Why Amelia Island Is One of Florida's Hidden Gems
Tucked just off the coast of Florida's far northeast corner is Amelia Island, a mashup 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, and 35 US gateways offer direct flights.
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.
There's a lineup of festive events
While there's certainly something romantic about a spontaneous island getaway, Amelia Island's lively events calendar is full of happenings worth planning around. With performances running into spring, the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival is bubbling over with can't-miss talent. Varied and fascinating events (featuring musicians dubbed "the young American string quartet of the moment" by the The New Yorker, for example) span genres from big band, to bluegrass, to tango.
Film aficionados will want to secure passes now for the Amelia Island Film Festival gracing the island at the end of February. Screenings will showcase narrative, documentary and international films, followed by Q&A sessions with filmmakers. Included in the festivities will be an opening night block party, with live music, food, cocktails — and of course, the opportunity to snap your photo on the red carpet.
March welcomes classic car enthusiasts with The Amelia Concours d'Elegance, an annual event during which more than 300 rare and antique vehicles are brought to sparkle in the Florida sunshine, ready to be admired and acquired.
Foodies and art lovers alike flock to the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival in late April and May, where a plethora of local chefs and artisans will display their finest creations. And it's never too early to plan ahead for a visit during the Victorian-themed Dickens on Centre festival in December, where costumed characters (including St. Nick himself) transform historic downtown Fernandina Beach into an olden day English village.
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.
Two new additions that are already collecting rave reviews from travelers are the Courtyard by Marriott Amelia Island and SpringHill Suites by Marriott Amelia Island. These neighboring hotels on the north end of the island both offer stellar ocean views, among many other charms. The brand-new Courtyard features modern guestrooms accented with ocean-inspired turquoise decor, a bar and grill located next to a sparkling pool and a casual onsite restaurant that serves up tasty Southern fare from sunup to evening.
Also making its debut just last year, SpringHill Suites is a great choice for families and anyone else looking to spread out in a spacious beachside suite. Complimentary daily breakfast, an outdoor pool and a fitness center equipped with Peloton bikes round out the reasons to give this popular newcomer a try. Bonus: Through February, both of these brand-new hotels are offering 20% off stays with code M11.
Luxury lovers will find their bliss in the island's high-end beachside hotels, complete with full-service spas that offer everything from ocean-inspired therapies to couples' packages. Additional hotel choices in historic downtown Fernandina Beach include familiar, budget-friendly brands, plus cozy boutique hotels with beachfront locations and homecooked breakfast menus. There's even a late 19th century schoolhouse that's been transformed into a unique 17-room hotel, complete with a high-end bar and a putting green.
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. Sit on a 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 a glass of wine and socializing with new friends.
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 opportunity to hunt for seashells.
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's remarkably bikeable streets, trails and paths have earned it 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 Amelia Island Resort and the Golf Club of Amelia Island at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island. Another favorite is the Amelia River Golf Club, 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.
For a truly memorable fine dining experience, make a reservation for David’s Restaurant & Lounge, where items like the succulent surf & turf and the flaky Chilean seabass consistently command rave reviews — and caviars hailing from Siberia to Kentucky add intrigue to the menu. Tasteful decor and romantic lighting characterize the whole interior, but for an especially cool ambiance, book a table in the private wine room. Even the door — which looks like the bottom of a giant oak cask — is striking.
For casual, seasonal and eclectic Southern fare, try The Beech Street Grill. The restaurant is housed within the historic William Bell House, built in 1889 by a local resident as a wedding gift for his wife, and features original mantels and fireplace facades made of European marble. Andouille and cornbread stuffed collard greens, inventive salads featuring rum flambeed pineapple and Korean-inspired bulgogi beef tacos are just a sampling of the uniquely tempting dishes you might find on the ever-changing menu.
You may have to extend your stay to eat and drink at all the great spots. There are sea-inspired comfort food favorites (hush puppies, please!) at The Sandbar & Kitchen, eggplant parm to rival nonna's at Ciao Italian Eatery, French/Southern fusion specialities at Lagniappe and artful, modern cuisine at POGO's Kitchen. 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 Bar & Grill.