Our recent attendance at the 2018 Florida Governor’s Conference on Tourism was inspiring, to say the very least. Based on the information we gathered at the event, we have selected a few highlighted locations to spotlight on a virtual “tour” of Florida. These articles will be released in a series – each featuring a different location. For more information on the destinations we’re featuring, please click here. For now, please enjoy our very first feature on Amelia Island. Please note – information contained in this feature is not based on firsthand experience, but from promotional materials put out by representatives of the featured location at the 2018 Governor’s Conference.
Amelia is 13 miles long and two miles wide, with preserved park lands at its northern and southern tips, making up nearly 10% of the entire island… Amelia Island is edged with natural Appalachian quartz beaches and framed by sand dunes as high as 40 feet. Amelia Island is consistently ranked among the best of the best, including: one of the Top Beaches in Florida (USA Today, 2017), the No. 4 Happiest Seaside Town (Coastal Living, 2017), one of the South’s Best Small Towns (Southern Living, 2016), and seven consecutive years among the Top 10 U.S. Islands (Conde Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards).
Amelia Island has recently undergone a dramatic overhaul, with hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in “new hotels and restaurants, and massive renovations and expansions”, as well as several new attractions.
Amelia Island is home to more than 90 distinctive restaurants – “from the freshest Florida seafood and authentic Italian and Mexican specialties to fine dining masterpieces and decadent desserts”, and an exciting array of events, including “bed and breakfast tours and wine festivals to sport fishing and blues celebrations”. This is not to minimize the rich, alluring history to be found here. Locations like the Palace Saloon (the oldest saloon in Florida still remaining in its original location) and the lighthouse (built in 1838 and considered the oldest structure on Amelia Island) pay homage to the past while blending in transition to modern favorites such as alluring golf and shopping venues.
“Named in honor of Princess Amelia, daughter of King George II, present-day Amelia Island draws much of its unique charm from its turbulent past and rule under eight different flags of dominion. Today, the island offers a number of ways to explore Amelia’s intriguing past”.
During the 16th century, France, Spain and Britain extended their quests for land and riches to the newly discovered shores of North America and the land that would become known as Florida. Best summed up as “the French visited, the Spanish developed, the English named, and the American tamed,” Amelia’s shores were swept by international politics and intrigue. The island’s other rulers would eventually include the Patriots of Amelia Island, the Green Cross of Florida, and the Confederates.
Crucial for shipping routes and global power struggles, Amelia was prized as the deepest natural harbor in the South and Florida’s passageway to prosperity. Over time, the island has been prized as English plantation land, international port, playground for pioneers and pirates, Civil War fortress, tourist mecca, terminus of Florida’s first cross-state railroad and birthplace of the modern shrimping industry.
Love at First Sight
As early as 2,500 B.C., ancient Timucuan Indians praised the attributes of Amelia Island or “Napoyca.” The seeds of the island’s long struggle were planted in 1562, when Frenchman Jean Ribault first landed on the “Isle de Mai” (Island of May). Spain, too, fell in love and became intent on Christianizing the natives of “Santa Maria,” until they swapped Florida with England for Havana. After the swap, British loyalists established plantations for the King and named the island “Amelia” after Princess Amelia, daughter of King George II.
A Checkered Past
Enjoying her simple innocence and peaceful nature, many visitors would be shocked to learn of Amelia’s checkered past, when she was little more than a playground for smugglers, pirates and other ruffians, all fighting over her. This rather colorful period began during Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807, when the island was the border between Spanish Florida and American territory. With all U.S. ports closed to foreign shipping, the island’s Spanish harbor of Fernandina became the nation’s smuggling center for slaves, liquor and foreign luxuries. The area now known as Old Town once attracted racketeers from around the world. The bluff overlooking the San Carlos Military Site was lined with bordellos. Eventually Amelia’s town of Fernandina was forced to clean up its act when it ceded to the United States in 1821. This unruly past was eventually forgiven, as Amelia Island was named “Queen of Summer Resorts” in an 1896 issue of American Resorts. The magazine claimed that nearly 50,000 wealthy northerners had voyaged from New York to Fernandina on the Mallory Steamship Line, making Amelia Island Florida’s first tourist destination.
At the north end of the island stands Fort Clinch, named for General Duncan Lamont Clinch, an important figure in Florida’s Seminole War of the 1830s. Construction began on the fort in 1847 and continued during the Civil War but was never completed. Occupied by Confederate forces when the war began in 1861, it was taken by federal troops when a withdrawal was ordered by General Robert E. Lee just one year later. The garrison operation was greatly reduced in the years following the Civil War and eventually ceased altogether. In 1898, the fort was reactivated for several months during the Spanish-American War and during World War II as a communications and security post. In 1935, the state of Florida purchased 256 acres which included the abandoned fort. This marked the beginning of a program that led to the development of one of the first and finest state parks in Florida. Formally opened to the public in 1938, Fort Clinch State Park offers pristine beaches, trails, ponds, salt marshes and the island’s only campgrounds, as well as reenactments held the first weekend of the month at the remarkably preserved Fort Clinch.
