As I lie limp from the churning fingers that have kneaded my limbs into glorious oblivion, my only company is a throng of frolicking egrets and bathing loggerhead turtles around a peaceful lagoon. Lulled into a sweet snooze at this secluded spa, I was on an island facing the Atlantic Ocean.
No, it's not an enchanted isle somewhere near the Caribbean. It's Amelia Island, the southernmost of the Golden Isle chain of barrier islands off Florida's most northeasterly tip whose quartz beaches, sandy dunes and verdant marshes once made hard-hearted pirates and robber barons swoon at her beauty.
Most travelers could bypass this wilderness refuge on their road trip to other destinations such as Daytona Beach or Orlando. Even railroad baron Henry Flagler, the renowned founder of Florida's tourism, decided his Florida East Coast Railway ought to skip this island, forever locking its only town in a Victorian time capsule.
From Jacksonville International Airport, it's a 40-minute drive north to this wee island of 13-mile by 2-miles where history, nature and spas mesh seamlessly with a gentler paced Southern Charm.
I follow Ally, my masseuse with the golden touch, to a meditation room, part of the 25 treatment-roomed Amelia Island Plantation Spa that overlooks umbrellas of sabal palm and live oak along Red Maple Lake. Outside, a boardwalk meanders towards the newest addition: a Watsu massage facility where a postage-sized pool of tepid salt water awaits buoyant patrons. "We're all about water," offers Liz Hutto, Spa director.
The eco-friendly resort sits like a rustic gem wedged between the flapping waves of the Atlantic on the east and green marshlands of the west. Twenty-four pools, 3 ½ miles of Atlantic Beach and a myriad of lagoons twist and turn around the 54-hole golf course of the 1,350-acred posh family-friendly resort. There's "Kids Camp Amelia," featuring full and half-day sessions of tennis, golf, nature and aquatics clinics or "Just For Kids," an evening where kids try a hoe-down with hay wagon rides and pool parties.
With over 20 nature tours available, I've arrived for a "Birding 101" class. Along the Atlantic Migratory Flyway this area is a haven for purple sandpipers, black-bellied plovers and long-billed curlews. Resident naturalist and marine biologist, Christina Nelson whips out her binoculars and belts, "There's the green heron, I've been waiting for him all day."
White speckles cover the sinewy branches that hang on the edge of the still tannic waters. A flock of egrets stands stoically like sentinels unaware of the percolating bubbles beneath. Perhaps a resident turtle or a mighty tarpon has entered our midst. After the wildlife sanctuary, it's off to Fernandina Beach.
Officially Florida's first beach town, Fernandina Beach, named after King Ferdinand II of Spain, remains beautifully preserved in a Victorian past. After the Civil War, teems of wealthy northerners arrived to enjoy the sandy beaches and leviathan dunes. During the island's Golden Era (1870-1910), the shipping magnates settled in opulent homes along the Silk Stocking District, named after the preferred hosiery of the neighborhood matrons and not after the industry.
Today, ten of the Victorian mansions are quaint Bed and Breakfast Inns. The Florida House Inn, Florida's oldest running hotel which first opened in 1857, is now an inn with period decorated rooms having all the modern amenities. Situated in the heart of the 50-block Historic District on South 3rd Street, it's a perfect springboard for museum hopping, antique shopping and local touring.
For the history buff, the Amelia Island Museum is a stone's throw away and happens to be Florida's only oral history museum where a team of storytellers recounts legends of buccaneers, tycoons, and fishermen. After all, this is the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry. Interested folk can even tour the fairytale like blocks, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with a local guide.
Nearby the inn is Florida's oldest watering hole, aptly called, "The Paradise Saloon." A cast of millionaires from the DuPonts to the Rockefellers all wet their whistles here prior to visiting Carnegie's Cumberland Island. The story goes that Carnegie then considered as "Nouveaux Riches," wasn't welcomed by the millionaires whose lavish cottages lined the shores of Jekyll Island so Carnegie did the next best thing. He bought an entire island beside them called Cumberland, a 15-minute ferry ride north of Amelia Island.
Today, visitors can stay overnight at Cumberland Island's only inn, Greyfield Inn which was the nuptial setting for the late John F Kennedy Junior and Carolyn Bessette. Wild stallions left over from the days of the Spanish Conquistadors triumph over this paradise, often drumming up thick clouds of dust.
I amble to the foot of Centre Street to the pier's edge. Staccato chirps of crickets announce the rising of a crescent moon as a two-masked schooner reminiscent of a pirate's ship docks and its motley crew disembarks. These folks aren't real pirates. They are travelers like myself, returning from a voyage to the enchanted Amelia isle.
Ilona Kauremszky is the producer of mycompass.ca and the founding president of the Travel Media Association of Canada's Ontario Chapter.
Courtesy of Amelia Island CVB
If you go
The climate on Amelia Island is mild year round but it's not advised to take a dip in the Atlantic during the winter months, as the water is colder. February's average high temperature is 66.8F
By Car - Take I-95 to exit 323, turn east onto A1A, drive 15 miles crossing the Intracoastal Waterway onto Amelia Island.
By Air - Departing from Toronto, the flight is roughly five hours. Continental Airlines has daily connecting flights via Newark to Jacksonville International Airport. For more information call the International Travel Desk at 1.800.231.0856.
Spa Information: Amelia Island Plantation offers a variety of spa packages for men and women 16 years and older. For more info call Spa Amelia at: 1.877.843.7722 or visit
Nature Programs: At Amelia Island Plantation, there are ongoing programs depending on the time of year. Visit the web site to view the monthly calendar of events. For more info and schedule visit www.aipfl.com.
Attractions: The 50-block historic district of Fernandina Beach features Victorian architecture as well as a string of antique shops and restaurants. For a guided tour, reservations can be made at the Amelia Island Museum of History. Tel: 904-261-7378.
You can pick up brochures and
other local information
from restaurants to nature attractions at the Amelia Island Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center (102 Centre Street; tel. 904-261-3248). It's in the old railroad depot by the harbor at the foot of Centre Street.
Other Info: Call 1.800.2AMELIA or visit www.ameliaisland.org
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