AMELIA ISLAND — 400 Years and 8 Flags
Warren Resen – Travel Writer, North American Travel Writers Association
Florida’s AMELIA ISLAND, at 13 miles long and 2 miles wide, is approximately the same size as the Island of Manhattan. Over the course of its 400 years of modern history, Amelia Island has had eight different flags flown over it, some multiple times, as the major powers gained and lost their ascendency over the land.
In order of appearance, the flags were those of France, Spain, England, the United States, and the Confederacy. The other flags, the Patriots, Green Cross of Florida, and the Mexican Rebel Flag, were flown by patriots and pirates for periods as brief as one day. Amelia Island holds the record for being under more flags than any other place else in the United States.
On the Atlantic Ocean just north of Jacksonville, Amelia Island offered one of the East’s largest and deepest inlets making it an important port for commerce. The northernmost point of the island is the site of Ft. Clinch. Construction of this fort, facing Cumberland Island, Georgia, was begun by the South and completed by the North but never saw a shot fired in anger. Today the fort is a major tourist attraction.
In the past, the island had a cross state railway connecting it to Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast and boasted the largest shrimp fleet in the country. But time passed, things changed and Amelia Island was largely ignored, which was in a way a blessing, saving the island from massive development and preserving the island’s historic past and miles of pristine beaches.
Travelers consistently rank Amelia Island among the top island getaways in North America. The island has been listed in the “Top 10 North American islands, by Conde Nast Travelers Readers Choice Award for seven consecutive years and a Top 25 Island in the World in 2013.
Geographically, Amelia Island is divided by an invisible line. The south end is home to affluent retirement and second home communities and luxurious hotels reminiscent of Longboat Key, east of Sarasota. It is the Fernandina Beach area on the island’s northern end that is the draw for visitors.
The northern end is where miles of accessible, wide, pristine Atlantic Ocean beaches are. It is where the hotels and motels offer moderately priced accommodations and easy access to family friendly beaches. This is where you will find those wonderfully tacky beach gift shops and fast food restaurants
We stayed at the Amelia Hotel At The Beach, on A1A directly across from one of the island’s public beaches. Our room was large, clean and included all of the amenities you would expect without being charged extra. A generous breakfast buffet with hot and cold food choices is included daily and a special treat was being able to see a beautiful sunrise over the ocean.
Downtown Fernandina Beach is the magnet that draws visitors with its 50-block historic district. Many original structures dating back to the late 19th century showcasing Victorian-style mansions and cottages, reminiscent of the better sections of Key West, offer a wonderful background for one-of-a-kind photos.
Center Street is the heart of the Historic District with shops, restaurants, and historic buildings radiating off in all directions showcased on quaint narrow streets. Here, the wares of merchants and restaurants run the gamut of offerings and prices. Visitors will find something to their liking within their budgets. Everything is basically within walking distance and there is no charge for parking.
A must visit is the Amelia Island Museum of History located at 233 South 3rd St. Housed in the former Nassau County Jail building, it has a wealth of information from the days of the Native American Timucuans through the centuries of exploration, occupation and colonization. All eight flags are on display including the Confederate “Stars and Bars” which will confuse many since it bears no resemblance to the one we see today flying on the back of pick-up trucks. The museum has two excellent narrated tours daily.
We stopped for lunch at the nearby Happy Tomato Courtyard Café & BBQ on South 7th Street, a delightful open air restaurant with a varied menu and reasonably priced offerings. Its owner, Richard Bolton, did his apprenticeship at the Amelia Island Ritz before opening his own restaurant about 7 or 8 years ago. Vegetarians will be pleased with many of the selections.
Being an island surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Intracoastal Waterway, Amelia River, and marshes, Amelia Island offers practically any water oriented activity in which you might be interested. But there is one that bears particular note. It is the Amelia River Cruises.
Leaving from the docks of Fernandina’s historic downtown area, a narrated tour on one of Amelia River Cruise boats takes you as far as the mouth of Cumberland Sound and Ft. Clinch before returning by way of the shore of Cumberland Island Georgia and a detailed narration of the Carnegie Family’s (Carnegie Steel) reign over this island is offered. An exciting bonus is the sighting of the wild horses that roam the island. You also get a peek at the exterior of the super secret nuclear submarine base of Kings Bay on the Georgia mainland.
Sunset is a special time on the island. Visitors gravitate to the downtown waterfront to hang out on the docks or visit one of the restaurants for drinks and or dinner and a sunset experience.
From watching a sunrise to the east over the ocean to enjoying a sunset over the rivers and marshes to the west on the same day was only a 2 mile drive from our hotel. We had our sunset viewing experience while having dinner and drinks at The Salty Pelican Bar & Grill overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway.
It’s a two story building with a family friendly restaurant on the first floor and a totally open, west facing, sit-down bar on the second floor. As for a dress code…there isn’t any. This is Florida and The Salty Pelican is a meeting place for locals and visitors.
Two days on the island did not give us enough time to capture all of the highlights. We had no time to tour the Amelia Island Lighthouse, the oldest continuously operating light house in Florida, first lit in 1839. Then there are numerous B&B’s and Inns in Fernandina’s Historic District. One of them, Florida House, is reportedly the state’s oldest hotel. A short two blocks from the oldest hotel is the Palace Saloon which is billed as the state’s oldest continuously operating bar. It’s an interesting part of Florida history but smoking is allowed in the bar, which is obvious as soon as you enter. It made for a very short visit for me for me, a former smoker.
Amelia Island is a special place and an affordable destination for families. This was a low key trip and we did not take in high end expensive venues like hotels or restaurants, of which there are many.
So, do your own research by going to AMELIAISLAND.COM and discover all the island has to offer. Then pick out those opportunities that fit your life style like hiking, fishing horseback riding or even taking a tour on a Segway.