We aren’t the kind of family who likes to sit around. But on our recent foray to Amelia Island off of Florida’s northeast coast, the vintage charm of the island made the whole family slow down the pace of everyday life and enjoy some old-style Florida fun—with a few modern amenities here and there.
When we checked into our two-bedroom beachfront villa at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation, we were struck by the welcoming sign propped against the family-room window: “ESCAPE.” The bold lettering against the backdrop of ancient sand dunes, sea grass and crashing waves was the perfect, simple welcome for a fun-packed, yet relaxing family trip.
And escape we did. The villa provided us with all the space and comforts of home—kitchen, dining area, high-speed internet, family room and two separate bedrooms with private baths—while adding in quaint, unexpected touches. A writing journal on the coffee table let us read about the experiences of former houseguests, as if we were peeking into a private diary.
Day One: Simple Pleasures
I awoke our first quiet, breezy morning to find my sons, with their little feet propped up against the balcony wall, reading. The idyllic setting proved therapeutic as the song of the waves crashing to shore brought on a calming effect with its methodic rhythm. I snapped a picture without their knowledge because truthfully, I wasn't sure if I would ever have that moment again.
My maternal instincts were right. That was about the only time the boys, ages 7 and 9, sat still the entire time. With conveniences and activities ranging from golf and tennis to nature hikes and swimming, we weren't sure where to start. We didn’t even have to carry cash; the resort allows you to use your room card to charge all of your expenses.
We took a family vote and unanimously decided to head over to the on-site Amelia's Wheels to rent bikes, a golf cart and try out the Segways. Whether you hit the greens or not, I suggest renting a golf cart. Not exactly old-fashioned, but definitely efficient on the property. (An added bonus: When you get the cart going, the wind prevents you from hearing the kids argue in the back seat!)
I recruited the family to check out the Plantation's own Nature Center. There, we signed up to meet at the beach for the organized “Beach Bounty” hunt led by the staff’s certified naturalist. What we discovered would change the entire course of our trip.
As my husband and I followed the boys and a group of about 10 other curious family travelers, we learned that there were beach treasures beneath the surf – hidden finds that would be my kids' obsession for the remainder of the vacation. Each of my children found his own shark's tooth.
So, while the arcade filled with pinball machines and air hockey beckoned, my kids were on a mission for the next three days to find more shark's teeth. They were teased by their finds and never found more. Yet, the search kept them busy.
During the moments when they were begging us to take them to the beach to search, I was reminded that it’s not really the big things that matter to kids. That tiny shark’s tooth, all wrapped up in an empty tea bag to take home with us, was better than any store-bought souvenir.
Day Two: Riding into the Sunset
Surely even in the olden days, mom and dad managed to sneak away from the kids for a bit, right? So, with alone time on our minds, my husband and I dropped our kids off at Kids Camp Amelia. The counselors assured us a worry-free day to ourselves—and the smiling child-care provider told us she was an expert shark's tooth finder. We felt good about leaving the boys, since the supervised youth programs are staffed by trained CPR-certified counselors, specializing in recreation.
While the kids made candy racecars out of mints and gum packs, we headed out for a horseback ride on the beach at Amelia Island State Park. (Riders have to be at least 13 years old anyway, so I was excused from feeling any guilt.)
A shuttle took us to Kelly Seahorse Ranch, a few miles down the road from our resort. Our beach horseback ride on paths winding through ancient sand dunes was exhilarating. After a short instruction session with the owners, we led our horses single file through the conservation. The ranch is the only state-endorsed horse ranch located on the beach in Florida and one of the few professional outfits in the country that offers such unique services.
On the 200-acre preserve, we saw dolphins, shorebirds and other sea island wildlife. Heading out of the lush tropical trail onto the dune, we were awestruck at the sight of Amelia Island’s stunning beach. Talk about old-fashioned—there wasn’t a condo or hotel in sight.
Upon our return to the resort, I decided the best thing to do after the ride would be to head to The Spa, nestled among moss-draped oaks, lagoons and mediation gardens. The Spa director recommended the hot stone massage, a pleasure designed to provide pressures from relaxing to deep. I was in such a trance after the treatment that I couldn’t even pronounce words and my formerly aching muscles from my ride were relieved.
Coming out of my spa-induced daze, I glanced at my watch to notice that the 4:00 p.m. pick-up time to get the kids was nearing. I had to snap-to. A complimentary aromatherapy steam shower did the trick to re-energize me for the rest of the day.
Day Three: History Alive
A visit to Amelia Island wouldn’t be complete without visiting historic Fernandina Beach, the Victorian seaport town with a chaotic history. The island is the only United States location to have been under eight flags. Originally claimed by France, Amelia Island was taken over by Spain for almost 200 years. The final flag was that of the Confederacy, who took over Fort Clinch (now Fort Clinch State Park) in April 1861.
The “Golden Age” of Fernandina was 1875-1900. The downtown’s historic district retains evidence of the great prosperity when tourists flocked there via steamer directly from New York to stay in elegant hotels.
We considered taking in Center Street, the city’s historic “main drag”, by horse-drawn carriage, but the instead opted to take the town by foot.
Our first stop was for our final vacation dinner at The Crab Trap, 31 North Second St., a family owned and operated establishment since 1979, where the owner promised us we’d taste the difference in the local shrimp. The shrimp boats pulled up close to the restaurant so we knew the food would be fresh. What we tasted was sweeter shrimp than any we had ever eaten. I would say they were definitely the best shrimp on either side of the Mississippi!
Our family vacation tradition of dessert continued at Fernandina’s Fantastic Fudge, 218 Centre Street, where the kids ate homemade fudge and gourment ice cream.
Day Four: Natural Escape
The next morning, we strategically planned to tire the kids out prior to hitting the road for our four-hour drive home. From noon to 3:00 p.m., we went kayaking with Kayak Amelia’s owner and guide, Ray Hetchka. With the passion and knowledge of a college professor, Ray knew exactly where each bald eagle had landed, and “wowed” us when he pointed out the ospreys holding their prey horizontally as they flew overhead.
As we tried to paddle through the surf in tandem, Jack and I realized that we both needed each other to pull us out of certain situations. We worked as a team, trying to paddle in sync and escape the tall sea grass. It was a special feeling to be on an even playing field with my 9-year-old, as we worked against nature instead of against each other. All of a sudden, I wasn’t the rule-maker, but the teammate. It was great family bonding time. There were even a few times when I let his youthful energy take the helm and paddle while I rested behind him.
Our trip to Amelia Island taught us a lot about the region as well as our own family. The relaxing energy made us stop and look for those tiny little sea treasures. It taught us patience, making us stop to enjoy the time that seemed to move so slowly. We worked together and found common goals. Through our travels and active adventures, we peddled and paddled. We “sweated” the small stuff…and it felt great!