Kickin’ Back on Amelia Island, FL

Amelia Island, FloridaIf Princess Amelia had only packed her bags. The daughter of King George II of England was madly in love with her German cousin, Frederick the Great. But he married a different woman. Instead of grieving in cold and rainy London, poor Amelia (1711-1786) should have traveled to the sunny spot General James Oglethorpe christened in her honor: Amelia Island. This is the northernmost barrier island sheltering Florida’s shores from the stormy Atlantic Ocean.

The island’s exciting history and stunning geography certainly would have healed Amelia’s aching heart. Mile-long beaches, lush marshes, rolling dunes and quiet forests used to be hideouts for Mexican rebels, American patriots, pirates and adventurous smugglers of many nations. Today, the destination is a well-kept secret for eco-tourists and active vacationers alike.

Amelia Island with its subtropical climate — the average high temperature in November is 74F (23C), in July 91F (32C) — offers just enough variations in temperature to offer its visitors the charm of different seasons and vegetation zones. Here, tropical palms and moss-covered live oaks grow right next to each other.

Summer is often regarded as the island’s peak season. But the winter is perhaps the best time to visit. This is when the beach belongs to the seagulls, the sky is icy blue and the sand is snowy white. The wind blows fine wave patterns into the dunes, disturbed only by isolated footsteps.

The blue beach chairs are all folded up nicely, and deserted lifeguard stands cast long shadows. With proudly raised heads, water birds strut through the shallow surf. They eye un-feathered beach walkers with a shy gaze. This is exactly the right spot for anyone who refuses to shovel snow at home in the north, but prefers to fish, hike or paddle, play golf and tennis — without Southern Florida’s blazing heat.

Two bridges connect Amelia Island with the mainland. It stretches about 13 miles (22 km) and is only 1.5-miles (2.4 km) wide. “The island looks like an upside-down Cola bottle,” says Christina Nelson. She is a marine biologist and works for the Nature Center of Amelia Island Plantation.

The grounds of the resorts, including a golf course, are a habitat for many species. Tee number eight of the Oak Marsh Course, for example, has recently been the new address of a pair of nesting wood ducks.

Christina welcomes not only resort guests, but also visitors to her daily explorations into flora and fauna in this maritime paradise. Besides bird watching, wildflower walks, photo safaris and nightly stargazing, it is the “beach bounty” which is particularly popular with children.

Young researchers comb the sand in search of shells and starfish. Every now and then, they also find a forgotten egg of a sea turtle nesting time is from May to September ? or even a prehistoric shark tooth. Be careful, they look a blackish-grey, a little bit brittle, but are still very sharp.

According to fisherman Stan Mankovich, there were once millions of the hungry carnivorous fish lurking in the protected waters of St. Mary’s Inlet, which is part of the Intracoastal Waterway between Florida’s mainland and Amelia Island’s eastern shoreline. But today, submarines from nearby Kings Bay Naval station dive through this natural channel that is being dredged regularly to maintain its depths.

Sand and other quality materials being brought up from deep down of the channel bottom by these giant sea floor vacuum cleaners is then carefully placed on Amelia Islands beaches. “That’s why we find so many fossils here,” says Stan.

When he sets out with tourists for some offshore fishing fun, he points out big schools of fish, manatees and the occasional periscope peeking through the waves. He has yet to spot a suspicious dorsal fin. But Stan has watched the Spielberg shocker movie “Jaws” one too many times and refuses to go swimming here nevertheless.

A plastic shark suspended head first from a lantern mast dangles high above the jetty of Fernandina Beach. The historic town has nearly 9,000 inhabitants and is therefore the biggest settlement on the island. This Victorian fishing village prides itself to be the birthplace of commercial shrimp fishing.

However, it is undisputed that Fernandina Beach is the only place within the U.S. that has flown eight different flags in the course of its history – including flags of the French, English, Spanish and the Confederate flag of the southern states during the Civil War. In 1808, the town was considered the “capital” of illegal slave imports. It seems like an historic irony that, of all places, the first private beach for black Americans at Florida’s white coast was opened here in 1935: “ American Beach.”

After the official abolishment of racial segregation in 1954, even “American Beach” fell into a quiet Sleeping Beauty slumber, like the remainder of the island. The railway no longer stopped here; instead it carried visitors directly to travel destinations in southern Florida. Progress took a detour around Amelia Island and its nature was spared from industrial development and urban sprawl. Time stood still in Fernandina Beach with its pastel-colored wooden houses, broad verandas, turrets, oriels and Art Deco facades.

Today, you can find old photographs of Downtown Fernandina Beach on display at the Amelia Island Museum of History. Palace Saloon (Florida’s oldest bar dating from 1878) and Florida House (the state’s oldest hotel) seem almost unchanged.

There is a portrait of Princess Amelia as well, with her pinned-up curls and a timid look. Sadly, she never set foot onto her namesake island, but died unmarried and unhappy at age 75, with a medallion containing a picture of Frederick close to her broken heart.

If You Go

Amelia Island and Historic Fernandina Beach

Amelia Island Plantation

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Janna Graber

Senior editor Janna Graber has been covering travel for more than a decade. She has traveled to 38 countries -- and counting.
Janna Graber
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