“Wait, where are you going again?” my husband drawled. “Amelia Island,” I responded impatiently, throwing the signature vibrant-hued print of a Lilly Pulitzer dress into my carry-on as I packed for a research trip away. “It’s by Jacksonville,” I added, somewhat helpfully. But he made a valid point. Amelia Island is something of a hidden gem, even to travel writers like me (and their spouses, apparently). It’s a lush barrier island that feels more like Georgia than Florida, complete with iconic chandeliers of swaying Spanish moss adorning the heritage oaks. This sleepy spot on the First Coast, so named as it was the first segment of the sunshine state to be colonized by Europeans, flies under many travelers’ radar. That fact, along with easy access, perpetually pleasant weather, a signature annual event (the fancy car show), an up-and-coming culinary scene and ritzy accommodation offerings, combine to make Amelia Island, Florida, a budding oasis ripe for discovery.
How to Get to Amelia Island
Though the island is roughly a four-hour drive from Charleston, South Carolina and five and change from Atlanta, Georgia, it’s easiest for most visitors to fly into the nearest commercial airport, Jacksonville. With major airlines like American, Delta, Southwest and United all flying into JAX, including nonstops from hubs like Las Vegas, New York and DC, it’s a reasonable weekend escape for many in the contiguous USA. Multiple other nonstop legs exist, including from cities such as Denver, Dallas and Los Angeles. All in all, ten airlines fly into Jacksonville, with Breeze Airways operating the most flights and connecting the city to ten smaller cities like Hartford, Providence and Columbus. Many hotels can arrange for transport from the airport, though rental cars, airport taxis and rideshares are also available for the 30-minute ish (23 miles) jaunt.
When to Go to Amelia Island
Though the island is accessible and pleasant all year long, the most popular times to visit are the spring and summer seasons. In terms of the warmest weather period, the months of April through October all have an average high of at least 76 degrees, topping out at 88 degrees in July. If you’d like to avoid the high season, consider a winter trip, when the weather is still relatively mild. January temperatures average 62 for the high and 50 for the low, while the February monthly high is 66 degrees with 53 degrees for the low.
Where to Stay on Amelia Island
Amelia Island offers a mix of large luxe resorts and charming little B&Bs. A sure winner is the Ritz-Carlton near Fernandina Beach. As with all properties in the RC portfolio, expect excellent service and fancy-ish rooms, each with Atlantic Ocean views and a private balcony. This spot also shines for another reason: its family-friendly offerings, including a guided naturalist hike on the sand dunes, pirate turn-down service (yep, this is a thing) and a kids club. If you’re lucky enough to escape around the holidays, there’s an annual 14-foot gingerbread-sculpted pirate ship in the lobby. Three pools, on-site golf and tennis, a fitness center and a trio of stellar eateries that offer the most from the coast round out the amenities at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island.
For those who prefer a more quaint approach to accommodations, the Williams House features a peaceful environment tucked into a historic inn. Ten guest rooms are spread through three buildings, including the main attraction: a repurposed Victorian-era mansion, a Florida Heritage Landmark site and one of the oldest homes on the island. Architecture buffs may notice the distinct veranda and (rare) original wrought iron fence. A gourmet two-course breakfast, complimentary cruiser bikes and a convenient Fernandina Beach address are key perks here.
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What to Do on Amelia Island
The Isle of Eight Flags (as it’s sometimes called for how many different countries have held it) has enough to do and see to keep travelers more than entertained for a weekend. Beyond that beach bum, cocktail-in-hand lifestyle, there’s tons to see and do, from beautiful natural attractions to an award-winning spa and a lavish annual automobile show.
Outdoors & Culture
Start by keeping your eyes peeled for longtime resident John Grisham, whose own Ode to Amelia Island has inspired a trip or two; he’s a regular participant at the Amelia Island Book Festival if you’re so inclined to stalk. On a less sinister note, golf enthusiasts will find plenty to enjoy in the area, specifically Oak Marsh Golf Course on the Omni Amelia Island Resort property; it’s a well-known, classic Pete Dye course, complete with 14 holes with water hazards and a PGA pedigree. Pro tip: if you’re an avid golfer or are staying longer than a weekend, consider a quick trip down to TPC Sawgrass, home of the Players Championship and about 50 miles from Amelia Island.
There are a couple of state parks on the island, Amelia Island State Park and Fort Clinch State Park. The latter was a strategic Civil War site and is now 1,400 protected acres, including the historic fort, a boardwalk, a beach, campsites and an amphitheater. Popular activities include hiking or biking the six-mile, multi-use trail, picnicking in a maritime hammock area and surfing the impressive nearby break. Remember to check out the beaches of the Cumberland Sound, which offer views of Cumberland Island National Seashore and its famous wild horses. Amelia Island State Park is much smaller and consists of 200 acres at the island’s southern tip. An on-site tackle shop makes fishing accessible, and it’s also a premiere stop on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.
Another massive draw is the annual car show, Concours d’Elegance, held each March on the island. Now known as The Amelia, it regularly draws 25,000 automotive enthusiasts and is considered a flagship event. Styled after the French “competition of elegance” tradition, The Amelia showcases high-end, rare collector cars and is one of the year’s busiest times. Vroom, vroom, indeed.
Shopping & Spa
For the nicest Spa on the island, check out the Spa at the Ritz-Carlton; one signature service stands out as a unique offering in the wellness space and is an Amelia Island exclusive: the heaven in a hammock. Think trippy yet rejuvenating zero-gravity massage action.
For shops, visitors should head to the colorful and walkable town of Fernandina Beach. Grab local artwork at the Island Art Association, or pick up a polo at JJ Cooper, an upscale men’s clothier, just two of many locally-owned options. To stay hydrated while browsing in town, scoop up an iced tea or beverage from The Spice and Tea Exchange; my personal favorite was the refreshing and floral lavender lemonade!
Where to Eat & Drink on Amelia Island
There’s no better restaurant on island than Salt at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, Amelia Island, a AAA Five Diamond spot. Helmed by chef Okan Kizilbayir, former sous chef at three Michelin star Le Bernadin, this elevated spot is as subtle as it is delicious. The menu is updated regularly, though a braised artichoke starter, poached Atlantic halibut with morels main course, and chocolate soufflé dessert are examples of what excellence to expect. Want to work a little harder for your meal? Try the Hook, Line, & Supper option also at the Ritz. It starts with a private boat charter morning on the water. Then, a chef prepares the day’s catch and presents a multi-course meal later. Think sea to plate, or more accurately, estuary to table. Wash it all down with a local beer from Amelia Island Brewing, like the delightful Jolene IPA. (Yep, the songs in my head now, too).
In Fernandina Beach, there are plenty of other watering holes and eateries to enjoy. Grab tapas at España (the scallops are fire), a beverage at the oldest bar in Florida, the Palace Saloon, and approachable comfort food from the Salty Pelican. An old school diner can be a welcome respite from over-the-top-meals while on vacation, so consider a visit to the Beach Diner for breakfast. Another great morning spot is Amelia Island Coffee. Beyond a classic coffee house, this spot is housed in a beautiful red brick building and offers both indoor and outdoor seating for its full brunch menu. Amelia Island is also known for its fudge, so end on a sweet note at Fernandina’s Fantastic Fudge; the marble slab-style fudge is available in a plethora of flavors, like Rocky Road, Maple Nut, Chocolate Walnut and Chocolate Peanut Butter.
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