Deep in the dense, moss-draped, oak forest of Amelia Island is a luxurious plantation resort. Different sized fronds sprouting from palmetto plants in the heavy undergrowth line the roads. Wisteria vines (think Tarzan) weave through the large trees in every direction and you can practically grasp the moss that hangs down. Through the tropical humidity, you can smell the lush greens of the golf courses and hear racquets hitting balls on tennis courts. Get ready for some relaxation, as this resort has eight restaurants, a luxury spa, several pools, and miles of sandy shore. This is a chance to make new acquaintances; social butterflies abound, and you never know with whom you will be rubbing elbows.
Amelia Island is 14 miles long and seven miles wide, about the same size as Manhattan. It is on the southernmost tip of the Atlantic Barrier Islands, in extreme northeast Florida, just across the St. Mary River from the state of Georgia. Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport (FHB) is on Amelia Island, 13 nm northeast of Jacksonville International Airport (JAX) and just four road miles from the resort.
If you’re flying in from the north, remain above 3,000 feet to avoid Prohibited Area P-50, which is about 10 nm northwest of FHB, just northeast of St. Marys Airport (4J6) in Georgia. The prohibited area is defined by a 2-nm radius around the Naval Submarine Base at Kings Bay, which is at 30° 48' N 081° 31' W. Approaching from the west, you will traverse Jacksonville Class C airspace, which extends to within 3 nm of FHB. Contact JAX approach on 127.0 MHz for a transition. Along the coast, 13 nm to the south is Mayport Naval Air Station (NRB), better known as NAS Jacksonville. Contact Mayport Tower on 118.75 MHz for a Class D transition.
RNAV/GPS approaches offer minimums as low as 286 feet (274 feet AGL). Approaching the airport, listen for weather and altimeter setting on AWOS 118.075 MHz. Three runways, 4/22, 9/27, and 13/31 are between 5,000 and 5,301 feet long. The old Runway 18/36 at the west end of the field is no longer in use.
Tiedowns are along the north end of the ramp, east of the terminal. McGill Aviation’s pilot lounge includes a flight briefing area, with computerized weather. Both 100LL and Jet A fuel trucks are available, self-serve 100LL is available at 55¢ per gallon cheaper, 8 a.m.–10 p.m., 904-261-7890.
The Amelia Island Plantation was the brainchild of Charles Fraser who began development of the property in 1974. His conception was that everything should blend with the natural environment, even to the point where stop signs would be painted green. Frazier envisioned that all property owners should live and vacation surrounded by luxurious amenities, but in “harmony with nature.” Everything planted would be native to the island. Magnolias, palmettos, and ivy plants soon thrived in the canopy of the ancient oaks. Investor Richard A. Cooper acquired the club in 1978, and his family controlled the property until 2009, when financial difficulties brought on by the global crisis forced the resort into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Omni Hotels & Resorts purchased the resort in 2010 and invested $85 million into “re-imagining” the property. The results are immediately apparent to visitors, with new roads and walkways throughout the grounds. Upon arriving at the check-in area, guests of the new Oceanside Wing can step onto an elevated deck, with fire pits, an infinity pool, and views of the beaches and Atlantic Ocean. This latest incarnation of the Amelia Island Plantation Resort features 155 new oceanfront guestrooms, including 26 suites, increasing the total hotel room count to 404.
The little fishing village of Fernandina Beach, north of the airport, dates back to the 1500s. The historical district has 50 blocks of Victorian architecture, including the oldest saloon in Florida. The town’s museum, in the old jail, highlights the footprints of time from the Timucuans, the area’s natives, through the present.
You’ll want to start by exploring the 1,350-acre moss-draped, oak-canopied plantation. On the east side of the island is the Atlantic Ocean and bordering the west is the Intracoastal Waterway. Between are various lodging buildings, including a large hotel and many different villas. Interspersed throughout are golf courses, tennis courts, and much more. The concierge at the registration center will help you get situated. Several trams operate between the numerous lodging, dining, and activity options, but it’s a good idea to start by renting an “island hopper” (a gas-powered golf cart) at Amelia’s Wheels (see Transportation). One could spend all day exploring the island roadways on a self-driven tour and never get bored, but bring along a map as it is easy to get lost. You’ll enjoy close-up views of natural lagoons with lush seagrass banks that normally have several species of wildlife scampering about, including very large egrets and herons. During early morning outings fish leap from the water, perhaps spooked by a large turtle or a garfish.
