Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 1:55 p.m.
Sidewalk cafes and expan-sive beaches. Victorian mansions and oceanfront golf. A quaint old railroad town and manicured resorts with full-service spas.
Fernandina Beach occupies the northern half of Amelia Island in northeast Florida. And together, the town and the island contain just about every imaginable component of a classic Florida getaway, from shopping in a quaint historic district to kayaking through sawgrass-lined waterways.
“Amelia Island offers a Florida beach destination with a unique southern charm,” says Gil Langley, president and chief executive officer of the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. He points out the varied draws of this area, from 40-foot sand dunes to natural beauty and colorful history. “Visitors delight at the luxurious offerings at our upscale resorts, the historic shopping and sights in downtown Fernandina Beach, and the amazing waterfront views and activities from 13 miles of shoreline.”
The island itself is 18 square miles. But the diversity of activities contained there make Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach a suitable destination for everyone from couples with divergent interests to large family groups trying to please a crowd.
Located two hours northeast of Gainesville, and just north of Jacksonville, Fernandina Beach is the county seat of Nassau County. Its Victorian courthouse, built in 1891, is the oldest county courthouse in Florida that is still in use.
The courthouse was built in an era when many wealthy northern industrialists were discovering that they didn't have to endure the harsh winters of the Northeast. As a result, the 50-block Historic District of Fernandina Beach resembles a tropical New England, containing more than 450 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The focal point of the lively shopping district is Center Street, which begins at the waterfront at the eastern terminus of the first railroad to transverse Florida. A waterfront train depot has been repurposed as a welcome center operated by the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council, where visitors can pick up informational guides and maps for self-guided walking tours of the town's architectural highlights.
But the picturesque streets of Fernandina Beach are only part of the draw to Amelia Island. Fort Clinch State Park offers recreation for anglers, swimmers and history buffs, who can tour the well-preserved 19th century fort and interact with period re-enactors. Resort amenities abound at such destinations as the Omni Amelia Island Plantation and the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island.
Amelia Island has existed under eight different flags, a fact that speaks to the friction among British, French and Spanish powers that vied to claim the area.
Even the surviving place names are reminders of the groups that had hoped to control northeast Florida. Fernandina Beach takes its name from King Ferdinand VII of Spain, but the Spanish name for the island—Isla de Santa Maria—was lost to history and replaced by Amelia Island, named for the daughter of King George II.
And though the names originated with sparring sides of the early exploration of Florida, today they combine for a peaceful island getaway.