A-Foot in Downtown Fernandina Beach
By Chelle Koster Walton
Take the time to walk your way through history in downtown Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island.
Footloose & Car-Free
Fernandina Beach was one of Florida's earliest walk-about resort towns and remains one of its most attractive to strolling types with a yen for graceful architecture, harbor views and delightful shops and restaurants.
Ulysses S. Grant was among the first flush of tourists to arrive in the late 1800s to Amelia Island's Victorian Italian seaport, strategically positioned where Florida meets Georgia at Cumberland Gap on the east coast. Nearly 50 structures in the heart of Fernandina Beach's 55-block historic zone, including the residential Silk Stocking District, predate the 20th century and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For a walking tour, pick up a free brochure at the visitors center on the waterfront. The Amelia Island Museum of History hosts interesting, specialty walking tours based on the town's historic ghosts, Centre Street and other themes.
For alternative car-free, feet-resting transportation, take a historic tour via horse-drawn carriage. Biking is another popular mode of transport and rentals are available from resorts and shops. From downtown, Fort Clinch State Park is an easy pedal and plenty worthwhile with its scenic beach and historic and natural attractions.
Many of Fernandina Beach's frilly Victorian homes downtown today house bed-and-breakfast inns. Some of the favorites include the Florida House Inn and the Fairbanks House. Hampton Inn & Suites also lies within the historic harbor-front district.
Way This Way
I like to begin my downtown Fernandina Beach explorations at Florida's first cross-state railroad depot and end at Florida's oldest continuous saloon, which are only steps away from one another. In between, I've looped through and around main Centre Street and its architectural eye candy.
The Convention and Visitor's Bureau, a good place to arm yourself with maps and info, resides in the pretty little depot, steps away from the harbor where pirates used to dock and shrimp fleets still do.
To get your bearings historically, head up Centre Street and take a right on Third Street South to check into the old county jailhouse, now home to the Amelia Island Museum of History. Take a guided tour through the island's history of 450 years and eight sovereign flags. Stop across the street at the rustic-looking Florida House Inn. Then wander to Beech Street and follow it east to Central Park, taking side streets where it suits you to admire residential homes and B&Bs. South Seventh and Eighth streets hold a particularly nice collection dating from the 1870s. Stop in at Trinity United Methodist Church on Eighth and Ash streets. The white clapboard First Baptist Missionary Church sits across the parking lot on Ninth Street.
After a pause in Central Park, head back down Centre Street toward the harbor. Or, if you're ambitious and beach-drawn, walk the 1.5 miles to the main beach at Wolf Park.
Heading west on Centre Street, you'll pass the awe-inspiring St. Peter's Episcopal Church and, just off Centre, the First Presbyterian Church, one of Florida's oldest, built in 1858. The handsome county courthouse and post office were built, respectively, in 1891 and 1912. Other historic brick commercial buildings hold a medley of interesting shops selling books, jewelry, artisan wares, antiques, Florida-style Christmas decorations, ice cream, coffee, toys and other uncommon gifts and necessities.
Continue to wander off along side streets between shopping to discover more architectural gems. Fourth Street North leads to the Romanesque St. Michael's Catholic Church, circa 1872.
Then it's time for just reward and live music at the inviting circa-1903 Palace Saloon, erstwhile haunt, legend has it, of the Rockefellers, Carnegies and a bartender-turned-ghost named Charlie. Hoist a cold one among murals depicting pirates and Shakespearean characters and toast a pleasant day spent in Florida's decidedly un-musty attic.
You'll find more about Fernandina Beach bygones and byways at www.ameliaisland.com