After welcoming the sun over the Atlantic Ocean, take a beach walk along the shell-strewn sands of the island. You’ll witness beautiful sand dunes that have evolved over the years of environmental stability; visitors are not allowed to walk on them as they can erode. The pounding surf brings in many varieties of shells and occasionally a crab will pop out to say hello. Gulls glide the sky, while Wilson’s Plovers (a sandpiper specie) rapidly dart around the surf, picking up urchins with each crashing swell. Secret tip: dolphins love to play about 100 yards offshore around 8–9 a.m. Keep your eyes peeled for these entertaining sea mammals.
Tennis is a way of life at Amelia Island Plantation. Its Racquet Park has been named among the top 50 Greatest U.S. Tennis Resorts in Tennis magazine. The 23 clay courts, “air-conditioned” by a natural canopy of oak trees, have seen the likes of many tennis greats: Graf, Navratilova, Evert, Seles, Connors, and Agassi. For 30 years, Amelia Island Plantation played host to the Amelia Island Championships, a renowned Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) competition for the top women players in the world. It is not unheard of to spot athletes like Venus Williams walking to the courts. The pro shop offers adult and junior clinics for all levels taught by USPTA and USPTR certified pros, one-hour private lesson $80, adult group class $30. Proper tennis attire (no beachwear, cut-offs, or jeans) and smooth-soled shoes are required, racquet rental $5, court fees $15, 904-277-5145.
With three courses, the resort has ample golf opportunities. Innovative players Pete Dye and Bobby Weed designed and completed the 18-hole Ocean Links Course in 1998. The award-winning course with five oceanfront holes is ranked by Golf magazine as one of the most scenic in the U.S. If you thought your day at the office was trying, wait until experiencing the sea breezes that will blow your ball around. But once you have felt that delicious breeze, gazed at the rolling sand dunes, and walked upon the well-manicured greens, you’ll be up for the challenge. Oak Marsh Golf Course makes you tighten up your shots; if not, you will be out of bounds or in the pond. Fourteen of 18 holes have water hazards. Not only are the salt marshes the enemy, but so are Florida marsh ’gators, hungry for golf balls! Long Point Golf Course, designed by Tom Fazio in 1987, is private and is not open to outside players. This picturesque course combines it all—marshes, oceanfront dunes, moss-draped oak trees, tall pine trees, and huge greens.
Tee times for Ocean Links and Oak Marsh may be made up to 30 days in advance. Guests only. Dress code prohibits gym shorts, short shorts, tennis shorts, and jeans, greens fees including cart $120–$150, 7:30 a.m.–7 p.m., 904-277-5907.
When you’re ready to really pamper yourself, head to the spa; you may never want to leave. It is styled in old, Southern Florida architecture of covered porches, shuttered windows and doors, and wooden rockers. The 25 treatment rooms, a meditation garden, and a walking bridge incorporate the surrounding lagoons and, of course, moss-draped oak trees. Gentlemen, if you haven’t had a facial, you’re missing the boat. The 50-minute Gentlemen’s Vitality Facial is designed for men’s skin, treating razor burn, $115. If it has been a long day of walking on the beach or running on the courts, Sports Feet Treatment is here for you. This 25-minute rubdown focuses on your feet, $55, Mon–Wed 8 a.m.–6 p.m., Thu–Sat 8 a.m.–8 p.m., Sun 9 a.m.–5 p.m., 904-432-2220 or 877-843-7722.
Since you’re on the beach, you might as well hit the water and do some fishing. The lagoons are home to largemouth bass (often up to 10 lbs.), sunshine bass, harboring tarpon, redfish, and snook. Out on the deeper seas, you can cast for dolphin fish (mahi-mahi), wahoo, sailfish, kingfish, marlin, and barracuda. Tarpon in excess of 100 lbs. school close to the beaches and inlet mouths in the summertime, and redfish regularly reach 40 lbs. in deeper waters. Amelia Angler Charter Service, based 10 miles away at the Fernandina Harbor Marina, will take you deep sea trolling, $600 for a four-passenger half-day trip, or backwater fishing, $350 for a two-passenger four-hour trip. For those that want the water but not the fish, sailing charters are a tempting option, $500 for a six-passenger half-day sail, 904-321-5090.
