The winter weather was just beginning to seriously set in when we finished packing up the Airstream and pulled out of our driveway. It had been a mild start to the new year and our biggest fear of departing in a snow storm wasn’t going to happen. In fact, a steady rainfall was the most we had to contend with that first day on the road. Not bad for the start of January in the Midwest.
A few days later we crossed into Florida—the Sunshine State. Land of moist, tropical breezes and abundantly green vegetation . . . even in the depths of winter. We are ready to soak up that warmth and shed our heavy winter clothes. It’s strange how quickly one can forget the conditions recently left behind. Truly—out of sight, out of mind.
We didn’t go far into Florida that day. Our first destination was barely over the state line. Leaving the interstate, we hung a left and drove straight for the ocean. We planned on spending a few days on a small patch of land separated from the mainland by a narrow band of water known as the Intracoastal Waterway. Northern Florida can have fickle winter weather—January being the coldest month. Knowing we might not have the warmest of Florida temperatures, we bravely forged ahead.
Although barrier islands are found along nearly the entire eastern seaboard of our country, they have different personalities. In the Southeast, they are known as the Sea Islands and share many of the same physical and historical characteristics. Numbering over a 100 in all, in Georgia they are often referred to as the Golden Isles. Even though it is a officially part of Florida, Amelia Island, the southernmost of this Sea Island string, is sometimes considered part of the family group, albeit perhaps a step-relation at that.
Amelia Island has two distinct personalities—geographically divided by the north and south parts. The southern section, aka The Plantation Area, is all about big-name resorts . . . the Ritz Carlton, the Omni, the Marriott, (got the picture?) and therein lies the island’s claim to fame. But the northern section is quite simply a world apart. Night-and-day different. Quaint and picturesque versus glitzy and all-inclusive.
And never do the two intertwine. No doubt about it, the northern half was our cup of tea and the state park built around an historic fort was to be our destination for the three days to come. Pass through the park gates and the environment changes abruptly—from ordinary city streets to nature overgrown and returning to its natural state. Florida the way it once was, where sandy beaches border maritime hammocks with large moss-draped oaks and exotic vegetation.
Fort Clinch is a 19th-century brick fortress begun in 1847 after the end of the Second Seminole War in Florida. Actually, the only battle to occur here was when Union troops captured the fort in 1862 from the Confederate forces that were occupying it. Fort Clinch served as a base of Union operations in the area for the duration of the Civil War.
Today the area is a stunning landscape of sprawling live oak trees and a broad beautiful beach that wraps around the northern tip of Amelia Island. The State of Florida purchased 256 acres in 1935 that included the abandoned fort and the surrounding area, opening it to the public in 1935. Today you can take a very creative tour of the fort—your guide being a costumed interpreter who re-enacts as a Civil War soldier in 1864. Our guide was a colonel on guard duty keeping warm over a wood-burning fire, who took time from his ‘duties’ to show us around. It was quite the tour and brought interest even to those not too interested in military life and the operations thereof (not that I’m making any personal reference, mind you).
Fort Clinch State Park has two separate campgrounds, both having power and water hookups. But that is where the similarities end. The River Campground is adjacent to the Amelia River while the Beach Campground is just behind the sand dunes lining the Atlantic Ocean. One is ensconced in a canopy-shaded forest while the other is dotted with palm trees within hearing range of the ocean surf—our chosen location. Setting up camp, we were ready to enjoy the ocean breezes and salty, moist air. We’re not in Kansas anymore!
Leading from the campground, a short boardwalk spanning sand dunes and coastal vegetation takes you to the turquoise ocean waters where (hopefully) pastel-colored sunrise skies await. (And winter sunrises here come at mercifully more civilized times than those in the summer!)
One of the great bonuses of Amelia Island is the great biking paths found here. Thirteen miles in length, the island is virtually laced with dedicated biking lanes and paved trails. The tree-lined Amelia Island Trail which parallels Scenic Highway A1A most of the way is part of the East Coast Greenway, a growing trail network stretching from Florida to Maine.
