Travel to Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach, FL
Amelia Island is located in the Atlantic, just of the coast of Florida. Its most popular beach, Fernandina Beach, is the state’s northernmost beach. I’ve been going to this wonderful isle since I was a small child, so I know it well. The area is rich in natural beauty, history, and great activities for the entire family.
Amelia Island’s first occupants were the Timucuans, who began living here around 2,000BC, by some accounts, though other historians believe the Timucuans did not reside on the island until around the year 1,000. These indigenous people were mound builders and survived largely from fish caught in the surrounding waters. They called the island “Napoyca” and would remain here, in part, until the early part of the eighteenth century.
Under eight flags
As Europeans began to arrive in the New World, several nations discovered the natural bounty of the island and recognized the importance of its strategic location. As a result, Amelia Island would ultimately be under eight different flags.
Flag one – the French
The French explorer Jean Ribault landed on Amelia in 1562 with a band of 350 French Huguenots. They were seeking new lands for France as well as escaping political and religious persecution. Ribault named the island Isle de Mai.
Flag two – the Spanish
In 1565, the Spanish set their eyes on the island. Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his army killed Ribault and the French colonists and drove out any remaining colonists. Shortly after, Franciscans from Spain established a mission on the island, and the Spanish flag was hoisted in 1573. The island was re-named Isla de Santa Maria.
The town of Fernandina was established in 1685 on a bluff overlooking the AmeliaRiver. Today this area is known as OldTown. The settlement was largely destroyed by British raiders in 1702, and for over half a century it remained almost completely deserted.
Flag three – the British
James Oglethorpe, a British general and philanthropist, brought a group from English debtors prisons to Georgia in 1733 to establish a colony. In the following years, Oglethorpe scouted nearby areas, including Isla Santa Maria.
When the British General explored the island, he was impressed with its bounty of fruit trees and groves and was surprised that it was deserted and its fields fallow. He named the island Amelia to honor the daughter of then king of England George II, and in 1763, England claimed Amelia Island and the rest of Florida for her own as a result of the Treaty of Paris. In the treaty, Britain traded Cuba to Spain in return for Florida.
Flag four – the Patriot Flag of the Republic of Florida
The American Revolution saw great changes on Amelia Island. During the war, many English loyalists sought safety here, and after the war, Spain once again gained control of Florida in 1783 as part of the Second Treaty of Paris. The town of Fernandina, named for King Ferdinand VII of Spain, had an excellent harbor, and it became infamous as a smuggling site for the entire fledgling nation. Liquor, slaves, and all sorts of illegal goods landed at the port.
To remain on the island, inhabitants had to swear allegiance to Spain. A group of locals who called themselves the Patriots of Amelia Island fought to turn the island over to the United States. Their flag flew for only one day – March 17, 1812 - before the Patriots gave the island to the US. Later that same year, with the War of 1812 looming, Spain once again gained control of AmeliaIsland.
In 1816, Spanish forces built FortSan Carlos on the island.
Fifth flag – Green Cross of Florida
Spain had not left a large force to protect the island. Gregor MacGregor, a Scottish soldier and adventurer, turned his attention to Amelia Island. On June 29, 1817, MacGregor and his 55 soldiers surprised the Spanish and claimed the island, seizing fortSan Carlos. The Green Cross of Florida was then flown on Amelia Island.
Sixth flag – Republic of Mexico
MacGregor didn’t remain on the island long, as he soon left to fight the Spanish at other locations. He did, however, leave some of his officers behind. Again, Amelia Island was left vulnerable, and the smuggling trade was flourishing. French naval man-turned privateer Louis Michel Aury joined forces with MacGregor’s men. At the time, MacGregor was the authorized agent for rebel colonies of Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia. Aury and his three pirate ships arrived on AmeliaIsland in 1817, at some point after July. Aury, who had fought in the Mexican Revolution, planned to use the island in attacks against the Spanish in Florida. Aury declared himself ruler of Amelia and flew the flag of the Republic of Mexico, and pirate activity on the island ran rampant.
Seventh flag – USA
The United States did not look fondly on the pirate hold of Amelia Island. The US Navy was able to run most of the pirates off the island, including the infamous Aury. In 1821, the US took control of Amelia and raised its flag, with Florida becoming a US Territory in 1822.
After the pirate element had been disposed of, Fernandina became an important port city for the US. In 1874, construction began on FortClinch, located on the island’s northern tip. Florida’s first cross-state railroad was also begun, a project sponsored by US Senator David Yulee. This connected Amelia Island to the Gulf Coast, and trade flourished.
Eighth flag – Confederate States of America
Florida became the twenty-seventh state of the USA on March 3, 1845, under the governorship of William Dunn Moseley. At the time, the state was a land of sugar and cotton plantations, and almost half its population were slaves. Florida became a member of the Confederate States of America, and on January 10, 1861, it seceded from the Union and flew the flag of the CSA. Confederate troops began to occupy Fort Clinch in the summer of 1861, and by the end of the year, over 1,500 soldiers were stationed on the island.
The Union recognized the importance of Fort Clinch and Amelia Island, largely due to its location. General Robert E. Lee felt that he didn’t have the manpower to retain the fort, so he ordered an evacuation of Fort Clinch and Fernandina, and in 1862, the US once again gained control of Amelia Island.
Reconstruction and beyond
After the Civil War and Reconstruction, Amelia Island enjoyed a boom. An elegant hotel, The Egmont, was built, and the island became a playground for wealthy visitors from the North. In fact, many fell in love with the island and made it their permanent home. They built sprawling Victorian homes in what was referred as the Silk Stocking District.