Other activities abound at the resort. Kayaking and paddle boarding are available, along with mini-golf, nature walks, and a kid’s camp. There are also heated pools, whirlpools, saunas, steam room, a workout room, and an indoor lap pool.
If you want to visit town, the resort has regular tram rides to Fernandina Beach. The town’s Centre Street yields many shopping opportunities, such as the Fantastic Fudge and Chocolate Company, which produces its own hand-dipped chocolates. Pick up a half-pound of peanut brittle, $5, or a half-pound of fudge, $7, Sun–Thu 10 a.m.–9:30 p.m., Sat & Sun 10 a.m.–10 p.m., 218 Centre St., 904-277-4801. Continue down the block to the Ship’s Lantern Store and feed the fish in front of the store for a quarter. The large koi appear immediately; they have not missed a handout in a long time.
There are two main options for lodging, accommodating those who prefer a standard hotel experience and those who like more of an “at home” feel. Regardless of which you choose, all reservations are made through the resort.
If you love to be pampered, the Amelia Inn and Beach Club is a large complex with 404 luxury ocean view rooms and suites, and features two large pools on a two-tiered deck. All guestrooms have private balconies; if you leave the door open at night, you can sleep and wake to the sounds of the surf. Other bonuses include 24-hour room service, high-speed Internet access, and the softest Turkish robes you’ll ever wear. Choose between one king bed or two queen beds, $198–$515.
For a more residential feel, the Villas of Amelia Island Plantation have over 400 units spread throughout the resort, in one-, two-, or three-bedroom configurations. Some villas have beachfront or marsh views, others are on golf courses or tennis courts, and all complexes have swimming pools. Most villas have full kitchens, private balconies or patios, and expanded living rooms. Each is unique, yet most have tropical-inspired furnishings. The Little Dunes villa has a mirrored living room with ample sofas and diversions such as a chess set. Lagoon Villas are plantation-style homes overlooking quiet lagoons, villas cost $219–$969, 6800 First Coast Highway, 904-261-6161 or 800-834-4900.
Dining at one of the resort’s eight restaurants is a culinary experience not to be missed. Options range from an aviation-themed grill with a sports bar atmosphere to surfside meals at Oceanside to elegant dinners at Verandah.
The Marsh View Bar & Grill is billed as a “naturally inviting gathering place” where guests enjoy Southern-inspired, casual fare while taking in views of the marsh and ninth hole of the Oak Marsh Golf Course. Light fare like steel-cut oatmeal and fruit is popular with golfers fueling up before stepping onto the first tee, $3–$4, while others prefer “the Links,” a hearty selection of eggs, your choice of pecanwood-smoked bacon, all-natural link sausage, or maple-blueberry sausage, and served with home fries and toast, $13. Lunch brings a selection of salads, sandwiches, and wraps, but the cocktails are the real draw. The Grand Ole Margarita is made with Herradura Reposado Tequila, Monin Agave nectar, fresh lime, and orange juice, topped with a float of Grand Marnier, $11, while the popular Southern Twilight consists of Maschio Prosecco, Peach Puree, Cointreau, and a splash of Grenadine, $9. Open daily 7 a.m–6 p.m., 904-261-6161.
The Sunrise Café overlooks the ocean and tables are adorned with beautiful orchids. The menu blends national trends with regional flavors to provide delicious and healthy breakfast options featuring cage-free eggs, organic fiber-rich cereals, gluten-free breads, and the Café’s signature hormone- and additive-free blueberry maple sausage patty. The egg station at the Art of Breakfast Buffet, $22, is exceptional, offering everything you can dream up from over-easy eggs to omelets with “the works.” One of the best secrets of the menu is the French Toast, served with peach jam and pure maple syrup. Fresh berries, including strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries, can add flavor to this dish. Also available is the egg white frittata, prepared with wild arugula, tomatoes, mushrooms, smoked provolone, and plantation potatoes, $15, open daily 6 a.m.–2 p.m.
