Those who want an easy island vacation will find the resort vibes they're looking for (and a little bit more) on Amelia Island, Florida.
AMELIA ISLAND, Florida – Giant live oaks dripping in Spanish moss, shark tooth hunters roaming unadulterated beaches, a heady mix of retirees, travelers, golfers, and those escaping winter — and maybe other things — Amelia Island feels as private as it does far away. More Southern than Floridian in landscape, accent, and atmosphere, the southernmost of sea islands offers a mix of history (it has flown under more flags than anywhere else in the United States), exclusivity (real estate prices only continues to climb), and escapism (like any self-respecting island). At under an hour from Jacksonville and an easy flight from just about anywhere on the East Coast, Amelia Island is a perfect place to thaw out in winter or bake on the beach in the spring and summer. Here’s how to do it right.
Stroll Through Historic Fernandina Beach
Colorful and historic Fernandina Beach is the heart of Amelia Island. The town has a rich and storied past and since the 16th century has flown under eight flags: those of France, Spain, Great Britain, the Patriots of Amelia Island, the Green Cross of Florida, Mexico, the Confederate States of America, and the United States of America. While that frenetic history may seem exhausting, the atmosphere is anything but. Take a relaxed stroll down Centre Street and pop into its small, independently owned shops. Don’t miss local bookseller The Book Loft, which has a thorough selection of classic, new, and local books (there’s a good chance a local author will be on hand signing books), and Hudson & Perry for vintage-inspired home goods.
Get Out on the Water
Getting out onto the water is mandatory for a stay on Amelia. Amelia River Cruises offers a variety of comfortable options, from a beach creek tour that brings you to the ruins of the Carnegie family’s Dungeness Mansion, to a longer ramble around Cumberland Island, which offers prime sightings of the Georgia island’s wild horses. In the warmer months, the company offers sunset cruises.
Explore Fort Clinch
On the northernmost end of the island, right on the Florida-Georgia line, are the remains of Fort Clinch, a Union hold during the Civil War and now a living history museum. The fort itself is situated within a 1,400-acre state park that spans open waterfront and trails through wetlands. A drive from the park entrance to the fort winds through some of the island’s most beautiful oak-lined roads. The trails are popular with hikers and bikers, but if the “Beware of Alligators” signs put you off, head straight to the fort to tour the grounds and rooms or walk along the beach. The beaches here are reputed to be the best on the island for finding fossilized shark teeth.
Sample the Seafood
You would have to do something very wrong to not have seafood at least once a day on Amelia Island. There is certainly no shortage of places to eat in Fernandina Beach, but for something casual, classic, and a favorite with locals, head to Timoti’s. Order at the counter and take your tray to a shared picnic table outside. Fresh, local, and wild-caught. . .that’s what it’s all about.
Have a Drink in Florida’s Oldest Bar
At the turn of the 20th century, Fernandina Beach was one of the busiest seaports in the South. Although a lot has changed since then, there’s an echo of rough edge on the town’s genteel exterior, and nowhere is this more apparent than at The Palace Saloon. Opened in 1903, the Palace is known to be Florida’s oldest bar and was also one of the last watering holes in America to close during Prohibition. (It weathered that period by converting to an ice cream shop.) Today the Palace has the sticky floors, dark walls, and slightly haunted feeling you would expect. Stop in for a drink and stay for the live music.
Or Try a New Brew
A short drive from the main drag of Fernandina Beach is Mocama Brewery, a stylish and expansive taproom in the mid-century building that was formerly the Lasserre Motor Company. Not only does the brewery craft delicious and inspired beers, they are committed to giving back through environmental initiatives and are a certified B corporation. Mocama Coffee Bar is right next door, serving drips, pour-overs, and espresso drinks with fancy latte art. The name "Mocama" comes from the word the island’s Spanish settlers used to call the dialect spoken by the Timucua Native Americans who lived on the land from St. Simons Island in Georgia to Saint Augustine in Florida.
Go Big at the Ritz
Luxurious privacy is the overarching feeling on Amelia Island, and nothing is as steeped in that as The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island. Following a major renovation in 2021, the Ritz reopened with welcome-back fanfare and an ambitious new Five Diamond restaurant, Salt. Helmed by chef Okan Kizilbayir, who cut his teeth in the hallowed kitchens of Eric Ripert at Blue on Grand Cayman and at Le Bernardin in Manhattan, Salt has established itself as Amelia’s preeminent fine dining establishment. Here you’ll find a crowd that extends beyond hotel guests; a curated dinner series draws a devoted group of locals. The hotel has three other restaurants, including the understated Lobby Bar which serves the best sushi around, and a spa about as large as a football stadium. But the main attraction here is outside, and the Ritz earns its stars for its expansive mile-and-a-half private beach. The “Fire in the Dunes” experience is a highlight: Staff prepare a bonfire and hot chocolate for guests to enjoy on the beach and under the stars. An added bonus to any stay: The Ritz partners with Mercedes-Benz to offer guests test drives of their latest cars. Book one, complimentary, for a day exploring the island.
Boiled Peanuts and Oranges
Nothing evokes traveling the Florida-Georgia line than fresh oranges and hot boiled peanuts. Stands selling both — along with other tropical fruits and orange blossom honey — pop up along Amelia’s roadways and are a must before leaving the island.