History, nature and Southern charm all come together on Amelia Island

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A guide from Amelia Island Kayak Excursions on a tour of the marshland around Egan's Creek on Amelia Island.
A guide from Amelia Island Kayak Excursions on a tour of the marshland around Egan's Creek on Amelia Island. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

Amelia Island, north of Jacksonville, is one of the oldest settlements in Florida and has seen a number of industries come and go. Indigo was cultivated there before the Revolutionary War, and since then it has been supported by piracy and smuggling, railroads and shipping, pulp and paper manufacturing and shrimping, among other endeavors.

Today, real estate and tourism are on the ascent, and tourism is second only to the two paper mills as a revenue source for the 13-mile-long island.

I had a chance recently to sample the tourism experience on Amelia Island and its principle town, Fernandina Beach, on a two-day stay arranged by Visit Florida and the local destination agency, the Amelia Island Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The classic stops are the two large, high-end resorts that dominate the southern half of the island: the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island and the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, which have spas, golf courses and the full menu of luxury amenities.

I got to focus on three other aspects of Amelia: the beaches, the marshlands and the quaintly Victorian downtown area of Fernandina Beach.

The downtown in the 1850s was the starting point for a cross-Florida railroad developed to ship goods from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. The rail station still stands, serving as the city's welcome center for tourists.

After the Civil War, the city was filled with Victorian homes and business structures, which remain today, repurposed as shops, bars and restaurants. I had lunch at one, Timoti's Seafood Shack, where I dined on a basket of fried shrimp and shared a picnic table with some locals who said I'd made a good choice by coming there.

Amelia is the southern end of a chain of barrier islands that is mostly in Georgia, including Jekyll Island and St. Simons Island. It is tidal marshland similar to the terrain featured in Pat Conroy's novels about coastal South Carolina.

I got a close view of the birds and aquatic life navigating the waters of Egan's Creek on a 90-minute tour with Amelia Island Kayak Excursions. The sky was a brilliant blue, and a winter breeze from the north kept me cool as I paddled through the spartina grass that shelters crabs, shrimp, small fish and other marine life from predators.

Later, I joined a tour on a larger boat operated by Amelia River Cruises, which took us across the state line to Cumberland Island in Georgia. We saw the ruins of a mansion built by the heirs of Andrew Carnegie as well as wild horses, a bald eagle sitting on a beach, and a dolphin fishing in a tidal creek we were motoring through.

In addition to Fernandina and the tidal marshes, tourists also flock to Amelia for the beaches, which are lined with upscale rental homes along Florida's AIA coastal highway. Amelia attracts a lot of families in the summer who spend their days in the sand and surf. A good place for a waterfront bite is the Salt Life Food Shack on the beach end of Atlantic Avenue, the Main Street of Fernandina Beach.

Before I left, I seized the opportunity to try something I had never done by taking a Segway personal transporter tour through the golf cart paths, backroads and sand alleys of the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort. The Segway was not at all hard to get the hang of, and the tour included a segment zooming across a decommissioned golf course, which was great fun.

I also paid a visit -- by car, not Segway -- to Fort Clinch State Park, which occupies 2,200 acres on the north end of the island. Its centerpiece is a Civil War era fort built at the mouth of the St. Mary's River, but the real reason to go is an amazing milelong drive from the park entrance to the fort through a canopy of ancient live oaks covered with Spanish moss.

It was easy to imagine that the scenery must have been the same when Amelia Island was settled 300 years ago.

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