Why Amelia Island Is One of Florida's Hidden Gems

Mar 25, 2021

Tucked just off the coast of Florida's far northeast corner is Amelia Island, a mash-up of Southern small town and Florida beach resort, where the unhurried Lowcountry vibe and Spanish moss-draped oak trees lend a Southern accent to the wide, white-sand beaches. Upon arrival you'll quickly transition to "island time," finding that moments are best measured in shells collected and flip-flops count as formalwear. After one visit here, you'll feel like you uncovered one of the state's hidden gems.

So with that in mind, let's check out a few reasons to visit the place that Condé Nast Traveler touts as “one of the best islands in the U.S.”

There's no barrier to entry

Amelia Island feels like a world apart, but Florida's northernmost barrier island is actually quite easy to get to.

It's less than a six-hour drive from Charlotte, Atlanta or Miami, with I-95 bringing travelers almost to the island's doorstep. If you're flying, the Jacksonville airport is just 30 minutes away with Southwest recently adding flights from St. Louis and Washington, D.C. and JetBlue starting nonstop routes from Los Angeles and Raleigh-Durham.

The weather has year-round appeal

The cool sea breezes give Amelia Island some of Florida's mildest temperatures through the spring and summer months, and abundant sunshine means there are many chances to get out and about, whether that's to hike through a coastal maritime hammock on the Willow Pond Trail in Fort Clinch State Park or window-shop the boutiques on the cobblestone streets of Fernandina Beach.

You'll have many different ways to stay

There are numerous options for lodging across the island, ranging from luxury resorts to budget-friendly hotels to quaint B&Bs and vacation rentals. Let's unpack a few of the options in each category.

If you're looking for luxury you're in luck, as the island has two resorts that are regulars on best-of lists from the glossy travel mags.

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island is just completing a refresh of the resort's 446 guest rooms, all of which feature balconies with ocean or coastal views. Among the resort highlights is the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Spa famed for its one-of-a-kind 50-minute zero-gravity massage treatment that's aptly named "Heaven in a Hammock." Guests will also want to book a table at Salt, a AAA Five-Diamond restaurant where coastal-inspired cuisine is prepared using more than 40 different global salts. The Salt Kitchen Table private-dining experience is considered one of the best chef's tables in the country, so jump at the chance if it's available.

Omni Amelia Island Resort

The Omni Amelia Island Resort is located closer to the island's quieter southern tip and features a massive oceanfront deck with two heated pools, not to mention a 3.5-mile stretch of beach. The Omni is particularly well-known for its tennis program operated by Cliff Drysdale Tennis, named one of the best tennis resorts in the U.S. by Tennis magazine. The golf here is no slouch either, as one of only five Florida resorts named to Golf Digest's 2020 Editor's Choice list. The Pete-Dye designed Oak Marsh course plays 6,600 yards from the tips, wrapping tight fairways around the salt marsh and towering oaks.

Additional hotel choices tend to cluster in historic downtown Fernandina Beach and include familiar budget-friendly brands like the all-suite Residence Inn Amelia Island or the pet-friendly Home2 Suites by Hilton Fernandina Beach. You'll also find smaller selections like the 25-room Seaside Amelia Inn (our members rave about the beachfront location and free breakfast) and the Amelia Schoolhouse Inn, built in 1886 to serve as the island's school, then restored in 2018 as a 17-room boutique hotel. Don't panic if you get sent to the Principal's Office, the inn's high-end bar with a putting green. 

Hoyt House

For a taste of Southern hospitality, try one of the island's B&Bs, many of which are set in 19th- and early 20th-century Victorian homes along quiet streets of the Fernandina Beach Historic District. After a three-course breakfast at the Hoyt House, you can sit on the wrap-around porch and look out on the manicured gardens, or head out for a day of exploring and shopping in the District before returning for the afternoon social hour with complimentary wine.

You can also find vacation rentals for larger groups scattered across the island or get back to basics and reserve a camping spot in Fort Clinch State Park on the island's northern tip.

It's got beaches for miles

If you're looking for a quiet stretch of sand, Amelia Island has 13 miles of uncrowded, unspoiled beaches framed by sand dunes instead of high-rises. The beaches closest to Fernandina Beach tend to be busier, especially Main Beach, which draws families due to the ample parking, lifeguard stands and grassy playground. But there's plenty of space to set out your beach towel, with more than 40 public access points along the coastline. Don't miss the chance to look for seashells (especially after a storm).

