Where Carnegies frolicked, so can you

By Tim Warren
Sunday, November 15, 2009

You can do a lot on Florida's Amelia Island, or you can do nothing. I fell in the second camp on a recent trip, in which I eschewed the famed golf courses, the many tennis courts and the scenic bike paths in favor of being a complete vegetable.

A "nothing" day on Amelia Island, just off the far northeast coast of Florida, about 33 miles from Jacksonville, can start on the Atlantic Ocean side with a walk along the beach or a search for sharks' teeth washed up by the waves. It can end on the Intracoastal Waterway side as you watch the sunset with friends, then dine on freshly caught seafood.

My next visit, though, will be different. Watching some folks fishing off the pier at Fort Clinch State Park, I regretted not having packed a fishing rod, particularly when someone caught a five-foot-long shark and others were bringing in red drum, which are great fighters and also delicious on the table. When I encountered cyclist after cyclist navigating the park's bike trails, I put biking on my mental to-do list as well.

By the end of my visit, the list had grown longer and longer. What about sea kayaking? Do I dare dust off the tennis racket? Am I crazy enough to do a Segway trip through a nearby state park? With temperate weather most of the year -- the annual average temperature is 70 degrees -- Amelia could be just the place to break a sweat.

But on this trip, I confess, I was in a do-nothing state of mind. If I'd wanted thousands of partying young folks outside my door, I would have gone to Daytona Beach, a couple of hours south on Interstate 95. If I'd wanted theme parks and blocks of T-shirt shops, I had the rest of Florida to choose from. But it was enough just to savor Amelia Island, where, whether you're industrious or indolent, whether you stay at an exclusive resort or at a more modest hotel, the ambiance remains the same: unobtrusive and agreeable. It strikes a visitor immediately; you almost feel the need to lower your voice a bit.

While tennis players worked on their backhands and golfers tried to break 90 for the first time, I did some nature-watching at Fort Clinch, a haven for nesting sea birds and sea turtles. Then it was off to the historic district of Fernandina Beach, a 50-block area in the largest town on the island. There I admired the Victorian architecture, visited museums and shops -- some tacky, some agreeably "quaint" -- and ate gourmet ice cream made in-house. Weary from my labors, I headed to the beach for a couple of hours of reading, the waves breaking soothingly as I turned the pages. Then it was time for dinner and an early bedtime. Other days included more of the same, plus some leisurely drives around the 13-mile-long island.

As Florida tourist spots go, Amelia is a bit of an anomaly. It's a very old community in terms of European settlement, having been claimed by the French in the 1560s. In the 1850s, it was the terminus for Florida's first cross-state railroad. In the late 1800s, it became a booming port town -- many of the exquisite Victorian homes were built for the newly prosperous -- and in the early 20th century, shrimping became an important industry.

Today, with the decline of shrimping and the nearby lumber industry, tourism drives Amelia Island. The arrival of the exclusive Amelia Island Plantation in the early 1970s provided a jump-start, as did the opening of another five-star resort, the Ritz-Carlton, two decades later. Those two resorts, covering hundreds of acres of prime beach land and offering their clientele multiple restaurants and shops along with first-class golf and tennis, brought in the high-end visitors. Now, with B&Bs and excellent restaurants in the Fernandina Beach historic district, the island draws plenty of visitors looking for a comfortable and -- here's that word again -- agreeable vacation.

As Amelia Island embraced tourism, it did so with a certain NIMBY frame of reference. When Wal-Mart wanted to build a superstore on the island about a decade ago, residents rebelled, and the store was built on the nearby mainland. Strict zoning regulations restrict condo-building, so you don't see the rows of high-rises common in other Florida resorts. The historic downtown also retains the architectural designs and facades of buildings a century old or older. Hundreds of mature palm trees and live oaks draped with Spanish moss add to the feeling of authenticity. A bit of preciousness seeps into some shops -- primarily those with unbearably cute names -- but all in all, this is a pleasant area to stroll around in.

A good place to start in the historic district is the Amelia Island Museum of History, formerly the Nassau County jail. I'm a sucker for little museums, and this is a good one.

Amelia Island, I learned, is the only place in the United States to have been under eight flags, including something called the Green Cross of Florida. The museum also devotes a lot of space to the island's black residents, noting that African Americans made up a majority through the first couple of decades of the 20th century. In the 1930s, a black entrepreneur bought a couple hundred acres of beachfront property and turned it into American Beach, which for decades attracted African American tourists from hundreds of miles away. Little remains of the resort now, but it is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of several attractions on Florida's Black Heritage Trail.

I also learned that a hotel in the historic district, no longer with us, was once the spring training headquarters for the Washington Senators in the 1950s. Because I watched those teams lose many a game, I could only conclude that their indolence and carefree attitude were born on the beaches of Amelia Island.

And this little bit of history: Evidently, some of the younger Carnegies -- yes, yes, the Pittsburgh Carnegies -- used to take the ferry from nearby Cumberland Island, Ga., site of the family vacation home, to Fernandina Beach. They would often get drunk and rowdy at various saloons, meaning they would spend the night at the county jail. According to the museum, Mrs. Carnegie "paid good money refurbishing a cell for them so that her boys would feel more at home." Aw, Mom, you're the best!

All this history made me hungry, so I set off to find one of the island's best-kept secrets: T-Rays Burger Station in Fernandina Beach. A friend had tipped me off: It's basically a hole in the wall with great food, he said, located -- get this -- inside an Exxon gas station. There's no sign, no indication whatsoever that you go directly from the gas pumps to a burger joint jammed with locals.

There's plenty of fine dining on Amelia Island, but I didn't have a more satisfying meal than the burger special at T-Rays. For eight bucks, I got an uncommonly juicy half-pound cheeseburger with fries and a soft drink. Outside, motorists came and went, oblivious to the treats waiting indoors. I lifted my Diet Coke to toast an island that wears its charms well.

Warren, a former Washington Post copy editor, is a freelance writer in Silver Spring.

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