When most people consider an island vacation, they are probably thinking of a destination in the Caribbean or even Hawaii. However, the Southeast United States is lined with literally hundreds of islands, each with their own unique personalities. You’ve probably seen the three-letter abbreviations for some of these vacation spots in white oval stickers on the back of the SUV in front of you in traffic, but do you really know which one is which? There are so many of them that it’s easy to forget whether Marco Island is on the east coast of Florida or the west. Which islands only allow foot traffic or golf carts to get around? Is Sea Island the same thing as St. Simons? Do the Outer Banks count as islands?
Follow this series for the answers to these and many other questions while we take a tour of island destinations from the white sands of Dauphin Island in Alabama to the historic beach at Kitty Hawk where the Wright brothers took their famous first flights. Hopefully, you might even find a new favorite vacation destination!
Florida’s First Coast is the region in the northeast corner of the state that stretches north from Jacksonville to the Georgia state line. Its name comes from the fact that the area was the first part of the state colonized by European settlers in the early part of the 16th century. There are still remnants of colonial and antebellum history scattered all over the region, particularly in the coastal areas. While Jacksonville is a vibrant city full of entertainment and dining opportunities, for the purposes of this survey, the best part about it is that the airport is just a short 40-minute drive to the idyllic beaches of Amelia Island and the quaint little town of Fernandina Beach. Picking a favorite airport can be like choosing a dentist, but JAX is definitely one of the lesser of many evils with a small, efficient terminal with easy access to gates and quick rental car processing. It shouldn’t take too long to leave it in your rear-view mirror and point your rental north toward paradise!
When you cross the bridge over the Amelia River onto the island, expect to feel your cares float out the window as you find yourself immersed in a world of opportunities. From luxury resorts to funky little seafood shacks and placid beaches boasting beautiful sunrises, Amelia Island is a place full of history, character and characters. (In addition to embracing the island’s historic pirate culture, the citizens have actually elected a bartender at the oldest saloon in Florida as their mayor.)
Your lodging choices on the island are diverse. Many visitors opt to stay at either of two luxury resorts that occupy much of the southern end of Amelia. Both the Omni Amelia Island Plantation and the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island promise the sort of pampering that epitomizes their respective companies’ brands. Gorgeous hotel rooms are filled with high-end amenities, multiple restaurants on property serve fine dining prepared by talented chefs, and large spas feature treatments from massages to facials to yoga classes. Golfers can enjoy courses at both resorts, part of 99 holes that you can play on the island. It would be easy to spend a week in either resort without ever having to leave the compound, but that would be a shame since you’d miss out on a lot of the charm of Amelia Island.
A more affordable option is the Seaside Amelia Inn, a beachfront hotel with all the comforts of home. The 46-room boutique property is located adjacent to a pleasant little park where tourists and locals gather each morning to witness one of the first sunrises on the continent. Bring a towel to sit on since the numerous benches stretching up and down the waterfront can be a little damp from the morning dew, but it’s definitely worth the inconvenience.
For an even more personal experience, check out one of the members of the Amelia Island Bed & Breakfast Association, a collection of distinctive retreats located in historic houses within walking distance of downtown Fernandina Beach. Particularly charming is Fairbanks House, a romantic property run by innkeepers Bill and Theresa Hamilton. The couple invites all their guests to dine on gourmet breakfasts each morning and gather together for a social hour in their salon each evening. They also specialize in elopement trips, offering a package that includes lodging, photos, wedding cake and champagne in your room, a dinner reservation at a local restaurant and a carriage tour of the neighborhood after the ceremony. Their home is a beautiful 1885 Italianate villa with a selection of large rooms, suites and cottages offered at attractive prices. There’s also an in-ground pool if you don’t feel like hitting the beach.
The location near the quaint downtown Fernandina Beach is another bonus because you’ll want to spend plenty of time wandering the wide streets to visit the shops, museums, restaurants and taverns. A good first stop is the Amelia Island Welcome Center, located right on the riverfront in a converted train depot. Inside, you’ll find a knowledgeable and helpful staff who will gladly help you plan your time on the island and offer maps to help you find your way.
