A stroll through historic Fernandina Beach can begin where generations of visitors have started their tours of the graceful port town: at the train depot, the eastern terminus of Florida's first cross-state railroad.
The depot is now home to the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council's Visitor Center, where staffers and volunteers can introduce tourists to the can't-miss stops around the Fernandina Beach Historic District, a 50-block treasure of history and architecture, located at the heart of Florida's northernmost town.
"I love to come here because it reminds me of my hometown in Massachusetts," said Pat Homans of Miami, who grew up in Newburyport, Mass. "We just wander and look at the shops."
Indeed, Fernandina Beach rather feels like a New England town with palm trees – but there's an explanation for that. Outside of the 19th century business district built up around Centre Street and flanked by the water, the area brims with pre-Civil War mansions, many of them built by northern industrialists.
"The deep-water port that we have allowed for a lot of people up north to come down here," said Thea Seagraves, volunteer and tour director at the Amelia Island Museum of History, housed at the old Nassau County Jail in the historic district. "A lot of the northerners in Boston, Pennsylvania and New York realized, 'We don't have to go through these hard winters.'"
Fernandina Beach is the county seat of Nassau County, and the Victorian courthouse, built in 1891 and located in the heart of town on Centre Street, is the oldest county courthouse in Florida that is still in use.
Located north of Jacksonville, Fernandina Beach is on the northern half of Amelia Island, which abounds with other draws, from the natural allure of Fort Clinch State Park, a Civil War outpost, to resort amenities at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation, to the poignant history of American Beach. Now listed on the Black Heritage Trail, the beach was a popular destination for African-Americans in the decades before the Civil Rights Movement, when they were prohibited from enjoying "whites-only" beaches.
Amelia Island proclaims that it is the only U.S. location to have existed under eight different flags, and its history – not to mention its place names – speak to the 18th century game of hot potato played among the European interests in colonial America.
The first recorded European visitor to the island was a French Huguenot explorer who arrived in 1562, but Spanish invaded just three years later and established a mission on the island they called Isla de Santa Maria.
It was the British name, however, that stuck, even though the island was still in Spanish possession when the colonial governor of Georgia, British-born James Oglethorpe, renamed it Amelia Island, after King George II's daughter.
Fernandina Beach, on the other hand, took its name from the Spanish. The island came into British possession in 1763, with the Treaty of Paris; then, 20 years later, the Second Treaty of Paris ceded it back to Spain. The town of Fernandina was plotted in 1811 and named after King Ferdinand VII of Spain.
On a visit 15 years ago, Fernandina Beach left such an impression on Maureen Zeitler of Orlando that when her extended family needed a getaway destination to celebrate her parents' 60th annivesary, she lobbied for Amelia Island. And on her first walk down Centre Street in more than a decade, she was delighted to find that some stores she had visited more than a decade earlier were still flourishing.
One of those included the Amelia Island Book Loft, which offers an array of both adult and children's literature and even has large sections devoted to pirates and Florida history. Cathy Schultz, who has worked downtown for 11 years, says visitors are drawn to Fernandina Beach's quiet charm.
"It's quaint. It's not overrun," Schutz said. "It's pretty mellow and laid-back. Nobody's in a hurry."
If You Go
Fernandina Beach is located northwest of Jacksonville and accessible from I-95 or State Road A1A. For a self-directed walking or driving tour of the Historic District, pick up a brochure at the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council, housed in the train depot at 102 Centre Street. Looking for a more formal way to see the sights?
- Horse-drawn carriage tours, Amelia Carriage Tours (115 Beech Street, 904-277-1555).
- Walking ghost tours, Amelia Island Museum of History (233 South Third Street, 904-261-7378).
- Boat tours, Amelia River Cruises (1 North Front Street, 904-261-9972).
Amy Wimmer Schwarb has spent her professional career vacillating between the coasts of Florida and her home state of Indiana, spending several years as a staff writer and editor at the St. Petersburg Times and several more as a magazine editor in Indianapolis. But Florida won her heart: She is now a full-time freelancer based in St. Augustine.