Staying at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation, I was faced with a quandary every day. Which mode of transportation would I choose to get around the island today?
On a barrier island that’s only a quarter-mile wide in some places, and no more than three miles wide in others, using my own two feet was always an excellent option. Even if I chose to walk the length of the island, at 13 miles long, the route would be no more arduous than completing a half marathon.
Most days, anyway. Here, the little gas-powered, four-person buggies are called Island Hoppers. They’re a convenient way to get from point to point in this sprawling, 1,350-acre complex of guest accommodations, private homes, shops, restaurants and recreation facilities.
But Island Hoppers aren’t terribly speedy. On the day I needed to scurry to a kayaking excursion that was launching from Walker’s Landing, I rented a bike. Soaring along the flat roads under a canopy of Spanish moss-laced live oak boughs, I made it to the tip of a peninsula on the western side of the island before the kayaks left their racks.
Another transportation choice was the Segway, a motorized two-wheeled scooter that uses gyroscopes and tilt sensors to keep riders upright and moving. But unlike the Island Hoppers and the bikes, these expensive vehicles can’t be used independently. If you want to ride one, you have to sign up for a tour for $40 and up.
Fortunately, the tour includes a how-to session, along with ample practice in an open parking lot. After 15 minutes or so, everyone in my group felt confident enough to venture along bike trails all the way out to Drummond Point Park, where we took off on foot with the resident naturalist on a nature hike through the marshlands.
Other than Amelia Island’s famous beach horseback rides (which really aren’t about transportation) the only other transportation option was to hop aboard a shuttle bus. They make a circuit every 15 minutes and are also available for excursions beyond the resort, including a quick jaunt up the highway to the island’s only real town, Fernandina Beach, and a drive through its enchanting historic district along the Amelia River.
Amelia Island is at the northeast corner of Florida. In fact, a river at the north end, the St. Mary’s River, forms part of the state line. Just 32 miles from Jacksonville, it offers 13 miles of pristine beach and ample vacation options, from the luxury resort at Amelia Island Plantation to cozy Victorian bed-and-breakfasts in what the locals call “downtown,” Fernandina Beach.
Early inhabitants of the island were the Timucuan Indians, and some vestiges of their civilization remain, including an ancient burial mound at Walker’s Landing. The French were the first Europeans to set foot here, in 1562. That was three years before the Spanish founded nearby St. Augustine. When the British occupied the island, immediately following the reign of George II, the name they gave it stuck. Since the mid-1700s, the pretty little island has borne the name of a pretty little princess, George II’s daughter Amelia. (The state of Georgia, by the way, was named for Amelia’s dad.)
In the late 19th century, Amelia Island was a premier tourist destination in all of Florida, with direct steamship lines bringing thousands of vacationers from New York City for a sunny holiday. In Fernandina Beach, two large and elegant tourist hotels were usually fully booked with sun-seeking New Yorkers.
But once southern Florida became a major tourist magnet, the pace on Amelia Island slowed considerably. To my mind, that’s one of its attractions.
The people who developed Amelia Island Plantation in the 1970s were obviously entranced by the slower lifestyle and the beautiful, natural environment. They brought in a University of Pennsylvania landscape architect whose specialty was ecology.
The result is a resort and residential area that, at season’s peak, houses thousands of people in an area where nearly 80 percent of the original forest canopy has been preserved. Amelia Island Plantation takes up the entire southern end of the island, including about five miles of its beach.
The island is beautiful beyond belief, with a steady chorus of multiple varieties of birds twittering from overhanging moss-draped trees and lofty palms. Strict rules are in place for keeping the beach postcard-perfect (no walking on the dunes!) and for maintaining the plant, aquatic, bird and wildlife in the forest and marshes.
I was often told to go hunting for sharks’ teeth along the beach. The clerk at the Ship’s Lantern, a souvenir shop in Fernandina Beach, gave me a tooth identification card for the mostly fossilized choppers that wash up on the beach. She said after a high tide or a storm is the optimal time for finding teeth. The weather was perfect and my tide timing was off, so I left the beach empty-handed, though I was tempted to emulate other beachcombers and gather up a bunch of pretty shells.
I picked up a walking tour of Fernandina Beach’s historic district and, starting from the docks, which are renowned as the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry, I headed up Centre Street. I was quite serious about studying the Victorian architecture, even stopping into the The Palace Saloon (just to look, mind you), before I got distracted by all the fun shops. There was Go Fish, with clothing and jewelry; Twisted Sisters, with slightly clothing, jewelry and purses; Christmas on the River; three bookstores; and – the place where I spent most of my time – Fernandina’s Fantastic Fudge.
Stephen Colwell, who has owned the shop for 24 years, told me he and his employees make the eight flavors of fudge, hand-dipped chocolates and other candies fresh daily. I watched as he poured chocolate fudge from a copper kettle onto a marble-topped table, then spread it with a long-handled paddle and even flipped it high into the air, before letting it cool in a mound.
I should have asked Colwell if he shapes the fudge into large shrimps every May when, on the first weekend, the Shrimp Festival turns Fernandina Beach into Party Central. During a parade through town and other festivities, part of the fun is to see how everyone has incorporated the shrimp theme into their costume or parade entry. I learned that everybody on Amelia Island has their favorite shrimp recipe, and serious shrimp lovers line up at the dock to buy part from the fresh catch as the boats come in.
I enjoyed appetizers and meals of shrimp several times when I ordered it off the menu at the restaurants at Amelia Island Plantation. I had always liked shrimp before, but now its taste will conjure up fond memories of a beautiful, restful place in Florida. Try as I might, I will likely never find a shark’s tooth at home. I hope to return to Amelia Island to resume my search.