Amelia Island: Old Florida Meets New

Feed blue crabs, sleep in Victorian bed and breakfasts, and take a Segway nature tour on your Amelia Island vacation.

It’s an early Sunday morning in August, and I’m cycling around Fernandina Beach, the main town on Amelia Island, on the most northeastern tip of Florida, about 40 minutes from Jacksonville airport. Fernandina Beach is a quaint, charming town with streets full of enormous oaks cascading with Spanish moss and surrounded by colorful Victorian homes that once played host to tugboat captains, steamship agents and customs officials.

That era was back when the island was the “shrimping capital of the world” in the early 1900s, and when Henry Flagler extended his East Coast railroad into Florida, Fernandina Beach being the last stop and attracting many affluent families to winter in the area. Today, it’s one of the most popular island retreats in the United States with more than 12 miles of uncluttered Atlantic beaches and many sites of historical significance.

As I roam the town, time seems to stand still, the requisite rocking chairs on almost every white-latticed porch I pass. And as church bells ring at 8 a.m., it’s as though the whole town arises at once to attend services, the sleepy streets suddenly crowded.

Old Florida

I make my way down to the Fernandina Beach pier as the last of the area’s shrimping boats head out for a day’s catch. The crusty, amiable dockmaster points to Georgia just across the Amelia River. He suggests a cruise upriver to see Cumberland Island, the island where John F. Kennedy, Jr., got married; wild horses still frequent its shores. As we chat, a dolphin jumps out of the water, seagulls swoop down in droves as schools of jacks pass, and I look for otters under the dock. This is old Florida at its best.

I head back to my bed and breakfast at the Hoyt House, a gorgeous Victorian home dating to 1905. I’m lucky to have gotten a room at the last minute because during the high season in the spring through summer, all 10 rooms, which range from $139 to $239 per night, are sold out.

The Hoyt House is modeled after a Rockefeller cottage, every room full of antiques more interesting than the next. There’s a Victrola phonograph filled with old records still in their original brown wrappings, a green-tiled fireplace and a golden statute of a Dutch lady, Pilote, watching over the house from her stairway perch. They say her light burns brightest when the mortgage is paid, but it’s dull at the moment. Even the antique hat rack still holds a whimsical pillbox hat from a bygone era.

The hosts encourage me to “treat the home like your own,” whether wearing a bathrobe while playing piano in the salon or enjoying a scrumptious breakfast of homemade waffles. There are many bed and breakfasts in converted historic homes in Fernandina Beach, but perhaps none more convenient than the Hoyt House, just across from the main avenue with its shops and restaurants. Discover the town on foot or by bike—available for Hoyt House guests free of charge. (It’s best to book a room a few weeks in advance and even sooner for holidays.) Tel. 800-432-2085,

Beachside Eateries

Some of the best restaurants in town include España for Spanish and Portuguese dishes including tapas and paella at $38 for two (tel. 904-261-7700); Luigi’s, where Mrs. Luigi’s daily homemade pasta entrées are a bargain beginning at $9 (tel. 904-277-4080); and 29 South for traditional world cuisine with a modern twist, averaging about $40 for a three-course meal (tel. 904-277-7919). Like many restaurants in town, 29 South is situated in a converted Victorian home, lending a charm hard to come by in today’s era of mass-marketed restaurant chains. Comparable in price and at the water’s edge, I like Brett’s Waterway Café for seafood and its rocking chairs on the veranda, which are about the hottest seats in town around sunset (tel. 904-261-2660). 

Plantation Luxury

I then grab a taxi and head out of town into the country to Amelia Island Plantation, a 1,350-acre luxury beachside resort that seems to go on forever, its winding roads and trails a nature-lover’s delight. I embark on a naturalist tour atop a Segway, a personal transport system with an upright steel column on two wheels that you stand on and move by altering your balance. Lean forward and the Segway moves forward, lean back and it reverses; it’s that easy, and ages 8 and up can ride (rates start at $80 per person). My tour traverses the forest, emerging upon wild marshes with endless golden fields. Along the way, we identify edible plants, birds singing, and talk of the native Floridian ecosystem that the resort works so hard to preserve.

Natural Recreation

Amelia Island Plantations has naturalist tours for all ages that can be enjoyed by guests and non-guests starting at $10 for adults and $7.50 for children. Kids especially enjoy the Crab Grab, where they can dangle chicken from a string to entice blue crabs out of the marshes. Kids can search for elusive shark teeth on the beach and identify shells, like one that’s a “crime scene,” its hole indicating something has devoured the creature inside. In the nearby maritime forest, children hear stories about bugs, leaves used by Native Americans to help them throw up (kids giggle), and the toothache tree—chewing the leaf numbs the mouth (no, kids can’t experiment). “This is really a magical area,” says the resort’s naturalist Christina Nelson.

And then there are the man-made wonders at Amelia Island Plantation: four 18-hole golf courses designed by several famous golf architects, including Pete Dye and Tom Fazio. Scenic Ocean Links features five oceanfront golf holes. Other recreational facilities include Racquet Park’s 23 tennis courts and the spa, which offers decadent treatments like a chocolate massage.  

But the greatest attraction at the resort is simply the beautiful ocean beach laden with millions of shells and punctuated by windswept dunes as a backdrop. As one of the resort’s visionaries says about Amelia Island’s natural beauty, “God created it, and we try not to mess with it.” Amen to that.

Rooms at Amelia Island Plantation start at $159 per night in the fall and winter low season, and $229 to $989 per night in the high season for a three-bedroom villa. The resort also offers unlimited golf and tennis packages starting at $325 and $179 respectively, as well as a spa package that includes two services per adult per night starting at $285 (based on double occupancy). Tel. 888-261-6161,

Destinations: Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island

Themes: Beach Vacations, Family Travel

Activities: Cycling, Sightseeing, Boating