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The Historic Heart of Florida's First Coast
Amelia Island is one of the sea islands of Florida’s aptly named First Coast, the first landfall south of Georgia. But with its gracefully branching oaks and front-porch, Southern style, it could easily belong to Georgia— and when it was part of the “debatable lands” fought over by Britain and Spain, it almost was. The island’s deep-water port made it so desirable that six countries and two pirates fought for the privilege of flying their flags here. France called it Isle de May. Spain called it Isla de Santa Maria. Amelia, the name that stuck, belonged to an English princess. But it was Spain that planned a town here and christened it Fernandina. With a past so colorful that President James Monroe referred to it as a “festering fleshpot,” Fernandina has been home to slave smugglers, liquor runners, the nation’s first customs house, and its first shrimping industry. Today, water continues to define the island, and Fernandina Beach, as it’s now called, is its beautifully preserved downtown heart. The distance from Amelia Island to Savannah roughly equals the cruising range of a mid-sized trawler, making it an ideal staging ground. Whether you’re migrating with the birds on the ICW or clearing in from an Exuma Cay, Fernandina Beach puts the region at your cabin door.
WHAT TO DO
Stroll Through History- Downtown Fernandina is a 50-block National Register district packed with gingerbread Victorian buildings and stately Italianate manses. There are loads of charming galleries and shops worth a visit. Sample the hand-paddled confections at Fantastic Fudge (corner of Centre St. and Third, 904-277-4801) or sip a cold brew at the Palace (117 Centre St., 904-491-3332), Florida’s oldest saloon. The neighborhood’s main drag is Centre Street, where an 1899 train depot—once a terminus for Florida’s first cross-state railway—houses the Chamber of Commerce and a visitors center. Pick up a walking map to get the historical low-down on who was who and what was what. If you’d prefer to just sit back and listen, Amelia Island Trolleys (904-753- 4486, www.pollythetrolley.com) offers tours of the area, and Amelia Carriage Tours (904-277-1555, www.ameliacarriagetours.com) takes around visitors in Percheron-drawn buggies. Old Town is a 30-block historic district to the north, dotted with balconied Civil War-era homes and Cracker-style cottages. The street was laid out by the Spanish in 1811 and is the only fully intact Spanish land plan in the Western Hemisphere. Mosey down the coquina sand streets, see the captain’s house where Pippi Longstocking was filmed, and enjoy the view as the sun drops in a flaming ball behind Tiger Island.
Explore by Bike- all ahead to book a bike through Beaches Rentals (2856 Sadler Rd., 904-310-6124) and head out to Fort Clinch State Park, considered one of Florida’s best parks. Pedal along miles of paved and off-road trails through Maritime forest, spotting armadillos, alligators, and white-tailed deer along the way. Visit the pre-Civil War fort to watch performances by period re-enactors and climb onto the ramparts for knockout views. And don’t miss the beach, a dazzling stretch of quartz white sand backed by high dunes carpeted in broomsedge and muhly grass. If you have energy to spare, ride over to nearby Egans Creek Greenway. Its 300 acres of grass-covered trails offer excellent shore bird and alligator viewing.
Light out for Cumberland Island National Seashore- It’s possible to reach this storied island via kayak, the Greyfield Inn passenger boat, or National Park Service ferry, but the easiest way to travel is aboard your own boat. Anchor abeam of Sea Camp dock and dinghy to the public tie-up, where you can rent a bike and ride far into the little-traveled wilds. The River Trail leads to a sunlit expanse where the ruins of Dungeness, Thomas and Lucy Carnegie’s turreted, 59-room Scottish castle, form a backdrop for grazing horses thought to descend from 16th-century Spanish stock. Thomas, steel baron Andrew’s brother, bought most of Cumberland as a retreat in 1880 but died before he could enjoy it. His indomitable wife Lucy completed Dungeness and several other isle mansions, including Greyfield, run by today’s Carnegie generation as an inn. Picnic beneath the magnolias, then continue to the beach, which stretches north along the Atlantic for 17 miles.
WHERE TO EAT
España- Spanish and Portuguese-inspired dishes made with fresh-caught local seafood. The paellas are fantastic. (22 S. 4th St., 904-261-7700.)
Joe’s 2nd Street Bistro- A pretty outdoor garden and dishes such as almond-and-pepper-crusted tilapia and bacon-wrapped filet mignon. (14 S. 2nd St., 904-321-2558)Fernandina’s
Bonito Grill & Sushi- For fried grouper, the freshest sea bass, and excellent bento boxes. (614 Centre St., 904-261-0508)
29 South- Regional favorites raised to high art—think sweet tea-brined pork chops and crab cakes with Old Bay butter and watermelon-rind chutney. (29 S. 3rd St., 904-277-7919)
Arte Pizza- The thin-crust pies are New York-good. (109 N. 3rd St., 904-277-1515)
PETANQUE COMES TO FERNANDINA BEACH
French game petanque, pronounced “pay-tonk,” is similar to our horseshoes and Italy’s bocce but also something distinctly its own. Belgian Philippe Boets owns Petanque America, a company that sells petanque equipment, and he recently relocated the business from Miami to Fernandina Beach. Last year he got the idea to hold an international petanque tournament in his new hometown, and the City of Fernandina Beach readily agreed to help with preparations. A parking lot was pulled up and the site covered in smaller, more petanque-friendly gravel. The 2009 Petanque America Open was played on 45 gravel courts along the waterfront just south of the Fernandina Harbor Marina, and almost 100 two player teams from Europe and 22 U.S. states competed. Thanks to the strong turnout, there are plans to make the tournament a yearly event. And meanwhile there are seven permanent courts in town where you can start practicing your petanque skills the next time you visit Fernandina Beach.
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