Seafood lovers will enjoy the “new” Verandah Restaurant, in the heart of the tennis complex. This exceptional family restaurant is open for dinner only. Here, the children can order their own entrée from the Young Angler’s Menu. Executive chef Daven Wardynski prepares breathtaking creations, and your taste buds never rest. The pink snapper is baked with Cohen Farm pecans and local strawberries, $26, and the Baked Red House Grouper has a blue crab crust, served in a Florida lemon butter sauce, $32. Compliments to the chefs are in order for being very health-conscious in choosing fresh vegetables and starches to accompany the imaginative entrées—never venturing too far off course so that most all visitors are pleasingly delighted, 5–10 p.m.
At Oceanside, you can enjoy outdoor poolside dining or the indoor air-conditioned restaurant and lounge, modeled after a Tiki hut along the beach. A great luncheon selection is the Turkey Club Wrap, a delicious honey wheat tortilla wrap loaded with pecan-smoked bacon, sliced smoked turkey breast, lettuce, tomato, and tomato herb cream sauce. Served with a generous portion of very long, crispy French fries, this dish makes a wonderful eat-and-get-back-to-activities lunch, $13. For afternoon libations, try the Pirate’s Kiss piña colada, made with Cruzan light rum, pineapple juice, cream of coconut, fresh orange juice, and Atlantico private cask rum, $12. The specialty dinner menu emphasizes fresh simplicity with a mix of Florida and Caribbean flavors, from steaks and chops to cedar-grilled Faroe Islands salmon, served with a white bean tomato ragout, $24, 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
Pilots won’t want to miss the Falcon’s Nest, just behind the resort’s registration building. This casual, aviation-themed nightspot is decorated with aviation memorabilia that deserves a close look. Many items hanging from the walls and ceiling were donated by owners of the resort properties from their personal experiences. There’s a signed picture of the F-15 demo team, as well as collages of soldiers and aircraft from World War II, remote-controlled aircraft, and a replica of the Songbird, a Cessna 310B flown in the 1950s television series, Sky King. For those looking for a nightcap or an evening away from the kids (babysitters are available on premises), a disc jockey plays the tunes you want to hear and a large dance floor whisks you away. The Galley at the Falcon’s Nest offers selections from the Falcon Burger, an 8-oz. ground sirloin juicy burger served with provolone, bacon, fried egg, tobacco onions, and black pepper aioli, $12, to a BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich, topped with coleslaw and sweet barbecue sauce, $12.There are 10 different wines by the glass, $7–$15, and 23 different beers, $3–$6.50, Mon–Thu 5 p.m.–midnight, Fri 5 p.m.–2 a.m., Sun 11 a.m.–2 a.m., 904-277-5166.
Other options include Marche Burette Deli, an old-fashioned food market with fruits, vegetables, and meats; Natural Slice, a family-friendly, surf-inspired, build-your-own-pizza joint; and Seaglass, an outdoor lounge off of the hotel lobby where adults can enjoy small plates and handcrafted cocktails while taking in the sunset beyond the infinity pool.
The plantation offers airport pick-up; arrange at time of reservation, $20. A courtesy car at the airport is also available for short-term use.
Once at the resort, the easiest way to get around is on the free, air-conditioned shuttle, which makes south and north loops, each with eight stops at the villas, and an additional loop route with stops at the Reception Center, Links Golf Shop, the spa, and shops. Stops are marked with signs, and if you need to go somewhere special, they’ll make a run, so long as it is on the property, 6:15 a.m.–11 p.m., on-call service 11 p.m.–2:30 a.m. The shuttle also runs to the town of Fernandina Beach, five departures Tue–Sat, two departures Sun & Mon.
For more flexibility and fun, Amelia’s Wheels rents island hoppers (four-person carts), $30 for two hours, $215 for three days, and bicycles, $7–$10 per hour, $55–$75 per week. For something different, take a guided tour the resort on a Segway, a self-balancing scooter, $40–$95 per person.
Hertz at the airport has rental cars, $45–$100, 8 a.m.–10 p.m., 1000 Airport Rd., 904-261-3728. Enterprise will deliver cars to the airport, $38–$76, 7:30 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon–Fri, 9 a.m.–noon Sat, 2440 S. 8th St., 904-261-1050.
That special hideaway many of us seek is here at Amelia Island. Oak-lined roads, recreational facilities, world-class golf and tennis, and exceptional dining experiences await. You will appreciate this environmental jewel of a resort with its sand dunes, marshes, lagoons, and wildlife. So, warm up those engines, work up an appetite, and come enjoy this island getaway.