Having grown up in Florida, I consider it the “South,” north of Orlando at least. Most people don’t agree with that designation, but as a native I’m here to tell you it is most certainly the South. If you would like an example, look no further than Amelia Island, which makes sense as it is the southernmost of the Sea Islands stretching along the east coast from South Carolina to North Florida.
Amelia Island isn’t what I would consider a ‘bucket list’ item, but when your sister calls and says, “Meet me in Amelia Island”, you say, “Of course!” I mean, what kind of sister, or traveler, would I be if I didn’t visit her while she was only three hours from my home base in Orlando. I would be awful, truly awful! But I digress, back to Amelia Island…
The drive up from Orlando was quite pleasant, especially once I reached the coast. Although I’ve never visited this charming island, I instantly felt at home. From the pine trees to the fine, dusty sand, it felt like the Florida I’ve known for 30+ years. How is it that I’ve never explored this cornucopia of beauty? Don’t tell my insurance company, but I almost ran off the road distracted by the views.
Honestly, although it’s small, it delivers some big southern charm. From the coast line parks to the downtown strip you can’t go wrong. Just take a stroll down Center Street and you will find restaurants, shopping and art galleries.
Let’s Have Drinks!
You can visit the self-proclaimed ‘oldest’ bar in Florida, The Palace Saloon.
The Palace Saloon was originally constructed as a haberdashery (men’s clothing store), but stands today as a beacon of a gone by era. Back in the day, ships would enter the port from all over the globe and belly up to the bar for refreshment, where sailors would drown the woes of sea travel. Regardless, no one could deny the beauty that Anheuser-Busch founder, Adolphus Bush, painstakingly poured into this saloon.
Considered a true “gentleman’s establishment,” you can still see the hooks where towels would hang for men to wipe the foam off their beards. Today it’s used to hold a lady’s purse, but knowing the history leads to daydreams of earlier times when the word “gentleman” wasn’t thrown around haphazardly.
If you like the charm of days long gone, then this is a great place to stop for an afternoon drink. If you are a smoker, this will be a haven given the restrictive nature of the American culture of dissent towards smoking. If you are not a smoker, as I am, then you will only be able to stay here long enough for a quick drink.
Shop Till You Drop!
If shopping is your heart’s desire, then you will be well sedated on Center Street. Visit Twisted Sisters for a variety of goods, especially their jewelry offerings. The ladies at this store were fantastic. Not only did they help me find a nice little bracelet that has become a favorite piece of mine, but they provided some fantastic advice for sightseeing.
If you have time you should also check out Olive Amelia and let them walk you through their artisan oil and vinegar combinations. I found a few gift options for the food lovers in my life with their garlic-infused oils and jalapeno balsamic vinegar. I could have spent hours in this store sampling their tasty combinations. The staff was knowledgeable, kind, and enjoyable for light conversation. Honestly, if you don’t stop here, then I don’t know what you did with your time. Go here! Support a local business and find some delicious items to take home for future enjoyment.
Eat! Eat! Eat!
If you don’t already know this, I love to eat. When I travel, most of my time is spent looking for somewhere tasty to eat. If I visit your town, the first question I’m going to ask is, “Where to eat?” I didn’t expect Amelia Island to be a foodie stop, but I was surprised with the selection and quality of the food.
Our first stop was Tasty’s Fresh Burgers and Fries where I had the Ruben Dog with sweet potato fries. Being that this place is known for their burgers I got an odd stare when I ordered a hot dog, but I was in a hot dog mood, so sue me! (I know – sacrilegious – who gets a hot dog at a burger joint!) Don’t worry, I learned my lesson. My dog should have come with cheese, as every ruben I’ve ever had has, but apparently Tasty’s doesn’t serve it that way. I asked them to add it and they agreed— crisis averted.
My sister had a hamburger and raved about it most of the meal. She isn’t one to praise her food, so it must be good.
Oh, and did I mention? They serve beer. #Winning!
Later that night we were starving, but exhausted. We headed downstairs to the Sunrise Café at the Omni Plantation Resort where we were staying. There is a lot to say about this place, but I can sum it up with one word – yummy! We chose this restaurant because we were both too tired to leave the hotel, and I’m glad we did. Beside the beautiful views of the resort pool and the Atlantic Ocean, the restaurant is comfortable and well decorated.
