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Amelia Island, Florida, vacation - travel review

Visit Florida's Amelia Island for a Quiet Retreat

by Rachel L. Miller

My name was called on an Amelia Island street for the third time that day. 

The first two times it happened, I was quite surprised, my head snapping so fast that my short hair managed to whip me across the (slightly sunburned -- or should I say sun-kissed?) face. But by the third time I was recognized on the street by a new acquaintance, I began to wonder if there was some sort of conspiracy or Candid Camera-esque action taking place. 

Of course, there wasn't. Just the friendly locals that I'd met a day or two earlier saw me passing and thought they'd call out a greeting. But that still didn't make me any less surprised. After all, I was traveling on my own in the tourist magnet commonly known as Florida, where one expects to remain anonymous. Just a nameless face in the throng of Northerners looking for their ever-evasive sun; just another body on a packed beach; the next patron ushered in and liberated of a hefty load of currency by an overrated hotel or restaurant. 

Not so on Amelia Island.

This barrier island, located a scant half-hour northeast of Jacksonville, basically destroyed my beliefs on all things Florida. And believe me when I tell you that this is a good thing. When I hear the word "Florida," three things come my mind: Orlando, Disney and the crowds (with screaming kids) that accompany those two things. (I also think of screwy ballots and Elian Gonzalez, but that's a different story altogether.) 

So during the initial drive up the Amelia Island coast, this is what I expected to see lining the streets: tacky beach shops with blazing neon colored signs advertising a sale on flamingo salt and pepper shakers. Nope. Instead I saw many private residences -- condos, houses, apartments, even two B&Bs -- but not even a hint of the tackiness that normally tags along with the over-development of a Florida beach. The reason is two-fold: Amelia Island hasn't yet reached the point of becoming overdeveloped (thankfully) and the folks there are determined to make sure it won't get that way. The northern and southern tips of the island have already been turned into parks, as have been a number of spots along the island's 13-mile stretch of Atlantic Coast beach. And much of the island's gorgeous green-grassed marsh has been untouched.  It's a great place to see crabs scurrying about, as well as a variety of rare birds. Just keep in mind to bring along bug repellant if you're going anywhere near the marsh or woods -- the itch from the dozen or so bug bites I received is just starting to ebb.

For magnificent panoramic views of the marsh, head to Amelia Island Plantation, a AAA-Four Diamond destination resort which boasts three 18-hole championship golf courses, 23 clay tennis courts, shops and restaurants and more than 49,000 square feet of function space. Many conventions are held at the resort, which is packed with seaside condos and homes (some that can be rented). The Plantation's hotel, the Amelia Inn, has luxury hotel rooms which nicely accommodate business travelers and there are also villas situated around the resort that can be rented. 

Also of note is The Spa at Amelia Island Plantation, which just opened this summer. The facility fits in harmoniously with the trees and water that surround it and made me feel at peace as soon as I opened the door to the main entrance. The facility offers massages, facials, manicures, wraps, salt glow treatments and Watsu, a massage in a heated pool. 

The Ritz-Carlton Resort, located on the beach, also offers a spa and meeting space -- over 32,000 square feet, to be exact. The resort's state-of-the-art Business Center could be considered a virtual godsend for workaholics, featuring IBM personal computers, facsimile and copier facilities, secretarial services and even foreign translation capabilities.

And if you want to stay in historic downtown Fernandina Beach on the island's northwest corner (the only town on the island), there are 10 B&Bs from which to choose, many of which cater to female business travelers. Each has a different history and decor, but all are beautiful testaments to structural preservation. 

The main house of the Ash Street Inn. Photo (c) 2001, Rachel L. Miller
Staying at the Ash Street Inn, located in heart of the downtown historic district, was by far the highlight of my trip to Amelia Island. Innkeepers Chris and Rob were extremely thoughtful and helpful, especially when it came to recommending out-of-the-way restaurants (case in point: they suggested T-Rays Burger Station and there I had the best hamburger I've had in a long time). On a day I was planning on heading out to the beach, I arrived at my car with key in hand to realize that they already had a fluffy beach towel, a beach chair and a giant umbrella waiting for me.  And upon tasting their mouth-wateringly delicious breakfasts (especially the tasty blueberry pancakes), I wanted to stay for an extra week.