Another natural draw to the beaches is sea turtle nesting season, which runs from May through September. These mother turtles return to Amelia Island year after year -- like many vacationers. If you try to catch this natural phenomenon, keep a respectful distance, and don't use flashlights or disturb any nests. The best way to help ensure the mother turtles and their hatchlings are successful is to make sure you remove everything at the end of your beach day (debris can trap turtles and trash can draw predators to the beach) and fill in any holes dug by enterprising young sand-castle engineers.

For a really rare opportunity, head to Amelia Island State Park on the island's southern tip and saddle up for a horseback ride on the beach with Kelly Seahorse Ranch. The one-hour guided tour takes riders along the pristine beach of the 200-acre nature preserve.

Beyond the beach, there's plenty to fill the day (or week)

On an island bookended by state parks, there are abundant opportunities for exploring. On the northern end of the island, the 1,400-acre Fort Clinch State Park includes a 6-mile nature trail for hiking or biking, campgrounds set either amid trees beside the Amelia River or alongside snow-white sand dunes by the Atlantic Ocean, plus a beach that's renowned for shark-tooth hunting

The island is steeped in history -- it's called the "Isle of 8 Flags" -- with French, Spanish, British, Mexican and Confederate history in addition to well-documented tales of pirate lore. The topper of a Fort Clinch State Park visit for any history buff will be the Civil War-era fort that guards St. Mary's Inlet. (That's Georgia across the water.) 

But for a lesser-known (but equally important) history lesson, check out the American Beach Historic District near the middle of the island. Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida's first African-American millionaire, established this community in 1935 to provide people of color with a beach resort of their own, when segregation and Jim Crow laws prevented equal access to many beach resorts across the South. American Beach grew into a vibrant resort community in the 1940s and 1950s. This legacy is memorialized at the American Beach Museum, which opened in 2014.

Amelia Island is one of a handful of Florida communities to earn Bicycle Friendly Community status from the League of American Bicyclists. One of the best bike trails on the island is the tree-lined Amelia Island Trail, a paved path which starts at Peters Point Beachfront Park and follows Highway A1A to Amelia Island State Park. The Egans Creek Greenway is another popular ride alongside Egans Creek. (Keep an eye out for alligators relaxing in the shade.) Several shops offer bike rentals to visitors, and some hotels even have bikes available to guests.

If you'd rather paddle than pedal, rent a kayak or standup paddleboard to explore the calm coves of the island's salt marshes. Pick up a guided tour from Kayak Amelia to explore with a naturalist, or get your Om on with SUPY -- Standup Paddleboard Yoga.

Amelia Island is part of Florida's First Coast of golf, a 75-mile stretch of Northeast Florida that draws golfers from around the world. On the island itself, you'll find 99 holes of golf, including the course at the Omni and the Golf Club of Amelia Island at The Ritz-Carlton. Off the resort, the Amelia River Golf Club is a challenging track that culminates with a test of nerves (and iron distance) to reach the island green on the par-3 17th hole. It's worth the short drive off the island to try the Arnold Palmer-designed Golf Club at North Hampton, a links course with generous fairways framed by spring-fed lakes and Florida woodlands. 

You won't go home hungry

Amelia Island's proximity to great seafood (it's the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry) and international influences (those eight flags) means this small resort community packs quite a culinary punch.

New on the scene is The Boat House, housed in a building that used to repair boat motors for the nearby marina. Caricatures of local celebrities adorn the wall, while steak and Lowcountry favorites like shrimp and red mule grits adorn the menu.

Another reclaimed space is T-Ray's Burger Station, a one-time gas station that now handles fill-ups of a different kind. What started as a sandwich takeout side hustle turned into a local favorite and eventually gained national renown from the likes of Southern Living and USA Today, which named it one of the best burger joints in the U.S.

For a distinctly different feel, dine by candlelight at Le Clos, where chef and owner Katherine Ewing brings her impeccable French culinary credentials to decadently delicious dishes in a restored 1906 bungalow.

Lagniappe

You may have to extend your stay to eat and drink at all the great spots. There's the small bites of refined Asian street food at Wicked BAO, French/Southern fusion at Lagniappe and made-from-scratch goodness at Burlingame Restaurant. After dinner, you might want to take in the scene and a cocktail at The Decantery or try the Prosim Pils (and whatever new is on tap) at the buzzy Mocama Beer Company taproom or catch a sunset over the Intracoastal with a cold beer at the Salty Pelican


Ready to go? Take a photo tour of Amelia Island, find even more inspiration and request a visitor's guide to plan your trip.

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