You can even continue to ride south over the Nassau Sound Bridge off Amelia Island to arrive at both Big and Little Talbot island State Parks. Almost completely undeveloped, these parks preserve the image of what Florida used to be—a time when this part of our country was wild and overgrown with vegetation, where only native tribes inhabited the land. Primarily nature preserves, both parks offer hiking trails through salt marshes, maritime forests and most notably, the mile-long Black Rock Trail which leads to the Boneyard Beach, which gets its name from the fallen, sun-bleached trees that line the beach. Between bikes and hikes, Amelia Island offers great recreational opportunities. And I haven’t even mentioned the miles of empty hard-packed beaches you can walk or trails that lead to scenic views for bird watching and sunsets over salt marshes.
If you’re not the outdoor, energetic type, Amelia Island might still entice you. Perhaps I
saved the best for last—the charms of downtown Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island’s only town. Once a vibrant, Victorian seaport village, Fernandina is postcard perfect with its neatly preserved storefronts, brick-paved main thoroughfare nicely landscaped and free of modern distractions like utility poles and stoplights. The town planners have done it right, making for one very attractive place to spend some leisure time. Plenty of good choices for eating spots and an eclectic assortment of boutiques, bookstores and antique shops encourages you to spend a day or more strolling the business district. And that is what we did.
Amelia Island has had its economic ups and downs through the centuries since the French arrived here first. Its location, natural beauty, and deep harbor were the attributes that drew different countries and groups here to leave their marks. Perhaps David Yulee with his vision of a Florida railroad traversing the state (decades before Henry Flagler laid his train tracks) left the most indelible mark on this town. It brought jobs and prosperity to the island just prior to and after the Civil War. Earning the nickname “Father of the Florida Railroads”, he built a rail system from Fernandina to Cedar Key located on the Gulf to transport goods across the state. The port thrived, tourism grew, and Fernandina was put on the map. Many of the town’s buildings originate from that heyday.
The next economic boom to the island came just a couple of decades later. Fernandina’s picturesque and profitable harbor became one of the most productive shrimping and fishing centers in the southeast. Around 1900 three significant developments occurred that would elevate the fortunes of this town for decades to come: there was a change in location from inshore to offshore shrimping; a change in method from cast nets to the modern trawl; and a change in power from rowboats and sailboats to fleets of motor-powered vessels. Fernandina is where shrimpers put it all together and where the great shrimping fleets of today had their humble beginnings.
During the height of the industry, spanning the first three decades of the 20th century, close to 100 shrimp boats were docked in the Fernandina harbor. The decline began around 1940 with the increasing costs of doing business and the discovery of new shrimping grounds in Key West. Today only a handful of shrimping boats remain in Fernandina. Harborside warehouses and packing facilities that line the docks stand empty and deserted.
What was lost with the shrimping industry might have returned with the influx of another business—tourism. It appears to be alive and thriving in this tiny, out-of-the-way town. The former shrimping port has become a busy marina with a healthy number of seriously-sized yachts moored in the harbor. In town, there’s a plentiful supply of B&Bs established in former Victorian mansions. Fernandina Beach seems to be riding the tide of another successful reversal of fortunes.
As I am wont to do when coming across a town with a history as rich as this one, touring the residential historic district can provide a very illustrative perspective. Besides, I like viewing homes with character and varied architectural styles. And so, on our last afternoon, despite blustery conditions, we took a walking tour past 19th century homes lining the oak-canopied streets of Old Town Fernandina.
Even the cottages had character and charm.
Not to be taken as second best, the business district has its own significant sights. The U.S. Post Office and Customs House, built in 1910, was designed in the style of the Medici Palace in Florence.
The town of Fernandina has a lot to offer, whether you’re just passing through or plan to stay a day or three. It’s worth a lingering look. And if you take the time to give more than a cursory glance, I’m sure you’ll appreciate its distinctive charms . . .
. . . as well as its slightly quirky personality.
Heading deeper into the Florida tropics . . . our winter roadtrip has barely begun.
Airstream Travelers, Melinda and Chris