By Larry Tritten
I was expecting banana daiquiri weather – that picture perfect postcard conception of Florida with green palm trees highlighting sky and water as blue as the colors in a Disney animated movie. But when I arrived the sky was the color it had been in San Francisco – granite gray – and was littered with clouds looking like God’s dirty laundry. And the anticipated festive beaches were mostly deserted, the Atlantic in a surly mood kvetching at a glum shoreline. It was, in fact, Irish coffee weather, something I’d thought I would get a break from.
I was also expecting an island, which is to say a parcel of land surrounded by water and from which the horizons dramatize a sense of isolation. But Amelia Island is a barrier island, a strip of land that hugs the North Florida coastline, anything but remote, and nearly within shouting distance of Georgia. I might have been disappointed if I hadn’t been distracted by the only other person waiting at the airport to be picked up by an Amelia Island Plantation van. She was a journalist on assignment to check out the Plantation scene for Intermezzo Magazine and bright enough in both looks and personality to dispel the meteorological gloom.
A guidebook in my room informed me that Amelia Island’s size belies the host of activities it offers its guests, which I would soon discover firsthand. Amelia Island Plantation is a 1,350 acre resort where magnolias, stable palms, marshland and sunken forests provide the ambience for deluxe hotel rooms and up to three bedroom villas that look like anything one might see along the coastline in Monte Carlo. Worn out by a long flight, I resigned myself to the fate of an Irish coffee and sought it out in the Plantation’s Verandah restaurant, accompanied by a monstrous cut of prime cow rib. The Verandah is one of six restaurants on the grounds. There were golfers grumbling about the weather, that would make chasing a small ball over terrain dominated by moss-draped oaks, palmettos, and huge sand dunes less enjoyable on the Plantation’s three courses, and tennis aficionados equally peeved about the lack of sunshine lately on the resorts 23 courts. I supposed that the poor weather might also subdue the enthusiasm of those who has been looking forward to chartering a sailboat, going on a dinner cruise, going fishing (either in Amelia’s lagoons and lakes or in pursuit of the big ones in the ocean), or quail hunting. But I was unfazed by such concerns, being essentially an indoors type.
For those not interesting in outdoor activities, there are other options at the Plantation, which is in essence a small village. Emily, the Intermezzo charmeuse, was there to focus on the restaurants and the spa, and before leaving I would see her photographing her dessert with the diligence of a wildlife paparazzo, as well as emerging from the spa after an encounter with the services preferred therein (such things as Aromatherapy Salt Glow, Detoxifying Seaweed Body Mask, Anti-Stress Aroma Bath, and the Oxygenating Facial). She looked at radiant and lovely as Botticelli’s Venus, Zephyr-blown and newly born of sea foam.
Shoppers take notice. There are more than 31,000 square feet of boutiques, gourmet food, spa, and art gallery. The shops are housed separately in quaint buildings to enhance the village-like atmosphere. Several shops purvey fashions, home furnishings and jewelry, and Cooper’s Homemade Ice Cream and Desserts has a name that speaks for itself, as does the Yuletide Attic, where Christmas with an international motif is perennially on display. A personal favorite was Marche Burette, an old-fashioned gourmet food market where one can both shop and dine.
While checking out the village shops, the Falcon’s Nest caught my eye. It’s an aviation-themed bar that wasn’t open yet but I noted that the display menu outside advertised “Great take-offs. Smooth landings.” Aviation history is a longtime interest of mine, so I resolved to return that night, which I did. I think I expected a low key piano bar scene, but the place was full of people flying high to live music that vetoed any attempt at conversation. It was like any jumping club in San Francisco on a weekend night and I realized that it was a hangout for locals no less than Plantation guests. Since talking was not possible, I spent most of the time there wondering how they decided on the ingredients for drinks named for classic warplanes, e.g., why is a Thunderbolt characterized by Parrot Bay Coconut Rum, Stoli, Midori, and O.J. (more likely the makings of a Douglas Dauntless or Devastator to my way of thinking)?
I didn’t expect to find much history on Amelia Island, but in fact eight flags fly there, signifying the ownership of eight powers. On St. Croix a few months earlier, I’d been fascinated by the seven flags flying there, but Amelia Island has the record, having been under the control of eight different powers since the French claimed it in 1562. James Oglethorpe, Britain’s governor of Georgia, named the island in 1736 after the daughter of King George II, and the town of Fernandina was named in 1811 after Spain’s King Ferdinand VII.
Fernandina Beach has been through several dramatic incarnations ranging from its early days as a hangout for smugglers and pirates when President James Monroe called it a “festering fleshpot” to its golden age after the Civil War when it was known as “the Newport of the South” and was the scene of countless formal balls, coming-out parties, and other galas that rivaled those of the Northern states. Today the downtown area is on the National Register of Historic Places and consists of a 50 block area lined with historic buildings. The streets have old-fashioned gaslight-style lamps and red brick crosswalks and their exploration might best be started at Fernandina Harbor Marina, where working shrimp boats are a customary sight. The architecture is a mélange of alluring styles: red brick, stained glass windows, black ironwork, pastel colors, gingerbread trim, and white-picket fences. The post office is of 16th century Florentine design; the Nassau County Courthouse is Victorian with classic English and Greek Revival influences, and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church is Gothic Revival. If you’re in the mood for a potable while downtown the place to go is definitely the Palace Saloon, which is Florida’s oldest saloon still operating in its original location, although it did metamorphose into an ice cream parlor during Prohibition.
The Amelia Island Museum of History is also a must. It’s the only spoken-history museum in Florida and you can get one of its more than one hundred volunteer guides to take you on a seventeen block walk through town, the most popular being the Ghost Tour which features stories of the island’s haunted past.
I didn’t, in fact, really need Florida’s acclaimed sunshine to enjoy myself in Fernandina Beach or at the Plantation, and as for banana daiquiris, I knew that their rendezvous with my palate could wait for another time, another place.