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Travelogue: Amelia Island, Florida

Described as a southern jewel in the Atlantic Ocean chain of Sea Islands, Amelia Island has 13 miles of dune protected beaches, 17 golf courses, maritime forests and marshlands, and, er pirates.

Named for Princess Amelia, daughter of George II of Great Britain, the island has changed hands between colonial powers a number of times. It claims that the French, Spanish, British, Patriot, Green Cross, Mexican, Confederate, and United States flag have all flown over it at some point.

Long before all of that the Timucua people lived on what they called Napoyca. They lived quite happily for centuries until they finally disappeared under constant warfare from the English colonists and native allies after the turn of the 19th century.

Europeans had first settled here in the 1500’s, and by the early 1800’s it had become what President James Monroe called a “festering fleshpot” filled with pirates, smugglers and illegal slave traders.

A more illicit golden age of Amelia Island is considered to be between 1870 to 1910, when wealthy Americans made the Island their home and built elegant Victorian style houses with gabled roofs and elaborate verandas that still look amazing to this day. This time also coincided with the shipping industry boom and the flight of New Yorkers coming to the south by steam van to enjoy the warm community and genteel disposition of the locals.

imageAmelia Island’s 13 miles of beachfront are dotted with parks and beach access points and one of the favourite things to do is ride a horse up and down the waters edge.

Our daughter wasn’t old enough, so we took the more lazy option and booked a horse drawn carriage trip around historic Fernandina Beach, which took about 50 minutes and was interesting, although our guide appeared a little unsure of her facts and figures.

The collection of streets known as the Silk Stocking District had some beautifully restored homes on it. Fernandina Beach drew us back on a couple of occasions, very walkable and a cross between a rustic fishing village and an elegant historic town.

The waterfront is famous for it’s annual Shrimp Festival, which took place over the first weekend in May. There is shrimp, music, kids rides, shrimp, more shrimp, cooking demonstrations, pirates, and a Miss Shrimp pageant. Of course.

Also on the waterfront is a marina, a badly placed in hindsight railway terminal and two paper mills. Not the prettiest of coastlines I have visited I have to admit.

imageCentre Street (spelt the English way) branches up from the water and dissects the town and contains lots of cutesy shops selling normal tourist fair, there’s pirates there too, and a couple of nice looking restaurants and a dreamlike fudge and ice cream shop.

Those seeking some culture can find solace in the Amelia Island Museum of History, Lesesne House, one of the town’s oldest and most beautiful homes and the historic two story red brick Court House.

The highlight of the weekend for us was the boat cruise we took out onto the myriad of rivers that cover the border of Florida and Georgia.

We bought advance tickets for a morning charter that was packed. Our captain was excellent and as we pulled out of Fernandina Beach, the whiff of the paper mills was a little off putting, but we soon left that behind and passed by Fernandina’s collection of shrimp boats (below), the historic Old Towne and the state park named for Fort Clinch.

As we wound our way out onto the St Marys River the narration turned to the river’s wildlife such as turtles, manatees and seabirds. In winter pregnant female whales head south from feeding grounds off Canada and New England to give birth and nurse their calves in warmer coastal waters right here in this area of Amelia Island.

imageAs we crossed the state line into Georgia, we then reached Cumberland Island and what had originally turned us onto the river cruise in the first place. There are few places in the world where wild horses roam across secluded golden sands, but Cumberland Island, only reachable by boat, is a scenic wildlife habitat measuring about 17.5 miles long by 3 miles wide and only accessible by boat.

A protected island, Cumberland is home to only a smattering of island dwellers that have lived on this spartan atoll for many generations. There is restricted daily access with a maximum of 300 people a day allowed on the island

Other than the odd human, and many feral horses that subsist on the island’s natural bounty, other residents include marsh rabbits, alligators, snakes, nesting sea turtles, deer, bob cats, raccoons, armadillos, feral hogs and wild turkeys.

It was a great sight as our boat slowly moved up the shore with us all looking out across the sands to hopefully catch one of the horses, and sure enough in the distance we saw two chasing each other between the forests and then as we got to the dock a mare and an unsteady looking foal were sat in the sun looking out at us as we approached.

imageOn our way back to the Fernandina Beach Marina, of interest to us was the captain pointing out where the Somers Isles container ship begins it’s continual ten day round trip to Bermuda bringing a range of consumer goods, foodstuffs and other essentials to our island. Almost everything consumed and used here is imported.

The ocean crossing is 800 nautical miles and takes three and a half days each way. The service started in 1985 and the current vessel is the 5th that has been in service.

Elsewhere in Amelia Island we had a couple of fun hours at the Island Falls mini golf club and decided against the Jacksonville Zoo because it was too far away.

I was also intrigued by the pirate connection, because literally everywhere you looked one would be poking his sword out at you.

It turns out that the port around Fernandina Beach is one of the deepest on the southeast coast of the United States, even at low tide, and was a safe haven for pirate galleons and the area was running with them in the 17th and 18th centuries. Smuggling was rife and famed pirate Luis Aury’s flag was one of the many to fly over Amelia Island during it’s illustrious history.

imageWe were in Amelia Island over the Easter weekend and stayed at the Ritz Carlton, a slightly ageing but still picture perfect hotel that was perched right on the dune protected beach complete with their own tortoise population. There was also a very enticing boardwalk that seemingly ran for miles.

Over the Easter weekend the hotel was a kid’s paradise and it went to town with the Easter bunny, who even paid us a visit to our room one night bringing milk and cookies. The hotel replaced it’s regular pirate brunch with an Easter bunny one and on Sunday 12,000 eggs were laid out for a morning egg hunt.

On the last night we had a fantastic dinner in the hotel’s renowned restaurant called Salt. The tasting menu was delectable and they made just enough fuss of the other half for her birthday.

Florida’s Amelia Island just south of the Georgia state line has a nice mix of deep south charm bundled together with all the laid backness of a Florida barrier island and with Jackonsville’s neat and convenient airport close by this part of America’s south-east coast was a simple trip for us.

If you are a golfer, hiker, fisherman, pirate hunter, nature lover or simply want to get away from it all, then this charming, leafy and pedestrian oceanside refuge hits all the right notes.

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