Your Next Weekend Escape: Amelia Island, Florida
Florida vacations may be associated with escaping NYC winter, but not every part of the Sunshine State has its high season in January. Northern Florida has its (literal) moment in the sun during the balmy days of summer. And, as many Floridians and Georgians already know, there’s nowhere better to take advantage of warm waters and dreamy resorts than Amelia Island. Located just 45 minutes from the Jacksonville airport (a direct, inexpensive flight from JFK), this quaint, welcoming barrier island is the perfect weekend respite from the rush of city life. Read on to see where to eat, drink and explore at this magical spot.
Where to Stay
The grande dame of the island is undoubtedly the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, which encompasses more than 400 rooms and four restaurants, plus on-site tennis, a superb spa and an 18-hole golf course. You’d be forgiven if you never set foot off the property, especially since each room also boasts its own balcony, many overlooking the peaceful dunes that border the Atlantic Ocean. We do recommend exploring the resort, however: Guests can choose from indoor and outdoor pools or take one of three private boardwalks to the hotel’s quarter mile of pristine beach. Make sure to meet Amelia, the hotel’s resident macaw, who will show you her high-five (if you ask nicely).
For those looking for something a little more low-key, the Amelia Schoolhouse Inn, built in 1886 as the island’s school, is the shabby-chic hangout of our Pinterest dreams. The 17-room boutique hotel was just renovated in 2018 and features charming details in the rooms like shiplap on the walls, cozy plaid wingback chairs and even a courtyard with a putting green.
Where to Eat
The food of Amelia Island is unique mix of coastal seafood, Southern specialties and a surprising amount of fine dining. The restaurant that may embody all these traditions best is 29 South, which bills itself as “extraordinary casual” and has a focus on sourcing seasonal and sustainable ingredients. The crab cake is particularly excellent, served atop Old Bay–seasoned butter and pickled watermelon rind. And if it’s available that day, order a slice of key lime pie for everyone at the table. (Trust us, you won’t want to share.)
Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen is another must-visit. (Oprah is a fan of chef Kenny Gilbert. Need we say more?) The menu is full of Southern standards—pimento cheese, fried green tomatoes—but the pro tip is to order a platter of one of his barbecued meats (smoked brisket is a favorite). The massive portion is served with sweet rolls, dill pickles and your choice of sides such as collard greens or mac and cheese. Get the mac and cheese. And no visit to the island is complete without dinner at Salt, one of Florida’s only AAA Five Diamond Award–winning restaurants. Go big with chef Rick Laughlin’s signature four-course tasting menu, which may feature jaw-dropping dishes like his take on steak and eggs: fried eggs and beef tenderloin served on a hot Himalayan salt brick.
Where to Shop
Historic downtown Fernandina Beach was once the playground of actual pirates, Gilded Age gazillionaires and other assorted types you read about in English class. Now it’s a charming seaport quarter filled with boutique shops that sell everything from handmade jewelry to rare books. Some of our favorites include Amelia’s Fine Jewelry for gold shark-tooth necklaces, Wadsworth’s for preppy togs and Amelia Island–branded gear, and the Fernandina Beach Market Place farmers’ market, which runs—rain or shine—every Saturday. There, you can pick up artisanal items that are suitcase-ready, like jams, cocktail dry mixes and goat’s-milk soaps. Lilly Pulitzer fanatics (this is Florida, after all) should also make a stop at her boutique at the Ritz-Carlton, which carries the brand’s signature bright prints in everything from swimwear to yoga pants.
What to Do
While the beach is certainly the biggest outdoor draw (we never knew what it meant for the ocean to feel like bathwater until we dipped our toes in the surf here), the island offers a ton of outdoor pursuits for every level of fitness. Those looking to simply relax in the salty air can opt for a two-hour cruise around the island with Windward Sailing: Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins and wild Cumberland Island horses. Flying Fish Adventures targets adrenaline junkies with lightning-fast Jet Ski tours around Amelia and Cumberland islands.
Animal lovers should try to time their trip with the celebrated hatching of the sea turtles. Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch will have the most up-to-date information, especially concerning how to enjoy the beach without disturbing the turtles’ natural habitat. This year, the hatchings are set to start in mid-July. Alternately, you can get up close and personal with other animals on the beach by booking a horseback ride at Kelly Seahorse Ranch. One of the only beach horseback outfits in the country, it’s located on a scenic 200-acre preserve. The horses are gentle and the guides are experts, making it an unforgettable experience for any class of rider.