Each room is tastefully decorated, comfortable and some even have Jacuzzis. Since their guests' comfort is their priority, the innkeepers have furnished and decorated the rooms to look nice, but also to be functional.

"We want our guests to feel like they can go ahead and put their feet up on the coffee table at the end of the day," Rob said as he gave me a tour of the 10-room Inn.

I stayed in the Hemingway Suite, a gorgeous safari-themed room that houses an equally gorgeous wrought-iron bed, cushy couch and a fireplace. And, I must note, the suite's coffee table was a nice foot rest after a long day of sightseeing. 

A historic cemetery in Fernandina Beach. Photo (c) 2001, R. L. Miller
As much as I didn't want to leave the comfort of the Ash Street Inn every morning, I did manage to explore the historic district quite thoroughly. Centre Street runs through the middle of town (surprise), and is host to a number of specialty and unique stores, as well as many restaurants. Centre Street is also where you'll find the oldest bar in Florida, the Palace Saloon, whose hand-painted murals, hand-carved 40-foot mahogany bar and pressed tin ceiling date from 1878. Also, don't miss Fort Clinch State Park, which is east of downtown, toward the beach. 

The best place to take in a sunset in Fernandina is the harbor, where you can either dine at Brett's Waterway Cafe and gaze out past private yachts and shrimp boats, or hop aboard the Voyager, a tall ship replica, for a sunset cruise.

The Voyager. Photo (c) 2001, Rachel L. Miller
The Voyager crew was accommodating, extremely friendly and knowledgeable. As we sailed out of Fernandina Harbor, we cruised along the Intracoastal Waterway and I became as giddy as a 5-year-old when I spotted a group of dolphins swimming alongside the ship.

If you want to be close to the sea without actually stepping foot off land, head to Kelly Seahorse Ranch at the southern end of the island. I thought horseback riding on the beach was only something you read about in trashy romance novels -- who knew that normal folks (i.e. people who don't resemble a pirate shirt-clad Fabio) could do this? I loved every second of the one-hour ride along a wide, practically empty beach...and what I loved even more was the fact that the horses were so well-trained I didn't really have to do anything but sit there and enjoy the view. 

In keeping with my whole "bonding with nature" experience, I took a three-hour kayaking trip through the twisting rivers of the tidal marsh with Kayak Amelia. Guides Jody and Ray Hetchka (who started the business after discovering their own love of kayaking) offered endless encouragement in my first few minutes out on the water, promising that I'd feel like a pro before too long. 

"If I told you right now how much your skills will improve by the end of the trip, you wouldn't believe me," Jody said in response to my panicked question regarding how to make the darn kayak stop.

The marsh of Amelia Island is teeming with critters (they're not scary ones, don't worry). Photo (c) 2001, Rachel L. Miller

And, of course, she was right. Soon enough, I learned how to paddle properly, steer and even slow down my kayak (which is good news for the others in my group toward whom I was heading). Even though I didn't feel like I was a complete natural at kayaking, I absolutely loved the experience. After a good ten minutes spent adjusting to the paddling motion (which initially felt awkward), I was so comfortable that I was able to fully enjoy the quiet marsh as I floated down the river.  Birds aplenty were situated on nearby tree limbs, marsh grass and beach. But the crowning touch of the morning was witnessing fish jump out of the water just to splash back down in a fleeting millisecond. Just the mere sight of nature uninterrupted by the sounds of man made me grin -- it was the one time that I completely forgot about the stifling August temperatures (and humidity).

We stopped half-way through for a swim break....but really all we did was stand around in the water, chatting and devouring Jody and Ray's famous cookies. (Mmmm...I'm getting hungry just thinking about those warm, partially melted chocolate chips.) And as we finished up the trip, pulling our kayaks up on a small slice of beach, I felt so proud. For not being afraid to trying something new, for finishing the excursion without once thinking about how sore I'd feel the next day....for having spent four glorious days at place where the locals remember your name, a place where leisure meets nature so seamlessly.

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