The island’s charming Victorian historic district began to grow during the post-Civil War era, as soldiers and their families returned to build homes and businesses. Today, the 52-block historic district still blends past, present and future, where Victorian style meets modern day marvels, and where islanders gladly share the importance of Amelia’s diverse and sometimes tumultuous past. Picturesque downtown Fernandina Beach is now home to a unique collection of independently owned shops and restaurants housed in multi-colored brick buildings dating from 1873. Fernandina Beach has 450 ornate Victorian structures that were built prior to 1927, approximately 300 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Although later the starting point of Florida’s first cross-state railroad, in 1890, Amelia Island was bypassed when American industrialist Henry Flagler extended his railroads to lure tourists to more southern cities along the state’s east coast. In doing so, Flagler spared the island from mass modernization and protected its’ enduring Victorian charm, but passenger service to Amelia would eventually be eliminated in the 1930s. David Yulee, heralded as the “Father of the Florida railroad,” later made Fernandina Port the hub of his shipping and railroad venture and the beginning of Florida’s first cross-state railroad. Yulee’s idea of connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico with a railway system was the foundation for the plan that eventually saved shippers the long and costly trip across the treacherous Florida straits. Today, the historic Fernandina Beach Railroad Depot, lovingly restored to its original historic charm, serves as the Amelia Island Welcome Center and an icon on Fernandina Beach’s waterfront.
In the mid 1930s, the founders of Afro-American Life Insurance bought 200 acres on the southern end of Amelia Island. A.L. Lewis, one of the founders, was thought to be the first black millionaire in Florida. The 200 acres became known as American Beach, a glorious oceanfront haven for African Americans during the Jim Crow-era of segregation. In its heyday, its homes, restaurants and nightclubs attracted musical superstars such as Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and James Brown.
In 2010, American Beach celebrated 75 years. Today, approximately 100 homes remain from the 1940s and 1950s, and American Beach is the first stop on Florida’s Black Heritage Trail. Though its popularity faded with the desegregation, residents such as MaVynee Betsch, great-granddaughter of A.L. Lewis, worked to keep its history alive. MaVynee made her career as an opera singer throughout Europe, and upon her return became known as “The Beach Lady” due to her unwavering devotion to environmental causes. Her life’s work and personal resources were the catalyst for the preservation of the great sand dune, NaNa, a protected, majestic and spiritual presence on American Beach. Betsch died in September 2005, penniless, after devoting all of her time and money to her cause.
The American Beach Museum, located in historic American Beach, remembers the historic African American journey of vision, struggle, joy and triumph and celebrates the memories and memorabilia of several generations of African American residents and visitors, as well as the preservation of the historic site.
Birth of an Industry
In the early 20th century, Amelia Island became the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry, as innovators replaced rowboats and cast nets with power driven seines and otter trawls. Today, only a handful of shrimp trawlers return to the downtown docks with a brilliant sunset backdrop. In its heyday, nearly 80 percent of Florida’s sweet Atlantic White Shrimp were harvested in Amelia’s waters and Amelia’s own Burbank Trawl Makers (locals call it The Net House) was one of the world’s largest producers of hand-sewn shrimp nets. As you might expect, the island’s most popular annual event is the historic Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. Each year, more than 100,000 island locals and visitors gather to celebrate Amelia Island’s critical crustacean with parades, fireworks, contests, and of course, fresh seafood.
Two Centuries of Old Town
On the north end of the island, visitors can explore Old Town, the last Spanish Town in the Western Hemisphere in 1811. Old town was the original encampment of the Timucuans and at one time featured the Spanish Fort San Carlos. In 2011, Old Town celebrated its 200-year anniversary.
History has made its mark on every inch of the island, but to truly appreciate its jumbled past requires a visit to the Amelia Island Museum of History, Florida’s first spoken history museum. Here, in what was once the county jail built in 1935, the history of the Isle of Eight Flags comes alive through exhibits, historical objects and archaeological finds. The museum also conducts informative and entertaining walking tours of the historic district and guided ghost tours. These narrated 90-minute walking tours through historic Fernandina Beach will fill you with the legends of the island and thrill you with tales of the island’s supernatural history. The museum also offers cell phone walking tours, allowing visitors to explore Fernandina Beach history at their own pace.
Fort Clinch State Park
Fort Clinch is one of the most well-preserved 19th century forts in the country. Daily tours with period re-enactors depicting garrison life bring the fort to life for visitors. Sunbathing, swimming, and beachcombing are popular on the park’s beach, while anglers fish from the pier or take advantage of excellent surf fishing. Hikers and bicyclists can enjoy a six-mile trail through the park and view some of the tallest sand dunes in the state of Florida. Self-guided nature trails provide opportunities to learn about and observe native plants and wildlife. Two full-facility campgrounds and a youth camping area provide overnight accommodations for family adventure.
No visit to Amelia Island is complete without a tour of the surrounding scenic waterways. Tours from Amelia River Cruises & Charters are fully narrated, as you explore the backwaters of Amelia Island and Cumberland Island and cruise up Egan’s Creek to the Amelia Island Lighthouse. Families can enjoy a guided Jet Ski tour with Fly Fishing Adventures or come face to face with egrets, herons and perhaps a dolphin, manatee or sea turtle with the fine folks at Kayak Amelia or Amelia Island Kayak Excursions, as they navigate the tranquil salt marsh of the Talbot Islands State Park, Timucuan Preserve and Egan’s Creek. Amelia Boat Rentals offers boat rentals – with or without a captain – to observe native wildlife and take in the island’s natural beauty from the water. Kayak Amelia also offers guided stand–up paddleboard (SUP) tours. Backwater Cat Adventure provides one of the newest and most unique boat tours on Amelia. Visitors pilot their own two-person “Craigcat” boats, which are very safe and easy to drive, even for inexperienced boaters. A guide leads the way on an interactive adventure with local wildlife and beautiful scenery.
High Flying Fun
Thrill-seeking families can take their vacations to a whole new level with an aerial tour of Amelia Island. Hang Glide USA offers trike–flying tours of the island, giving an unforgettable, bird’s-eye view of gorgeous scenery and shimmering waters. Knowledgeable tour guides showcase points of interest, as you wave to friends and family below. Guests must be at least 14 years old to begin flight training (including “Introductory Flights”) and at least 16 in order to fly solo.