A "southern Nantucket" in the northeast of Florida
by: Terry Pommett
One of Florida’s most charming and relatively unexplored treasures can be found outside the Sun Belt in the far northeastern corner of the state.
Nantucketers are notorious snow birds and can be found throughout southern Florida during the off-season. Whether enjoying the winter in a second home or simply vacationing in the warm weather, it’s not surprising for islanders to run into each other in the shops, restaurants and on the beaches of Naples, Palm Beach or Key West.
One of Florida’s most charming and relatively unexplored treasures, however, can be found outside the sun belt in the far northeastern corner of the state. In terms of historic preservation and natural beauty, Amelia Island can almost be thought of as a southern Nantucket.
The island is roughly the same size as Nantucket, two miles wide and 13 miles long with the entire eastern shoreline facing the Atlantic Ocean. Its beaches are completely open to the public. The western side of Amelia is bounded by the Amelia River, with Cumberland Sound to the north. The island is geared toward outdoor activities, with state parks at both the northern and southern tips.
Fishing is year-round and can be enjoyed from the shore, the state pier and charter boats. Golf is popular, with one public, one semi-private and four resort courses available.
The beginning of the Great Florida Birding Trail is found in the 1,150-acre Fort Clinch State Park, site of a Civil War-era fortification. It has the island’s only campgrounds and boasts beautiful coastal hiking trails, unspoiled beaches and a 1,500-foot fishing pier. The salt marsh and estuary bordering the western portion of the park is home to numerous wading birds, while the interior shelters raccoons, deer, bobcatsº, turtles and alligators.
The endangered northern right whale, of which there are only 350 in existence, calve in the island’s waterways during the fall. From May to October, green, leatherback and the endangered loggerhead turtles deposit their golf ball-sized eggs all along the pristine Atlantic beaches. A viable system of fencing and public-awareness programs are in place to protect the eggs and hatchlings.
The crown jewel of Amelia Island and the key to its success as a tourist destination is the revitalized historic center of the city of Fernandina Beach. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it contains 296 historically significant buildings. The predominant architectural styles are elaborate High-Victorian, Queen Anne and Italianate. The streets are resplendent with a mixture of majestic live oaks, adorned with wisteria and Spanish moss and various types of palm. Sophisticated shopping and gourmet dining in a walking-friendly environment add to the sense of time slowing down. Could this really be Florida? Yes, but not by accident.
Attorney Arthur “Buddy” Jacobs, a constant Nantucket visitor, has been involved in historic preservation for 35 years and was instrumental in helping to raise money for the Amelia Island/Fernandina Restoration Foundation. He and his wife Patricia have served on the board of advisors of Preservation Institute:Nantucket for many years. Jacobs has served as chairman for the past 15 years.
He found inspiration for his work on both islands from Nantucket’s late development visionary, Walter Beinecke Jr. “Walter was one of my closest friends. He told me that as a board member, you needed to bring at least two out of three ‘Ws’ to the table. Work, wisdom or wealth. If you brought all three, that was great, but two was enough.”
Jacobs has a realistic attitude when it comes to development and preservation. He believes that growth in an expanding economy is inevitable. The opposite of bad growth, however, is not no growth, it’s smart growth.
“You need to enhance the value of the land by utilizing the environment and the historical footprint of an entity. You should never lose the character of what you have, be it the natural environment or a building. Development and preservation can work hand in hand,” he says.
In addition to representing the interests of historic Fernandina Beach, Jacob’s firm has worked to establish the sale of Amelia Island’s unique southern maritime forest to the state for use as a park. They were also involved in the sale to the state of nearby Martin’s Island and Tiger Island in the Cumberland Sound.
Perhaps the island’s most notable example of a harmonious blending of development and nature is the Amelia Island Plantation. When the 1,350-acre property was purchased by Charles Fraser in 1971, he commissioned an ecological land-use study. The environmental balancing act of wildlife habitat preservation, resort and residential community was recognized as an Audubon Sanctuary System.
The three must-dos while visiting Fernandina Beach involve lodging, dining and touring. The B&Bs are world-class. There are only eight of them, most being architectural grande dames. The Fairbanks House is typical of the luxurious setting that can be expected. Included are antique furnishings, quilted bedding, Southern-style porches, gardens and delicious home-cooked breakfasts.
Unfortunately, Fernandina’s B&Bs exist on shaky ground. Unfavorable tax status and the rising value of real estate will be a challenge to their future economic survival.
A demanding, upscale tourist clientele demands quality, upscale restaurants. Fernandina has answered the challenge. Numerous gourmet eateries compete for the discerning diner. Seafood is king here, especially shrimp. Fernandina Beach is recognized as the birthplace of the modern shrimp industry. Eighty percent of the Florida Atlantic shrimp catch comes from her offshore waters. The annual four-day Shrimp Festival, usually held the first week in May, draws more than 125,000 visitors. It combines arts, crafts, music and the blessing of the fleet to go along with its homage to the culinary delights of the shrimp.
Unfortunately, all the hoopla belies the true viability of the local shrimping industry. Since the heyday of the early 1970s, the fleet has steadily declined. With the rising cost of fuel and the market proliferation of inexpensive farm-raised product, both domestic and foreign, it has been difficult for the local shrimpers to remain competitive.
Fernandina’s quaint, picturesque waterfront draws plein air painters and photographers in droves. But the long lines of idle shrimp boats suggest a less romantic image.
Nevertheless, one should not miss the chance to sample the local shrimp. Almost every restaurant has a couple of items featuring this delicacy on their menus. There is no denying the superior taste of a freshly-caught Atlantic white shrimp, quite possibly the world’s best. Would anyone place a Nantucket bay scallop anywhere but at the top in a taste test? The same comparison is valid here.
Brett’s Waterway Cafe has the only waterfront view among restaurants. It sits at the end of Center Street overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway and Fernandina Harbor Marina. Its signature dish is a pan-seared Florida grouper, but the peel and eat white shrimp is hard to resist.
Some of the best food in town can be found in a European setting at Espana. Serving Old World cuisine from Spain and Portugal, it specializes in tapas, such as grouper ceviche, Portabella a La Espana and shrimp with garlic. They also offer an outstanding seafood paella with all local seafood.
There is not much to speak of in the way of nightlife, other than the Palace Saloon, built in 1878 and Florida’s oldest tavern. It has hand-painted murals, a 40-foot mahogany bar and live music on occasion. It was once the favorite haunt of the Carnegies and Rockefellers.
An inside tip from many of the bartenders and waiters in town is not to miss Sunday brunch at the Ritz-Carlton. They offer a prix fixe, all-you-can-eat gourmet extravaganza in a setting overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
The best excursion available is a tour of the backwaters of Amelia Island, Cumberland Island, Ga., Eagle’s Creek and St. Mary’s, Ga. Captain Kevin McCarthy, a transplanted Gloucester boy, and his wife Cecilia give guided, narrated nature and history tours, where you learn and see much more than you’d ever think possible in a two-hour cruise. Shorebirds, manatees, dolphins, alligators and the wild ponies of Georgia Island are almost guaranteed sightings.
It is a great way to remember the island named after King George II’s daughter, the only place in the United States to have served under eight different sovereigns, or as the unofficial slogan proclaims, “The French visited, the Spanish developed, the English named and the Americans tamed.”
Terry Pommett is a freelance photojournalist and a frequent contributor to Nantucket Today.