Tiny Amelia Island, located on Florida’s northeast tip, boasts a long history and a laid-back atmosphere.
By Kathryn Lemmon
The flags of eight different countries have been raised over Amelia Island, Florida “” quite a claim for such a pint-sized place. Like real estate anywhere, the quest for ownership has to do with three words: location, location, location.
The island is slightly more than 13 miles long and sits off the northeastern top of the Florida peninsula, near Jacksonville. As the seagull flies, Georgia is close, only a half-mile away. With its moss-draped oaks, the island’s landscape looks a great deal like Georgia.
All manner of individuals have trod upon this strip of land. The earliest residents were Timucuan Indians, numbering approximately 30,000. By the early 1800s it was a raucous place, bustling with cutthroats, pirates, and smugglers. Ne’er-do-wells trading in slaves and rum prospered. Apparently not one to mince words, President James Monroe called the island a “festering fleshpot.”
In the late 1880s Amelia Island reached a different and more respectable sort of pinnacle. Its nickname, “the Newport of the South,” said it all.
However, the Iron Horse changed everything. The development of the Florida East Coast Railway in the 1890s began to open up the southern part of the state to tourists, taking them to the glamour and warmth of Palm Beach and Miami. Sun-seekers chugged past the island with hardly a notice, and Amelia was soon forgotten, left to develop at her own leisurely pace. Over the decades, buildings were repaired rather than remodeled or modernized, resulting in the preservation of many historic structures.
On the north end of the island is Fernandina Beach, Amelia’s only city. This 1880s fishing village is a showplace of elegant Victorian residences, shops, galleries, and museums. Homes here make would-be bed-and-breakfast owners swoon. The 50-block downtown area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In an effort to maintain the feel of the era, homes are preserved right down to the smallest details, often including the original colors. Numerous guided and self-guided walking tours of the historic area are available.
Those who fancy shrimp should travel to Amelia Island on the first weekend in May. Since 1964, the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival has been satisfying peoples’ appetites for this delicacy. The event features a boat parade; a rousing mock-pirate invasion; music; craft sales; the blessing of the fleet; and more. These folks really know shrimp and have creative ways to prepare it. Your taste buds will not regret it. The festival is the biggest event on the island, so make your plans early.
Fernandina Beach is a fitting location for the festival, since the area is considered the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry. Approximately 2 million pounds of shrimp are delivered to Fernandina docks each year. Imagine how many gallons of cocktail sauce that would require.
At Burbank Trawl Makers, known by locals as the Net House, workers still make shrimp nets the old-fashioned way “” by hand. The company’s high-quality nets are used around the globe. If you’d care to learn more, tours can be arranged through the Amelia Island Museum of History (noted below).
Make a point to visit Fort Clinch State Park, where history walks and talks. The park is named for General Duncan Lamont Clinch, an important figure in Florida’s Seminole Wars of the 1830s. The federal government started the fortification in 1847, and construction continued sporadically for years. Confederate troops briefly occupied the fort when the Civil War broke out in 1861 before it was retaken by the Union in 1862. The garrison operation was reduced following the Civil War and eventually ceased altogether. The state of Florida stepped in and purchased the neglected fort in 1935.
Today the fort is no longer desolate and abandoned, but filled with life. Park rangers clad in Union or Confederate uniforms are on hand to answer questions. Several times during the year, volunteers join the rangers in re-enacting life in 1864. The soldiers carry out their duties in the infirmary, the mess hall, the barracks, and the brig. Some claim this fort is haunted by a foursome of headless soldiers who have been seen patrolling the grounds, so keep an eye out.
Within the park you’ll find a fishing pier and a lovely stretch of beach perfect for swimming or beachcombing. Miles of hiking and bicycle trails are available as well. The park also boasts the only campground on Amelia Island, which has 62 sites with electrical hookups. Reservations are highly recommended.
Admission to Fort Clinch State Park is $5 per vehicle; and an extra $2 per person is charged for admission to the fort itself.
Amelia Island is historically significant for yet another reason “” it’s the first stop on Florida’s Black Heritage Trail. American Beach, located on Amelia Island’s southern end, is the first of 141 sites on the trail. The owner of the first insurance company to locate its headquarters in Florida, A.L. Lewis, founded American Beach during the 1930s. The beach was a resort for affluent African-Americans, and a popular destination during the age of segregation.
The island’s history is examined at a museum located in the restored Nassau County Jail, built around 1935, in Fernandina Beach. The Amelia Island Museum of History has many historical objects and finds. Guides offer the “8 Flags Tour” at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. daily. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for students; phone (904) 261-7378.
Intriguing though it may be, Amelia has more to offer than history. Golf and tennis are both major attractions. Some of the world’s top golf course architects (Pete Dye, Arnold Palmer, Tom Fazio) have incorporated the island’s natural features to create memorable holes. Careful blending of marshland, the Atlantic Ocean, dense vegetation, and rolling contours produce challenging links for even the most experienced golfer. Of the six courses on the island, Fernandina Beach is the only publicly owned course. The 1,350-acre Amelia Island Plantation boasts three golf courses and twice has been named a Silver Medal Golf Resort by Golf magazine.
Good weather lures tennis lovers to Amelia. Top tennis players compete in the Bausch & Lomb Championships, a women’s tour event played each April at Amelia Island Plantation. This year the event is scheduled for April 4 through 10. If you would rather play than observe, free public courts are located at the Atlantic Avenue Recreation Center. Courts also are available at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. Reservations are recommended.
What else can you do while on the island? For starters, dig your toes in the warm sand. The beach is an excellent reason to visit. Unlike other parts of Florida, the shores of Amelia Island are partially lined with sand dunes. Thanks to easterly breezes, seeds blow inland and take root around the coast. Eventually the vegetation becomes dense enough to hold the soil and form a line of sand dunes.
Most of the beach is easily accessed from Fletcher Avenue, which runs about two-thirds of the way down Amelia’s shoreline. The primary access points are Fort Clinch State Park, Main Beach, Peters Point, American Beach, and Amelia Island State Park.
Other popular outdoor activities are kayaking around Amelia and exploring the land by bike. Why not slow the pace and use pedal power for sight-seeing? You can rent a bike in downtown Fernandina Beach. It’s an easy ride down Atlantic Avenue to Fort Clinch State Park.
Fishing is another option, and it’s not limited to the summer months. Several marinas offer fishing boats for hire, piloted by expert captains who can find the best spots. Winter fishing can net red snapper and black sea bass. The spring fishing season usually gets under way with a big run of black drum, but you’ll need the proper equipment, as black drum often weigh more than 80 pounds.
If it’s always been your dream to go horseback riding on the beach, check out Kelly Seahorse Ranch (904-491-5166; www.kellyranchinc.com), one of the very few places on the entire coast that offers beachfront riding. All experience levels are welcome, and rides go out four times daily.
Now you know about the island, but who was Amelia? She was Princess Amelia of England, daughter of King George II, born in 1710 or 1711, depending on your source. Said to be especially beautiful, Amelia never married. But upon her death in 1786, a locket was found close to her heart. Inside was a photo of her cousin Fredrick. She had promised her love to him, but, alas, he married another.
Amelia Island-Fernandina Beach-Yulee Chamber of Commerce
961687 Gateway Blvd., 101G
Amelia Island, FL 32034
Other useful Web sites:
Amelia Island’s Campground
Fort Clinch State Park
2601 Atlantic Ave.
Fernandina Beach, FL 32034