By Bruce Stambaugh
It seems no matter how much planning my wife and I do for each trip we take, we find at least one unexpected gem along the way. Amelia Island, Florida was just such a place on a recent trip to the Sunshine state.
The unpretentious island initially was to be no more than a one-night layover to our final destination, Sarasota. It didn’t take long to realize what a diamond in the rough we had found. The island’s natural amenities alone deserved a closer look.
On the way home, we stopped at Amelia Island for a two-day self-guided tour. Once we started to uncover the island’s riches, we could have spent two weeks there.
Steeped in history and oozing with natural beauty, Amelia Island’s chief charm seemed to be its modesty. Just inside the Florida line from Georgia, I sensed the island and its people knew what they had, but just didn’t want to flaunt it.
On the Atlantic Ocean side, Main Beach runs the entire length of the 13.5 mile long island. In the off-season, resident and migrating birds far outnumbered the exploring humans combing the beach or local teens windsurfing.
On the inland side, historic Fernandina Beach graces the island’s picturesque waterfront. Here’s where the island’s modesty reigned. The beautiful little town was actually settled three years before St. Augustine, which bills itself as the oldest in the country.
Fernandina Beach lost its historic distinction when the Spanish conquistadores massacred the French settlers and all the island’s indigenous people, too. An open grassy square in the old town section still marks the spot.
Ironically, one of the many distinctive houses in the town stands adjacent to the infamous slaughter. The old place was used as the setting for the 1988 Pippi Longstocking movie.
Back in town, the oldest bar in Florida was temporarily converted into an ice cream parlor for a scene in the movie. The island’s elementary children were recruited for an ice cream fight until the reality of the hot Florida weather melted the main prop. Colored mashed potatoes were instant replacements to complete the filming.
Well-preserved historic buildings make up the impressive downtown. Locally owned restaurants serve locally caught seafood, while upscale boutiques attract shoppers from near and far. Stately, well-maintained homes from bygone years line the north-south streets off of the main drag.
To say Amelia Island’s attitude is small town would be an understatement. A fender bender outside our hotel brought four cruisers.
The desire to keep things as they are reaches far beyond the town itself. An outstanding state park features a Civil War fort. Egan Creek Greenway runs down the middle of the island for birders, joggers and bikers to enjoy. A charming lighthouse, still in operation, keeps watch over it all.
Take a boat cruise and you discover even more gems about this unheralded island. Rare birds, bottle nosed porpoises, wild Spanish stallions, and salt truncated live oaks are all part of the treasure chest of Amelia Island.
Even in the two additional days of exploration, we couldn’t uncover all of the island’s hidden nuggets. That will make our next visit all the more exciting.