I had the Tuna Tartar and Hot Bacon Spinach Salad. It was so good that I barely spoke to my dinner companions. Occasionally, they would look over at me, and I would shake my head in acknowledgement, then return to my dinner. It’s not cheap to eat here, but it’s a resort restaurant, so we didn’t expect it to be budget friendly. Regardless, it was well worth the money. If you are staying at the Omni, it should be a stop, and if you aren’t staying at the resort, you can always come on the property for dinner.
As I walked around Center Street the next day, I stumbled upon Espana Restaurant & Tapas. I tried to have lunch, but they are only open for dinner. That night they were fully booked in the dining room, but luckily the hostess was able to hold two seats at the bar. What a great meal! The service was on point and the escargot in creamy tomato sauce was good enough for seconds. I love tapas because you get to eat a bunch of dishes without breaking the bank or going home with a fridge full of leftovers. Be warned, this is a small restaurant that can get loud quickly. Make sure to make reservations in advance and ask for an outside table if the weather permits.
Last but not least is T-Rays Burger Station. This was a recommendation from the local ladies at Twisted Sisters Boutique on Center Street. T-Ray’s is an old gas station that was converted into a greasy-spoon diner years back; they even sold gas at the pumps as recent as the mid-2000s. Although they stopped selling gas, the ambiance remains. If it’s cool enough outside, you can sit amongst the old pumps while you enjoy your lunch. Don’t wait too long to grab a bite here because they close at 2:30 pm M-F and 1 pm on Saturday. When I was there, soft-shell crab was on the menu – and you don’t say no to soft-shell crab! I’m glad I didn’t miss this one because it was finger-licking good.
Catching Some Z’s!
As for where to stay during your trip to Amelia Island, I’ve left that for last because it was the least appealing part of our visit. We stayed at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, a 4-star hotel with ocean views. Don’t get me wrong, this hotel is beautiful, but my experience was far from impressive. The grounds are well-manicured, and the rooms are as you would expect from a 4-star resort, but it was lacking in a few ways.
- Parking was easy, but a long walk from the rooms. In August weather that was close to unbearable.
- The sliding glass door in our room did not close completely, leaving us vulnerable to the crippling Florida humidity. If you’ve never experienced 100% humidity in August then this will not make sense, but I can describe it as taking a shower as you try to sleep. When you awake in cold sweats you will understand what I mean.
- The mold in the shower is understandable with the humidity, but I expect more from a hotel of this caliber. Also, the soap scum in the shower was plentiful.
- Bugs are common in Florida, but a dead mosquito stuck to the shower wall is unacceptable of any resort, let alone a 4-star one.
- The overall cleanliness of the room left a lot to be desired.
The upsides to our stay:
- The bathroom lighting made it easier to apply makeup (ladies you know what I’m saying)
- The beds are soft and pillows are plentiful
- The staff was helpful and responded to our concerns promptly
- The food on-site was delicious and exceeded by expectations
Not to Be Missed!
The best part about Amelia Island is the rare finds hidden in plain sight. Do you love your log cabin, but miss the sounds of the ocean? Don’t fret, move it to the beach! I like to call it ‘Beach Glamping’ at its finest.
Can’t get away to the islands, but want to feel like you are there – just have a friend braid your hair and rent this place for the week. Yeah, mon!
Are you dreaming of the days when you could serve alongside a general in a fort? Do you want to man the cannons? No need to time travel, just visit the fort on Amelia Island. While you’re there, make sure to check out the pier for fishing, or just the feeling of freedom. I stood on the end for a quick Titanic moment: I’m queen of the world!
On the drive up I had no idea what to expect from this sleepy little island, but as my 48 hours came to an end, I understood. Amelia Island is a beautiful island with a lot to offer. Whether you are looking for the peacefulness of their quiet beaches, or the southern hospitality of the locals, you will be well-served.
Go soon! Eat, drink, shop, and relax!
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself longing for the day you can return to unearth all the things you can’t possibly see in one visit.