense of humor to complement the island’s natural beauty.
Amelia Island, the southernmost barrier island of the Sea Island chain, was a Native American settlement of the Timucuan tribe. In 1562, the first European settlers arrived, and the island began its raucous journey as the only place in America where eight successive flags were flown: French, Spanish, British, Patriots, Green Cross, Mexican Rebel, Confederate, and America’s Old Glory. Amelia Island’s waters are still home to sunken Spanish galleons, buried gold doubloons, and treasures lost at sea, as Blackbeard and his ilk plundered sailing ships off the coast.
Throughout its storied history, Amelia Island’s natural wonders have remained constant and provide a welcome retreat for visitors during any time of year. Begin the relaxing journey at the top of Centre Street, next to the huge carved wooden statue of the legendary pirate Peg Leg Pete, in the restored former railroad depot that is the Fernandina Beach Welcome Center. Here, modern touchscreen technology and a helpful staff clue vacationers in on the hundreds of year-round activities, special cultural events, excursions, and ways to enjoy nature’s splendor.
The 50-block historic district with Centre Street at its core is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, so a leisurely walk is the perfect way to see sprawling Live Oak trees, well-preserved Victorian homes, renovated shops, and restaurants, as well as six unique, turn-of-the-century bed and breakfasts.
Fernandina Beach offers a nostalgic dose of Old Florida with its easy-going attitude, coupled with standout culinary offerings. Wander around to discover courts for the ancient French sport of pétanque, a year-round farmers’ market held on Saturdays, sophisticated home décor at Hudson & Perry, and plenty of stylish resort wear for men and women at boutiques like Pearl, Lori & Lulu, and JJ Cooper.
Much of the island lends itself to the healthful benefits of being near the water. Choose from kayaking, camping, stand-up paddle boarding, jet-skiing, sunset river-cruising, fishing, horseback-riding on the sand, sailing, beachcombing, and bird-watching along the 13 miles of pristine quartz sand. One million dollars a year is allotted to beach renourishment to avoid sand erosion of the island, where the environmentally conscious rule “leave no trace” is strictly enforced. A short boat trip over to Cumberland Island, Georgia, is a must to see the 160 feral horses that exist completely alone in nature and are never touched, but are counted once a year by volunteers from all across the country.
Amelia Island’s food scene is bright with an eclectic, local bent. The top-rated Ritz-Carlton has an excellent dining option in Salt, where more than 40 salts from around the world are used to add flavor to the cuisine. The Omni Plantation Resort offers The Sprouting Project dinners, harvesting items from their aquaponic greenhouse, organic garden, and apiary. Veterans of these kitchens have branched out to open eateries all over town, so there’s a true camaraderie amongst chefs. Notable restaurants are Lagniappe, where French Creole culture and the flavors of New Orleans, Charleston, and Savannah meld creatively, and Joe’s 2nd Street Bistro where chef/owner Ricky Pigg serves up an impeccable seafood bouillabaisse. Try the casual Salty Pelican for conch fritters and a relaxing view overlooking the marshes, or the kitschy Surf Restaurant and Beach Motel for freshly caught grilled shrimp tacos.
Leave room in the luggage for a bottle of Bearing Vanilla Bean Espresso Rum from Marlin & Barrel. The distillery uses no artificial ingredients in their handmade, hand-bottled vodkas, whiskeys, rums, gins, orangecello, and grapefruitcello that they make on-site. Grab a late-night drink at the Palace Saloon, the oldest and longest-running bar in Florida, where the mayor bartends, or swing by The Decantery, the town’s gorgeous premier wine, craft beer, and cocktail lounge known for indulgent desserts. Afterwards, go for a stroll amidst twinkling lights illuminating the trees or opt for a nighttime horse-and-carriage ride to provide a romantic finale.
For couples or a solo weekend getaway, Amelia Island entertains everyone effortlessly year-round.
Eat in the patio garden under the shade trees. Devour chili prawns or dine on filet mignon.
Joe’s 2nd Street Bistro
A superb wine selection with creative lamb, seafood, beef, and duck entrées.
Brunch to late-night, Creole specialties in a sophisticated, modern environment.
Quaint small bistro, wine bar, and crêperie.
Fort Clinch State Park
Immerse yourself in this maritime forest, or tour the well-preserved nineteenth-century fort. The 1,400-acre park features beach and woodland campsites.
Eco-tours by kayak, paddleboard, or bike.
Maritime Museum of Amelia Island
Discover the island’s pirate past.
Ritz-Carlton and The Omni Amelia Island Plantation
The Ritz-Carlton and The Omni Amelia Island Plantation offer luxury resort experiences with full spa services.
The Fairbanks House
This 1885 Italianate villa in historic Fernandina Beach promises a dedacent gourmet breakfast each morning.
Seaside Amelia Inn
Beachfront boutique hotel with scenic rooftop.