Amelia Island, literally the first vacation destination on Florida’s east coast, is a small-town gem with a suburban core that’s all beach-resort around the edges. It’s the perfect sunny getaway for couples seeking quiet and romance, families who want the familiar comforts of home, and anyone who loves to play in warm ocean waters.
The island is also steeped in local history, and has worn many different hats over the years: Timucuan Indian homeland, French Huguenot settlement, Spanish mission, Civil War fortification, and Victorian seaside haunt. The northern town of Fernandina Beach owns most of the main historical sites, as well as genteel nineteenth-century homes, fine eateries, boutique shops, and even a few ghosts (so I’m told). Thirteen miles of white-sand beach stretch to the south, where there are parkways canopied with Spanish moss and peaceful nature preserves and resorts.
During my recent visit, I got to experience nearly every aspect of this truly southern getaway for under $500.
The closest major airport to Amelia Island is Jacksonville International (JAX), about a 30-minute drive away. As with most cities in Florida, fares are some of the cheapest in the country from many U.S. departure cities. From Boston, I paid only $204.10 round-trip, including taxes and fees, for my Delta-operated Comair flight. Most major U.S. airlines fly into Jacksonville, along with low-cost carriers AirTran, JetBlue, and Southwest.
Since I first starting benchmarking fares a little more than a month before my flight, prices have remained relatively consistent. Here’s a sampling of the going rates from other cities the last time I checked.
- $159 from Baltimore
- $159 from Chicago
- $183 from St. Louis
- $204 from Houston
- $243 from Los Angeles
- $260 from San Diego
The Jacksonville airport has free wi-fi, by the way, so you can kill time online while waiting for your flight to board.
Amelia Island is 13 miles long and only a few miles across at its widest point. The best way to get around and explore the whole island is by driving, especially since you’ll need to rent a car anyway to get to and from the airport. Booking a car rental was pretty straightforward. I just compared prices online and found the lowest price on Hotwire with Hertz. The total for my economy car came to $68.72. Because I only had to drive a short distance, my one gas bill for the whole trip came to just $24.39.
Where to stay
When it comes to accommodations, Amelia Island is certainly not cheap. Most rooms cost more than $200 per night. I was able to find a few affordable rooms at Addison House Bed and Breakfast for $155 per night, plus nine-percent tax. The only downside was that I could afford to stay just two nights if I wanted to keep under budget.
There are a few inexpensive chain hotels like Best Western and Hampton Inn, which would have allowed me to stay longer, but I opted to go for local character over extra time. I also considered the historic Florida House Inn, Florida’s oldest surviving hotel, which could have worked with a few low-end rooms priced at $99 weekdays/$119 weekends. Had I known at the time the hotel offered free scooter rentals for guests, I might have gone for it.
Nevertheless, with the Addison’s Victorian architecture and wrapping porches, I got exactly what I was looking for. The inn also charmed me with its serene garden courtyard filled with the relaxing sounds of a trickling fountain and chirping cicadas. It felt like I had stepped into an antebellum time warp. Rooms are cheerful with simple Floridian decor, hardwood floors, and a lot of natural light. They also come equipped with AC and cable television, and some have whirlpool baths. As a perk, the B&B offers free bicycles to its guests, along will a full made-to-order breakfast. For more of a fine dining experience, try the restaurant next door called Embers, which serves signature dishes such as herb-crusted grouper for dinner.
What to do
The town of Fernandina Beach, particularly its downtown district, is the island’s social center. Visitors can take a self-guided walking tour for free. Sights include gingerbread homes of Industrial Revolution pioneers and the Palace, Florida’s oldest saloon and one of the first bars to serve Coca-Cola. At night, carriage rides take visitors on 30-minute narrated tours of the historic district for $15. With Boomer, a grey Percheron horse, leading the way, my guide told tales about certain home’s architectural mishaps and unearthly residents. Visitors more interested in spectral happenings can take a dedicated ghost walking tour for $10.
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If you came to Amelia Island for one reason only, it would be for the beaches. As a New Englander used to bone-chilling ocean temperatures, the water seemed almost too warm, a bit like bath water. The vast eastern shoreline remains unspoiled, with plenty of room to pitch an umbrella and relax without the crowds. Sand stretches for miles, and some beaches serve as wildlife nesting grounds. All are completely free to the public. For a splurge, visitors can go horseback riding with Kelly’s Seahorse Ranch, the only state-endorsed horse ranch that allows you to take the animals on the beach. The gentle ride treks through Amelia Island State Park for about an hour and costs $50. The well-tended horses are matched up with each rider to ensure the best experience possible.
To round out my stay, I spent a morning exploring Fort Clinch State Park, where I toured the Confederate Civil War fort, which was occupied by Union soldiers after Robert E. Lee determined it to be indefensible. The park also has several quiet beaches ideal for bird-watching, and a long fishing pier that juts out into the open ocean. There’s a small entrance fee to drive into the park, and admission to the fort costs an additional $3.
And although I couldn’t afford to stay at Amelia Island Plantation, I decided to check out its public facilities. The AAA-Four Diamond resort complex allows day visitors to wander through its upscale shopping village for free, receive treatments at its day spa, or participate in its nature programs.
Amelia Island touts itself as “the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry,” and there’s no better place to experience the source of that moniker than the Fernandina Seafood Market on N. Front Street. At this little shack of a restaurant, you can get a full shrimp basket for $8.25, and then watch the shrimp boats unload while you eat. Unfortunately, it was closed when I was there, but I’m told the portions are big and the food is quite good.
For something a little less rugged, I dined at La Bodega, a small cafe on South 3rd Street in Fernandina Beach. The cuisine is a mix of southern and eclectic. I had a Cajun-spiced Mahi Mahi with tropical fruit salsa that came with cheese grits and jalapeno collard greens on the side. The restaurant also makes unique ginger-thyme biscuits served with candied ginger and honey butter. Entrees average $20, which is quite a few dollars cheaper than most area restaurants.
Set in Northern Florida, Amelia Island entices visitors year-round who want to catch a few rays without the persistent heat and humidity associated with most of Florida. By September, temperatures drop into the comfortable 80s and don’t rise again until summer, when families from nearby southern states flock to the island’s shores for vacation. Winter and spring bring large events such as the shrimp festival, while fall is a more quiet time during which snowbirds start their annual descent. No matter when you go, anytime is ideal for seeing the historic sights or just passively day-dreaming on the beach.
I’ll be heading to Bermuda for my next column, all for under $500. If there’s a place you’d like me to explore in the future, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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