Drinking and dining options abound in Fernandina. 29 South serves seasonal, sustainable fare in a cozy little cottage right in the middle of downtown. Close by is Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen, the first restaurant of “Top Chef” season 7 contestant Kenny Gilbert, where he serves up diverse international dishes with Southern twists. The Salty Pelican has great views of the Amelia River, especially if you take advantage of the upstairs patio, which is open to the salt air. Cold beers and fresh seafood are the specialties of the house.
Timoti’s Seafood Shak downplays itself with its casual name. While the vibe is laid-back, their approach to fresh seafood cookery is completely professional, and the restaurant has quickly become a local favorite. Cafe Karibo also specializes in seafood, which is no surprise considering that the seas off of Amelia are teeming with delicious fish and shellfish. Eat outdoors under the cover of towering oak trees for a delightful dining experience. You might not expect French bistro fare in Fernandina Beach, but The Patio Place is full of surprises. The owner found herself bitten by the bistro bug during a trip to France and dedicated herself to the art of creating both sweet and savory crêpes. The menu at her fun little crêperie offers a selection of galettes and sweet treats along with a menu of beer and wine to complement your meal. If you’re not looking for something buzzy to drink, the chef prepares a special infused water every day made with fresh fruits and herbs.
If you visit the south end of the island for dinner, consider Lagniappe, a chef-driven restaurant that features influences from Southern culinary centers like Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans. There’s also a little retail area at the front of the dining room offering some of the same artisan ingredients used in the kitchen.
For a nightcap after dinner and a stroll around downtown, check out The Decantery, a wine and cocktail bar serving up craft cocktails and wine by the glass from high-tech vending machines where you can swipe a card to order a taste or an entire glass.
If you want to meet the mayor, drop in at The Palace Saloon, the aforementioned historic tavern where hizzoner holds court. Operating since 1903, The Palace was supposedly the last drinking establishment to close at the dawn of Prohibition, and they managed to survive the dry spell by selling ice cream and cigars, and perhaps even a little homemade hooch under the table. Today, it’s a popular gathering spot for locals for a drink after work or a game of pool in the back room.
For spirits at the source, drop into Marlin & Barrel, the island’s resident distillery. Try a tasting of some of their specialty liquors ranging from vodka to rum to gin to fruity orangecello and grapefruitcello. They also offer occasional tours during the week, or you can always just watch the goings-on through the large window between the tasting room and production facility.
While the nightlife and luxury accommodations on Amelia Island attract many visitors, what really sets the First Coast apart is the vast expanse of natural areas protected under both state and national parks systems. Fort Clinch is a remarkably well-preserved Civil War fort that was constructed to protect the mouth of the Amelia River on the north shore of the island from invaders by sea. (Perhaps the reason why it’s so well-kept is that nobody actually ever tried to invade from that direction.)
Visitors can tour multiple buildings and a museum at the site, and docents in historically accurate costumes will share what everyday life was like in the fort. There’s also a public beach steps from the front of the fort where you can enjoy the view, fish from the shore or comb the sand for prehistoric fossilized shark’s teeth. A large state park around the fort is a popular locale for camping as well.
Looking north from Fort Clinch, you’re actually gazing into Georgia and the famous Cumberland Island. Almost uninhabited except for one high-end resort, Cumberland Island is home to a herd of wild horses who have the run of the land, untouched by humans. Take an excursion with Amelia Adventures from the main harbor at Fernandina Beach for an entertaining and educational boat tour that will take you over to Cumberland Island for views of the horses and possibly dolphins along the way.
Cumberland was developed as a massive compound for the wealthy Carnegie family, and you can still see the ruins of their Dungeness mansion from your boat tour.
For a more active tour, sign up with Kayak Amelia for a paddle through the marshes and estuaries where you’ll discover all sorts of wildlife including exotic birds and maybe even a manatee.
Guides give historical and nature tours that can include a visit to Kingsley Plantation, home to the oldest plantation mansion still standing in the state. Educational markers teach about plantation life, and ruins of the former slave quarters constructed out of a native oyster-based concrete called “tabby” are worth a walk to the rear of the property.
For a relaxing vacation or an active natural tour, Amelia Island and the First Coast offer a host of opportunities. Blessed with a temperate climate and a casual laid-back island vibe, there’s no question why Condé Nast Traveler readers consistently rank Amelia among their favorite islands to visit and that it’s become a popular retirement destination. Visit the island’s official website for even more information about planning your own perfect vacation.
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