By Cortney Fries
If you’re searching for a drivable, small-town beach destination with abundant fresh air activities, Amelia Island, Florida, may be just what you’re looking for. A barrier island off the northeast edge of Florida’s Atlantic coast, Amelia Island offers a relaxed escape with 13 miles of quartz beaches, AAA Five Diamond Ritz-Carton Amelia Island, AAA Four Diamond Omni Amelia Island Resort, plenty of private rental properties as well as championship-caliber golf, several state parks, beach horseback rides and even hang gliding.
“Those itching for a trip to the beach and opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in a smaller destination will love Amelia Island,” says Amy Boek of the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Plus, we also experience mild winters and fall.”
I have to agree. My family of four has visited Amelia Island three times, two pre-pandemic and one during. The unspoiled coastal beauty and laid-back Southern charm will continue to pull us back. Since COVID-19, festivals and events have been pushed back or cancelled and cleaning protocols have been stepped up. However, the relaxed, natural vibe and gentle lure of the Atlantic Ocean remains.
Five golf courses on Amelia Island beckon both experienced golfers and those new to the sport. Visually stunning landscapes and oak-lined fairways designed by some of the best golf architects make it a true golfer’s paradise.
Imagine the sunlight shining, a cool ocean breeze and the gentle clop of horse hooves in the sand and surf beneath you. Amelia Island is one of few places where you can ride horseback on the beach. My daughter and I relished the ride with Amelia Island Horseback Riding. The manager told us that their business has been up 20 percent since the pandemic, as people are seeking unique outdoor experiences. Sunrise and sunset tours are spectacular times to take in the sun saying hello to the bright blue sky or bidding adieu with a last dance across the pink horizon.
Nature excursions abound with opportunities to canoe, kayak, standup paddleboard, rent cat boats or charter fishing vessels. We’ve taken the Amelia River Cruises tour to Cumberland Island. It’s fascinating to see wild horses roaming free and hear of the Carnegie family history on Cumberland Island.
Those up for an adrenaline rush can hang glide with Florida Adventure Sports. Gene, the owner and pilot, recommends 40-minute tours, where you can see Amelia Island from above and safely return from your power hang glide with a huge grin spread across your face.
Teens and tweens might get a kick out of rolling around on an electric skateboard from Amelia Island Board Rentals or hydrobiking with Amelia River Cycle. You can also rent bikes, segways and golf carts from many vendors across the island. My family recommends Amelia’s Wheels, where we borrowed bicycles and pedaled around seven miles of scenic delights, past pristine golf courses and to a fabulous lunch at Marche Burette at the Omni Amelia Island Resort.
Fort Clinch State Park, Amelia Island State Park and Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park offer opportunities to soak in some Northeast Florida nature and history. Amelia Island is the only site in the United States that has been under the flags of eight different nations. Explore a Civil War-era fort or comb the beach for sharks’ teeth at Fort Clinch State Park. Amelia Island State Park was brimming with recreational fishermen on the day that we visited. Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park is a small park with an ocean view, historic plaques and the green Victorian house from the Pippi Longstocking movie across the street.
Stroll the historic downtown district and pop into Fernandina’s Fantastic Fudge for some pecan pralines, ice cream or creamy fudge that you can enjoy on a park bench outside. Swing for a round of mini golf with a cocktail at Gregor MacGregor Mini Links and Drinks. See if you get spooked on an evening jaunt with Amelia Island Ghost Tours.
AAA Five Diamond, The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island is celebrating their 30th anniversary in 2021 with renovated rooms and suites, three new restaurants, refreshed meeting spaces and programming appropriate for this social distancing era. Remote learning packages that engage children in earth-science studies and Personal Wellness Retreats for those seeking ways to adapt and relax from the stress and anxiety brought on by COVID-19 are now offered.
AAA Four Diamond Omni Amelia Island Resort also features villas and vacation homes to provide supreme privacy for you and your pandemic bubble. Cook up some of your own meals, have access to a washer and dryer, yet still take advantage of the high-end amenities available at the resort, like golf, tennis, luxurious pools and beaches.
The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island and Omni Amelia Island Resort, along with additional Amelia Island hotels and restaurants, received the top sanitation and safety award from Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association in December 2020, which can help you feel more comfortable in the current times. Amelia Island is also home to numerous vacation rental properties.
New in 2020, The Ritz-Carlton unveiled Coquina, an oceanfront al fresco restaurant and bar featuring seafood and coastal dishes like ceviche and tapas that nod to Amelia Island’s Eight flags heritage. The ambiance created by the fire pits, swing chairs, and views of the dune-lined beach is almost as irresistible as the poke and sangria.
Espana is a Spanish and Portuguese restaurant in downtown Amelia Island with the most delightful outdoor garden that guests can dine in. Their shrimp dish made my husband’s eyes roll back in exaggerated glee as he tried to scrape up every last drop of the savory sauce. Amelia Island is the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry and Espana is a wonderful restaurant to dine on these fresh crustaceans.
For a more casual bite, stop by Timoti’s Seafood Shak, where you can munch on wild caught seafood in baskets with fries and hushpuppies or try tacos, poke bowls, salads or soups. Timoti’s features outdoor picnic tables and a pirate ship playground for the kids to climb on while adults can sip seasonal cocktails.
Marche Burette at the Omni Resort is also a favorite of my family. You can sit outside, gaze at the fountain bubbling and dine on casual fare from breakfast sandwiches to wood fired pizzas. They also have a great market and deli for candy, coffee and other items to go. My daughter still hugs the stuffed animal she picked up there every night.