Amelia and Cumberland Islands - St Augustine - Jacksonville
Touring the beautiful coastal areas north and south of Ponte Vedra.
The Florida House Inn
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With our comfortable room at the Hilton Garden Inn/Sawgrass as base camp, and looking for some adventure amidst the Ellis/Weber wedding festivities, my husband and I toured the beautiful coastal areas both north and south of Ponte Vedra, with their sweeping marsh vistas and weathered trees dripping with Spanish moss.
We first headed north to the very tip of Amelia Island to explore Fernandina Beach, a small town that is one of the oldest resorts in the state — as the saying goes, it’s “where Florida begins.” Fernandina has a Key West look and feel, with its shrimp boats and quaint Victorian carpenter Gothic houses. A 50-block area of downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places, and during the late nineteenth century, Fernandina’s docks were among the busiest in the South, welcoming ships from all over the globe. Tourists flocked there before Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railway took snowbirds farther south to warmer resorts in Florida.
It so happens that Joy Bateman, my colleague at this magazine, has both written and colorfully illustrated The Art of Dining: Amelia Island – A Restaurant Guide with Signature Recipes, which highlights the best restaurants, bakeries, and bed-and-breakfast establishments on Amelia Island. Naturally, we used Joy’s book as our guide to find a perfect luncheon spot — Brett’s Waterway Café — which is the only restaurant located on the harbor. We stopped for a beer at The Palace Saloon, built in 1878 and reputed to be the “oldest, continuously operating drinking establishment in the state.” Hand-carved mahogany caryatids gracing the 40-foot bar, and the tin ceiling and well-worn mosaic floors definitely made us feel as if we had stepped back in time.
We also peeked into the charming Florida House Inn, built in 1857 and (here we go again) the oldest, continuously operated hotel in the state of Florida. Many famous people stayed here over the years, including actors such as Laurel and Hardy. By now, I am sure you’re getting the message that this town is old! There are also modern motels in town — in fact we parked in front of a handsome downtown Hampton Inn.
We took a beautiful boat ride operated by Amelia River Cruises around fabled Cumberland Island, the nineteenth-century retreat of industrialist Thomas (brother of Andrew) and Lucy Carnegie, some of whose descendants, the McFadden and Copp families, live here in Memphis. Nancy Copp later told me they are always on Cumberland for Thanksgiving, where they especially enjoy traditional oyster roasts. She also says her husband, Dan, has a special talent for calling the alligators on the island — yes, you heard me, calling — and he is happy to demonstrate his unique call upon request. The Cumberland Island National Seashore is the most restricted park in the National Park Service system with daily visitors strictly limited; the only lodging is the Greyfield Inn.
On our cruise, we were thrilled to glimpse herds of the wild horses that have made the island home for centuries; brown pelicans flew overhead, friendly dolphins followed the boat, and a submarine headed out to sea from Naval Submarine Kings Bay base. Also barely visible were the ruins of Lucy Carnegie’s mansion, Dungeness. Cumberland Island (which is in Georgia) is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands along the Atlantic coast, with an amazing maritime forest and wilderness area and wide natural beaches, and its environment is stringently protected and preserved.
Once again on shore, we drove the length of Amelia Island with its 13 miles of pristine beaches back towards Ponte Vedra, with a stop at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for a fancy cocktail on the terrace overlooking dunes and the sea. We also stopped to read a historical marker telling us that in the mid-1930s, 200 acres on the southern end of Amelia Island were established as “American Beach,” which became an oceanfront haven for affluent African-Americans in those segregated times. It was a favorite haunt of celebrities like Cab Calloway and Joe Louis. The original 33-acre development is now on the National Register of Historic Places.