Approached from the south on A1A, Amelia Island unfurls as a part of Talbot Island State Park with stunning views of the Atlantic framed by maritime hardwood, pine forest and salt marshes. The highway, dappled by sun and shadow from enormous oaks, gives way here and there to narrow roads leading to the beach. Plush resorts whiz by, followed by winter homes and then, the quirky and lovely town of Fernandina Beach.
At the northern tip of the island is Fort Clinch, one the oldest military forts in the country which also happens to be a wildlife preserve with miles of undeveloped shoreline and hiking trails. The island’s 13 miles of coastline pack in an unbelievable amount of recreational possibilities.
Amelia’s rich past includes pirates, soldiers and real-estate barons. Timucuan Indians were the island’s first residents, but over the last 400 years, Amelia has been fought over by nearly all of the colonial powers, earning the name “Isle of Eight Flags.”
“We are the only community in America to have flown eight different flags,” says Gil Langley, president of the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. Because of its contentious history, Amelia Island retains a mix of cultural influences in its architecture, development and seagoing ports.
In 1562, French explorer Jean Ribault became the first recorded European visitor. From that time on, it became a strategic port for importing and exporting goods to the New World. As one can imagine, the rich good coming and going from the port were very attractive to smugglers and pirates who took advantage of the island’s constant warring for control.
The United States finally captured Amelia Island on Dec. 23, 1817. One of the island’s most popular historical sites is Fort Clinch, one of the most well preserved Civil War forts in the country. According to Florida State Parks, the building of the fort began in 1847 at the mouth of the St. Mary’s River to protect the port of Fernandina, which happened to be the eastern link of Florida’s only cross-state railroad. Fort Clinch never saw a battle, but was armed by garrisons until 1898, when the Army briefly used it during the Spanish American War. Today, visitors can see how the fort may have looked in 1864.
Since then, the region has morphed from a commerce center based around the fishing and military industry to a major tourism destination. In fact, it was home to one of the first black tourism spots at American Beach where well-to-do African-Americans bought summer homes or came to vacation. Today, the beach is popular for all. American Beach is the first stop on the Florida Black Heritage Trail and can be entered through Burney Park.
The town of Fernandina brims with old-world charm and boasts a colorful past. One of the best ways for visitors to explore the city and learn about the area’s Victorian architecture is by a horse-drawn carriage ride through the historic district. After clip-clopping through town, step back in time with an old-fashioned cocktail at the Palace Saloon, arguably the oldest bar in Florida. The handsome, two-story brick building first opened as a boot store in 1878 and by 1903 was converted into a bar. Local lore says Fernandina, a major shipping port at the time, was overrun by bawdy sailors looking for wine and women between deployments. The Palace was created as an elegant alternative, hoping to lure ship captains, officers and yachtsmen. A glass of beer cost 5 cents and a bottle of whisky cost $1.25. Today, it still has its pretty tile mosaic floor, embossed-tin ceiling and an elegant mahogany and oak bar—but you’ll have to pay a bit more than a nickel for a beer.
Another way to get familiar with Amelia’s fascinating past is at the Amelia Island Museum of History, the state’s first spoken-history museum, which offers a docent-led tour at 11 am and 2 pm daily. Custom docent-led tours include ghost tours, Centre Street tours and private tours by request.
As one would expect in an island town, most activities take place on or near the water. One of Amelia’s most iconic must-dos is horseback riding on the beach. Kelly Seahorse Ranch and Amelia Island Kayak Excursions, endorsed by the Florida Park Service, provides expert guides who lead you and your trusty steeds from their private beach access to the wilds of Amelia Island State Park. Even if you’ve never been on a saddle, the well-trained, gentle horses are suitable for novices. While on your ride, you’re likely to see a host of seabirds, dolphins and, of course, sun-dappled waves lapping the sandy shore. While ocean is the first thing on many travelers’ minds when they think of Amelia Island, the vast marshland to the west has endless peaceful creeks to paddle. “Time seems to stand still while taking in the natural via kayak,” says Kim Bullington, who with her husband Mark owns. “It is wonderful to peacefully glide on Amelia’s waterways to get the perspective of its flora and fauna that few are fortunate to see.”
If you enjoy your nature tamed, a great way to enjoy the island’s beauty is with a round of golf. Ocean Links at the Omni was named one of the top courses for women by Golf Digest. The Bobby Weed course is famous for spectacular ocean views and scenic dunes, but the ideal layout and tee settings make for a fun round of golf for all.
The beach scenes on Amelia are as diverse as they come. Love it or loathe it, beach driving is allowed at many beaches, but require a locally issued permit. American, Amelia Island State Park, Peter’s Point and Seaside Park all allow drive-up access to the beach. Main Beach Park is one of the quickest beaches to access from Fernandina’s historic district. The family-friendly beach allows vehicles on the sand. Near the main parking lot is a playground and simple putt-putt course. Bars and restaurants also line this area, so a beer and a bite are easy to come by. If you prefer a piece of island with no motor vehicles, Fort Clinch is a terrific option.
The state park is keen on preserving the natural dunes and beach fauna as well as its tie to history at the old 19th-century military fort. Bike paths, hiking and camping—or simply throwing down a beach towel—are all attractions.