It didn't surprise me a bit to learn that Amelia Island placed in five categories in the 2011 Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards, including a No. 8 ranking among the Top 10 Islands in the United States. Located off the northeast corner of the state, Amelia Island has a way of inviting you in and making you not want to leave. The vast marshes surrounding it rank among my favorite places to fish, explore and escape.

If you go, make sure you book an Amelia River Cruise expedition. Personally, I'd opt for the three-hour Eco-Tour where they drag an authentic Otter Trawl shrimp net. (Check out the video.)

During the cruise, marine biologist Andrea Margiotta, who is a bundle of enthusiastic expertise, explains the catch before returning it to the wild. There's an aquarium onboard, so you get to see diverse species up close. Catches can include mantis and other shrimp, croakers and other drums, soft corals, several species of crab, stingrays and small sharks. There's really no telling what all you might see in those lush marshes.

I asked Andrea about her best day on the job, or should I say "job," and she told me a great story. The eco-tour is really popular among parents and grandparents. Everyone learns something in a sublime setting, and the kids have a blast with the critters that wind up in the tank. One day, they caught several colonies of a common species of soft coral called a sea whip. One kid was mesmerized by the the corals' bright yellow and purple hues. Andrea explained to the young lady that she was holding a colony of tiny animals, even though sea whips look a lot like plants waving in the current.

When the boat returned to the dock, the girl looked down at the pilings and saw numerous colonies of sea whips waving underwater. She recognized them immediately, and explained to her grandmother that corals are animals not plants, even though they look like plants.

"That was really a rewarding day for me," Andrea beamed.

Other tour options include narrated day tours of Amelia and Cumberland islands. Cumberland Island is famous for the wild horses running on the beaches.

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