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Historic Amelia Island Is A Natural Beauty


© St. Petersburg Times

AMELIA ISLAND -- Generations before Walt Disney built theme parks and Shamu became a household name, tourists flocked to Florida for its natural beauty.

Among their stops as much as 100 years ago -- Amelia Island. And they are still coming to sample the sleepy Victorian charm, even after developers discovered the island about 50 years ago.

Nestled between Georgia to the north and the Florida mainland to the west, the 13.5-mile island is East Coast Florida's northernmost barrier island.

During the past 400 years, Amelia Island has been under eight flags -- the only U.S. location to claim this. The island's first recorded European visitor was Frenchman Jean Ribault in 1562, who named it Isle de Mai. Since then, the island has been in the hands of Spain twice, the British, a group known as the Patriots, the Green Cross of Florida, Mexico, the U.S. and the Confederates, who took over the federally built Fort Clinch in 1861.

The vast brick structure is now well-preserved Fort Clinch State Park. In additional to the fort, the 1,121-acre facility includes a fishing pier, sandy beaches, camping facilities and hiking trails that wind along algae-covered ponds.

Named for Gen. Duncan Lamont Clinch, an important figure in Florida's Seminole War of the 1830s, the fort was built in 1847 by the federal government. The fort was active during the Civil War and again for several months in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. The state bought the fort and opened the park in 1938.

It's easy to imagine the life of the 1864 garrison soldier while watching park rangers dressed in Union uniforms carrying out their daily chores, such as cooking over open fires or sweeping out the dusty rooms with homemade straw brooms.

The island's greatest period of prosperity came between 1873 and 1900, when Fernandina Beach's downtown -- now the island's historic district -- was developed. Tourism boomed in those years when visitors from New York flocked to the area via steamships, to walk in the powdery white sand. Members of the Rockefeller and Carnegie families are said to have been regulars.

But by the turn of the century, tourists began to bypass the island to explore the state's southern destinations. Henry Flagler's railroads took them farther down the coast, to stay in his fabulous hotels. By the 1920s, Miami was luring the tourists with even greater hotels and warmer winters.

In recent years, Amelia Island has gained national fame with the construction of the sprawling Amelia Island Plantation complex, then the posh Ritz-Carlton resort hotel. But along with the multimillion-dollar resorts, developers have retained a keen sense of the past.

The 50-block downtown area still exudes Victorian charm. Many of the historic mansions, once homes to prosperous shipyard owners and bankers, have been restored into bed-and-breakfast inns.

Typical is the Fairbanks House, built on a tree-lined street by architect Robert Sands Schuyler in 1885. Its owner was Maj. George Fairbanks, editor of the Florida Mirror, one of the state's original newspapers. The Fairbanks House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a B&B with 10 rooms, suites and cottages and a swimming pool. Its old-world Italian design incorporated palazzo windows and doorways of long ago. Innkeeper Mary Smelker sewed the elegant draperies and bedspreads. Antiques and watercolor paintings in nautical themes grace walls and shelves.

Just around the corner is one of the island's most unusual places to eat, the Florida House Inn restaurant, which dates to 1865. The vernacular-style inn was opened by the Florida Railroad and is thought to be Florida's oldest hotel.

Hungry customers are still served boardinghouse-style -- all-you-can-eat from heaping platters and bowls of food such as quail, corn pudding and beans.

The Cuban patriot Jose Marti is said to have planned his ill-fated revolutionary invasion of Cuba from one of the Florida House Inn's 11 rooms, in 1894.

Exploring the historic district, including Centre Street -- the island's shopping mecca -- is easy on foot. The Fernandina Beach Chamber of Commerce provides information on walking and driving tours of the area, including the many historic homes. Visitors will need transportation to go beyond the historic downtown area and get to areas such as American Beach.

At the beach, the wind whips around abandoned, brightly colored houses. American Beach is part of the Black Heritage Trail of historic sites. American Beach has been called one of this country's last predominantly African-American coastal communities. It was founded in 1935 as a 200-acre retreat for employees of the Afro-American Life Insurance Co. of Jacksonville. During the segregation of the 1940s and '50s, this was the only beach open to blacks in Nassau and Duval counties.

Today on warm summer days, the beach can become crowded, but that slice of the island often resembles an oceanfront ghost town. If you go

Getting there: Travel north on I-95, take A1A east onto the island, into Fernandina Beach.

Staying there: The Fairbanks House, 227 S Seventh St.; 10 rooms ranging in price from $95 to $165, double occupancy, includes full breakfast and social hour in the parlor. In the heart of the historic district. (800) 261-4838.

Elizabeth Pointe Lodge, 98 S Fletcher Ave.; 20 rooms ranging from $120 to $185, double occupancy, includes full breakfast and social hour. Some rooms face the ocean. (800) 772-3359.

The Ritz-Carlton, 4750 Amelia Island Parkway; 449 rooms, 45 suites, all with ocean views, $129 to $499. Located on the beach, with an 18-hole golf course. (800) 241-3333.

Amelia Island Plantation, 3000 Amelia Island Parkway, 400 units, many with ocean views, prices start at $127 a night, to $800 packages. There are 45 holes of golf on the property. (800) 874-6878.

Eating there: Florida House Inn, 22 S Third St., located in the old hotel. It features all-you-can-eat home-style cooking. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday and costs $5.95. Dinner is served from 5:30 until 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and costs $9.95. (904) 261-3300.

O'Kane's Irish Pub & Eatery, 318 Centre St., features shepherd's pie and corned beef with cabbage. Occasionally, live entertainment. Open for lunch and dinner. (904) 261-1000.

Brett's Waterway Cafe, at the foot of Centre Street overlooking Fernandina Harbour Marina. Specializes in seafood, chicken and aged beef. Open for lunch and dinner. (904) 261-2660.

For information: Contact the Fernandina Beach Chamber of Commerce, (904) 261-3248.

Originally published May 18, 1997

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