Amelia Island, nuzzling up to the Georgia border at the Atlantic coast, remains one of Florida's best-kept secrets. Settled since the Timucua Indians first arrived here a thousand years ago, no fewer than eight nations' flags have flown over Amelia since 1562, while the island’s central town of Fernandina Beach boasts an array of lovingly preserved Southern Victorian architecture. Combine that with 13 miles of pristine beaches and countless hectares of nature reserves, along with a thoroughly contemporary approach to some classic regional cuisine, and you’ll see what sets this gracious Southern Belle apart.
A one-of-a-kind island history
Most will be tempted to sink into the molasses rhythms of the island’s calm, but curious visitors might want to dive into the region’s rich history, from early settlements to the first droves of vacationers encouraged by Standard Oil founder Henry Flager. The Amelia Island Museum of History is Florida's first spoken-history museum. Permanent exhibits, including the fun-for-kids ‘Discovery Ship’ and ‘Timucuan Village’, introduce the island's intriguing history, while docent-led museum and walking tours are a great way to get your bearings first-hand. From the museum, it's a short drive to Fort Clinch State Park, one of the United States' best preserved Civil War fortifications: be sure to check the website schedule for frequent special events and re-enactments.
To experience some of Amelia Island’s past in real time, though, simply go for a stroll through Fernandina Beach's downtown, where well-preserved architecture and shops make for a living treasure trove of history. Tops on the historic establishments might be a stop for a drink at the ruggedly elegant, gaslamp-lit Palace (thepalacesaloon.com), which is Florida's first saloon and dates back beyond Prohibition to 1903. It was once a favorite of both ship captains and industrial heavyweights (including a few Rockefellers and Carnegies).
Embracing new food frontiers
You're in for a treat if your visit coincides with the annual Amelia Island Restaurant Week (restaurantweek.ameliaisland.com), when local restaurateurs flaunt their specialties with special set menus. Whatever the season, though, lovers of fresh produce, farm- and fish-to-table cuisine, fine dining and home-style Southern cooking will find something to love. For classic French cuisine in a chic bistro patio, try Le Clos. Opt for a unique take on seafood with the signature lobster corndogs at neo-Southern 29 South, or go all-in for some real old-school no-frills Southern diner action at T-Ray's Burger Station. The island's luxury resorts – the Omni Plantation Resort and Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island – each espouse a commitment to sustainability, sourcing local ingredients and fresh seafood for their drool-worthy restaurants. Omni's monthly "Sprouting Project" (omnihotels.com) al-fresco dinners are a wonderful chance for aspiring foodies to glimpse their potential.
Enchanting outdoors activities
If you do find yourself over-indulging on island fineries, there's no shortage of opportunities to get a little active amongst the area's natural bounty. Throughout much of the island, eco-tourism is the name of the game. Happy Trails Walking Horses (happytrailswalkers.com)(midway down the ocean side) and Kelly Seahorse Ranch (kellyranchinc.com)(tucked away at the southern tip of the island within Amelia Island State Park) both offer unforgettable guided horseback rides on pristine white sand beaches and along the island's network of forest trails. These same beaches are also a precious nesting site for a variety of endangered sea turtle species. If you're lucky, you might have the opportunity to witness this wonderful natural phenomena by helping out with some of the many conservation efforts overseen by the folks at Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch (ameliaislandseaturtlewatch.com). The island also has a vast network of salt marshes teeming with birdlife.
Yoga enthusiasts will find a unique experience in the island’s stand-up paddleboard yoga program, while bikers will find a diverse collection of paths to explore (in fact, Amelia Island has been voted one of Florida’s best places to bike). Cyclists can pedal beneath the romantic canopy of the island's unique maritime forest with its ancient oaks draped in luxurious Spanish moss, frolic around Amelia Island State Park (floridastateparks.org), or explore the unique Egan's Creek greenway, where it's likely you'll spot an alligator family. Don't fret, Amelia's timid gators aren't a bit like their distant cousins, the Australian Saltwater Crocodile.
A vibrant island arts scene
It's testament to the community's rich multicultural heritage and the vision of their forefathers that arts and culture are alive and kicking here. The island’s Artrageous Art Walk (islandart.org)where local galleries open their doors, is a monthly affair, while notable authors, hopefuls and fans converge every year for the Annual Book Festival. There's always something on at the Amelia Community Theatre (ameliacommunitytheatre.org) and Amelia Musical Playhouse (ameliamusicalplayhouse.com) from musicals to Off-Broadway dramas. But what is perhaps the island's most glamorous and exciting festival takes place each March during Amelia Concours Week (ameliaconcoursweek.com), when antique automobile aficionados from around the globe bring their priceless vintage specimens out for a spin in the Concours d’Elegance. Music lovers are in luck as well, as the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival (ameliaislandchambermusicfestival.com) regularly features talents like Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman.
A bed for every type
Accommodation on Amelia Island runs the gamut from primitive camping to sublime luxury. Let the sound of the ocean lull you to sleep beneath a carpet of stars at Fort Clinch State Park, popular with families and friends of planet Earth. For a cozier stay, visitors might take their pick from several beautifully restored, period B&Bs that draw on the island’s historic charm and modern hospitality. Addison and Fairbanks House are two of our favorites, especially if you like a little atmosphere and romance with your style and grace. If you're traveling on a budget, or with kids, Hampton Inn and Suites Historic Harbour Front and Residence Inn Amelia Island score points for location and value, but if it's the ultimate in pampering and amenities you seek, the aforementioned Omni Plantation Resort and five-star Ritz Carlton fit the bill. Both offer sumptuous rooms and suites, pools, exceptional dining and world-class day- spas, with Amelia Island-specific programming like Ritz’s weekend ‘Pirate Toast’ and beach bonfires.
The closest international airport to Amelia Island is Florida's Jacksonville (JAX) which is serviced by all major US Domestic carriers. It takes about 30 minutes to get from the airport to Fernandina Beach, taking the I-95 north to exit 373, from where it's about 15 miles east to the island. If you fancy some sightseeing en-route, head from the airport through Jacksonville Beach to the village of Mayport and catch the St. Johns River Ferry (www.stjohnsriverferry.com) to Fort George Island, onwards to Amelia Island.