Beaches / Historic / Northeast Florida

Amelia Island & Fernandina Beach: Beaches, hikes, historic sites and more

Sunset over the Amelia River at Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.

Sunset over the Amelia River at Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.

~Amelia Island  and its historic town of Fernandina Beach would be a superb destination if only for the walkable downtown and Victorian architecture.

But Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island have scads of other attractions – a great Civil War-era fort, wide beaches so hard-packed you can bike for miles on them, a historic plantation that is part of a little-known national park, scenic kayaking, hiking and biking trails and even a perfect setting to watch the sunset over water.

The historic train station and visitor center in Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.

The historic train station and visitor center in Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.

Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach make a great base; you could spend days here exploring the natural and authentic Florida near Jacksonville.

Fernandina Beach is a small town (population 11,487) with a big history: It has flown the flags of eight different nations, including, with quick succession France, Spain, Great Britain, and then Spain again, all by 1816.

Historic downtown Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.

Historic downtown Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.

There’s plenty of history preserved, from  the Palace Saloon, (oldest continually operating bar in Florida) to the 1857 Florida House Inn (Florida’s oldest hotel) to the lighthouse (built 1838-39, the state’s oldest active lighthouse.)

The Palace Saloon opened in 1903, when Fernandina Beach was a major seaport and railroad hub. It lays claim to being the oldest operating bar in Florida. (it was a speakeasy during Prohibition.)

The Palace Saloon opened in 1903, when Fernandina Beach was a major seaport and railroad hub. It lays claim to being the oldest operating bar in Florida. (It was a speakeasy during Prohibition.)

The Amelia Island region also boasts eight state parks, with camping, hiking, fishing and great beaches, and a national park. What part of Florida can compare?

Here are some highlights of visiting Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island:

Fort Clinch State Park: The top tip of Fernandina Beach is occupied by this park, which preserves a stunning landscape of sprawling oak trees and a broad beautiful beach. The fort itself is fun to visit because there are re-enactors present to bring history alive. Other park attractions: biking on the beach, a half-mile-long fishing pier, six miles of trails for hiking, lots of wildlife and two terrific campgrounds. Here’s more on Fort Clinch State Park from Florida Rambler.

The original and oldest section of Fernandina Beach is north of downtown and quite hidden away. The area is built around the original Spanish plaza, which this house overlooks.

The original and oldest section of Fernandina Beach is north of downtown and quite hidden away. The area is built around the original Spanish plaza, which this house overlooks. It’s worth finding your way to this off-the-beaten path neighborhood.

Explore Fernandina Beach’s history: The town is a perfect place to discover on foot. Stop at the Amelia Island Museum of History and pay $5 for a cell phone tour that takes you to “10 distinctive destinations that make Fernandina Beach memorable.”  The museum offers a variety of other guided tours; call (904)261-7378, ext. 105, for details.

The 1798 Kingsley Plantation owner's house faces the Fort George River because transportation was primarily by ship or boat.

The 1798 Kingsley Plantation faces the Fort George River.

Kingsley Plantation:  Part of a little known national park, this beautiful site tells fascinating stories of slaves and slave holders that may surprise you. This scenic spot deserves to be better known! More about the Kingsley Plantation from Florida Rambler.

Timucuan Preserve: Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve is a national park. It is 46,000 acres of salt marshes, coastal dunes, and hardwood hammocks, but it also preserves fascinating Florida history, including a re-creation of Fort Caroline, built by the French. More about the Timucuan Preserve from Florida Rambler.

Boneyard Beach inside Big Talbot State Park delights photographers and beach walkers.

Boneyard Beach inside Big Talbot State Park delights photographers and beach walkers.

Big Talbot State Park. This is one of the region’s eight state parks. Like all areas along this coast, it has great beaches. One of the most picturesque beaches is Boneyard Beach. It’s located via a short, attractive hiking trail below a lovely shaded picnic area called the Bluffs. The beach is famous for the white salt-washed skeletons of live oak and cedar trees that fell onto the beach because of erosion. Photographers love it. More on  Big Talbot Island State Park.

One of the eight state parks in the region preserves the 1928 Ribault Club, now a museum and special-event site. It was a resort for rich Northerners.

One of the eight state parks in the region, Fort George Island Cultural State Park, preserves the 1928 Ribault Club, once a resort for rich Northerners.

Little Talbot Island State Park.  This is one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier islands in Florida. It has five miles of white sand beaches, but also maritime forests, dunes and salt marshes. You can bike on the beach here and even rent bikes at the ranger station. Little Talbot has highly sought after beach-area campsites.

Kayaking : With so many rivers, creeks and salt marshes, the area is a great place for kayaking.  You can rent boats at Kayak Amelia, which offers everything from basic rentals to guided birding paddles, tai-chi paddles, sunset and full-moon paddles.

The grounds at Fort Clinch on Amelia Island.

The grounds at Fort Clinch on Amelia Island.

The beach at Amelia Island's Fort Clinch State Park is so broad and hard-packed, you can bike on it.

The beach at Amelia Island’s Fort Clinch State Park is so broad and hard-packed, you can bike on it.

Horseback riding on the beach: Amelia Island State Park  is one of the few locations on the east coast that offers horseback riding on the beach and riding tours along the shoreline. Kelly Seahorse Ranch provides the guided equestrian tours and also rents bikes. More about this park.

See Cumberland Island from a river cruise. From Fort Clinch in Fernandina Beach, you can see across the St. Mary’s River to the pristine Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia. This beautiful and historic island is well worth a visit on its own, but ferries leave from St. Mary’s, Georgia, and you must devote a full day to the outing. For just a taste of Cumberland Island, however, you can take a river cruise from Fernandina Beach that will show you the island from the water, including the ruins of the grand Carnegie Dungeness Mansion and the island’s wild horses. Here’s more about the tours.

Watching sunset. Fernandina Beach’s downtown faces west at the docks on the Amelia River. When the sun sets each night, it is framed by sailboats or pilings and shrimp boats. We watched it from the Salty Pelican Bar and Grill, 12 N Front St., but Brett’s Waterway Café in the marina also has a great view.

Hiking: There are enough hiking trails to give you a wide choice.  The state parks all have trails and so does the national park. Folks like the trails across the road from Fort Caroline at Spanish Pond, a key location in the battle between the French and Spanish.  Near the Fort Caroline Monument is the Theodore Roosevelt Area , another good place to hike. Here’s  a trail map of the area. This land was donated by Willie H. Browne, who turned down million-dollar offers for this property. His goal:  Giving folks “a place in the woods to go to.”

Bicycling: As far as I’m concerned, there is no trail better than biking on a hard-packed beach, and that’s possible at multiple beaches in this region. There are also trails through beautiful scenery in the state parks.

The nearby state parks are:

More resources for planning a visit to Amelia Island:

Places to stay: We used Priceline to bid on a hotel in Fernandina Beach and ended up with a very nice and inexpensive room at Amelia Hotel at the Beach. It’s a good location across from the public beach; you must drive to the downtown area. Hotels range from a Ritz-Carlton to the usual chains and few mom-and-pops. For camping, plan ahead and check ReserveAmerica.

Camping: Here’s a Florida Rambler report on nearby campgrounds.

When to visit Amelia Island. Unlike South Florida, this area can get chilly in winter. December and January days average highs in the 60s with occasional cold snaps bringing days in the 30s and 40s. Summers are hot, which makes this a big beach destination. Moderate daytime temperatures in the 70s, though, are the rule in March, April, May, October and November, which are ideal times for hiking and kayaking.

A few website where you’ll find information on accommodations and attracions:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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