In 1890, Henry Flagler opened up much of the rail system in Florida, which took visitors to points south of Amelia Island. Tourism began to dry up, and locals were faced with a devastated economy. They turned to the sea for a solution.
Local fishermen began expanding their shrimping efforts, and the modern shrimp industry was born on AmeliaIsland. It continues today and is celebrated each spring with the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival, where 100,000 visitors fill the streets of Fernandina Beach.
When I was a kid in the sixties, Fernandina Beach was still a quiet little fishing town. After the construction of Amelia Island Plantation, and later with the Ritz-Carlton, the island became a popular resort.
Old Town is located near the downtown area of Fernandina. Here you can view old homes and an old cemetery. Kids will especially enjoy seeing the home of Pipi Longstocking.
Fort Clinch is now part of the state park system and can be visited and toured. On some nights, candlelit tours can be taken, guided by a soldier dressed in period garb.
Fernandina’s 50-block downtown area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is graced with many Victorian homes and cottages, many of which now house boutiques, restaurants, or other businesses.
The Palace Saloon, established in 1878, is the state’s oldest bar. It’s right on downtown’s Centre Street and is open to the public. This is a must-see when visiting Fernandina. Be sure to admire the hand-carved bar!
Florida House Inn is located in the downtown area of Fernandina and is Florida’s oldest surviving hotel. Today it’s a charming bed and breakfast, and the restaurant is open to the public.
The Amelia Island Visitor Center is housed in an original 1899 railroad depot and a sleeper car from the 1920s. it’s located at the end of Centre Street, near the marina.
Also located downtown is the Amelia Island Museum of History. It houses old photographs, weapons, books, maps, Confederate memorabilia, toys, and other items of significance.
Shopping in Fernandina Beach and on Amelia Island is an adventure in itself. You’ll find all kinds of boutiques, specialty shops, art galleries, gift shops, and souvenir stores. New shopping centers have sprung up on the island, as well as on A1A, just across the bridge on the mainland.
Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it here: upscale clothing, resort wear, books, toys, antiques, gourmet foods, wines, liquors, beach supplies, jewelry, perfumes, fishing gear, seashells, games, and novelty items.
Amelia Island has some great beaches, including several public ones. The most popular is PublicBeach. Most of the beaches are wide and sandy, and the surf and undertow vary with the weather and with the tides.
One of the best beaches for kids is at Fort Clinch State Park. This beach is located on the left side of the pier, if you’re facing the sound. The water here is almost always calm and fairly clear, with little undertow. There’s a bathhouse with bathrooms, too.
If the kids get bored with the beach, take them to play putt putt at IslandFalls. This is a neat place, with waterfalls, big boulders, bridges, music, a game room, and tunnels. After a round, enjoy an ice cream!
Kids will also enjoy the Eight Flags Water Slide near Main Beach.
Party n Play is a new facility next to IslandFalls that has bounce houses, obstacle courses, climbing structures, a boxing ring, and slides.
For those rainy days at the beach, you can take the kids to one of the cinemas on the island to take in a great movie.
Saltwater fishing on Amelia Island is awesome! Try the Nassau River Bridge at the south end, the Fort Clinch pier at the north end, or on any of the beaches in between. One set of oceanfront condos, Amelia by the Sea, has its own private fishing pier for its guests. This is where we like to stay!
You’ll also have the chance to book a charter or join a party fishing boat for some deep sea fishing action.
To find the best fishing spots, to get tips for saltwater fishing, and to see pics of fish caught on the island, click the links below this article!
Amelia Island is one of the few places left in the US where you can ride horses on the beach. Kelly’s Seahorse Stables is located near the south end of the island. This is a great activity for families.
Fort Clinch State Park has nature trails that wind through the maritime forest and along the estuary. Visitors to the island can also take a dolphin cruise, canoe, kayak, bird watch, or snorkel.
Another good way for kids to learn about marine species is to examine the shallow tidal pools left behind on the beach at low tide. We always buy inexpensive dip nets for the kids when we go to Amelia Island or Fernandina Beach. They've caught all sorts of critters this way!
You’ll find all kinds of great dining venues on AmeliaIsland, including national chains, fast food, and locally owned restaurants. Cuisine includes fresh local seafood, steaks, burgers, Mexican, French, Mongolian, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Thai, Spanish, German, pizza, buffets, sandwiches, barbecue, and good Southern home cooking.
Many of the restaurants are waterfront and have outdoor seating, perfect for soaking up the scenery while you dine.
For specific tips about dining on the island, click the link below.
Amelia Island doesn’t have a huge number of hotels and motels, and of those they do have, only two are beachfront – the Beachside Motel and the new Beachside Inn. The Amelia Hotel is located right across the street from the beach, and the Hampton Inn is harbor front. Several other hotels are within walking distance of the beach.
There are also several bed and breakfast inns on the island, including beachfront.
The island has many oceanfront condos which can be rented by the owner or through beach rentals agencies.
Vacation rentals at Fernandina Beach include private homes and cottages, and many of them are on the beach. You can even rent a charming oceanfront lighthouse as your beach accommodations! Several agencies handle Amelia rentals.
And of course, there’s always the wonderful Amelia Island Plantation! To learn more about the Plantation, click the link below this article.
For those who enjoy the camping life, check out Fort Clinch State Park. I wrote a description of it, for which you can find the link below.
Read more about Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach:
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