Situated near the Northeast coast of Florida, Amelia Island is flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Intracoastal Waterway on the other. To say the vibe on the island is laid back is quite an understatement.
As soon as you arrive, you?re aware of the easygoing pace of everything and everyone. Obviously, beaches are known to be serene places where people can unwind and forget their hectic lives for a moment ? or for as long as their visit is. But even the historic downtown of the island, Fernandina Beach, is more laid back and tranquil than any similar place I can recall.
Part of what is known as the Sea Islands, Amelia Island is the southernmost of them and the only one located in Florida. The area has a very colorful past and is said to be the only American land mass that has been under the rule of eight different flags during its over 450 year-long history. Once a popular playground of the rich and famous, there are still Carnegie family members (yes, of the Carnegie Hall variety) living in the area.
If chilling on the beach with sand between your toes while staring into the crystal blue waters of the ocean floats your boat, you?ll love Amelia Island. If checking out quaint boutiques and art galleries are more up your alley, you?ll also love the area. The bottom line is that people from all over absolutely love the area and it?s rare to find first-time visitors that don?t become repeat patrons. It?s a stunningly beautiful place that will rejuvenate your soul time after time!
What to Do
When exploring a new area, it?s a good idea to take a tour to get a sense of the place. When visiting an island, a boat tour is the natural choice and Amelia River Cruises ? specifically the Cumberland Island Tour ? fits the bill perfectly. Captain Dave, aka Pajama Dave due to his preferred attire, steered our ?ship? for a two-hour cruise. Not only do you learn about the history of the island, both good and bad, you cross into the waters of Georgia where Cumberland Island is located. By the way, there is no way to get to Cumberland Island except by boat. Living there isn?t for anyone in a hurry, but that?s the way those that reside there like it. For reference, there are about 100 armadillos for every person that lives on the island. We were especially thrilled to see the famous wild horses that call Cumberland Island home, but seeing many different types of birds and even dolphins during our short ocean voyage was an added bonus. The majestic wild horses, which range in numbers from 150-200 depending on the environment at any given time, are not native to the area, but seeing them in their unspoiled habitat is simply magical!
For a really unique experience, check out the downtown business once known as the Burbank Net Company. Fernandina Beach was once home to approximately one hundred shrimp boats and until fairly recently, modern shrimping relied on nets ? many of which were manufactured by the Burbank Net Company. When the thriving shrimping industry on the island started to dwindle, due to imported shrimp flooding the U.S. market, the Burbank Net Company reinvented itself. It?s now called Burbank Sports Nets. Over 75 percent of the nets at Major League Baseball facilities, among other sporting facilities, are produced by Burbank Sports Nets in Fernandina Beach. Score another point for made in America!
The Amelia Island Museum of History offers docent tours, which provide visitors with a glance back in time. It?s here that you can learn about those eight different flags that have, at various times, flown over Amelia Island. // www.ameliamuseum.org
Another museum of note is The Maritime Museum of Amelia Island. Currently relocating to the heart of downtown in Fernandina Beach, the mission of this educational place is to preserve the maritime history of the area for future generations. // www.maritimemuseumai.org
For visitors who love antiquing, aka junking, downtown Fernandina Beach will not disappoint. There are stores there that could take a thorough ?looker? a whole day to explore. If you?re looking for something unique, old, beautiful, tacky or even bizarre, there is plenty to choose from in the shops located in the historic downtown district. Trailer Park Collectibles is a particularly fun place to check out! If you?re looking for a more refined shopping experience, Twisted Sisters is a lovely boutique for women?s apparel and unique home goods. Olive oil purists will definitely want to check out Olive Amelia where shoppers can ?taste before they buy? fine olive oils and balsamic vinegars. The downtown area is also home to many fabulous art galleries ? don?t miss the painted stairs at Blue Door Artists on Centre Street!
Where to Eat
There?s a joke about certain Florida beach towns being five years behind the rest of the world in general and, unfortunately, that translates to restaurants as well. There are some places that offer gluten-free specialty items like bread or pasta, but they are far and few between. That said, there are many amazing restaurants on Amelia Island and thankfully, several of them even offer fabulous gluten-free options. Keep in mind that trendy gluten-free diners abound everywhere these days so the right questions are needed before dining anywhere. During our visit, we didn?t come across any 100 percent gluten-free bakeries or restaurants, but we did enjoy some fabulous meals ? with and without replacement menu options.
For a quick lunch spot, The Happy Tomato offers order-at-the-counter meals, which can be enjoyed outdoors on the sunny or shaded part of a courtyard patio. There are no gluten-free buns available for sandwiches, but the Trio Salad (tuna, chicken and pimento cheese salads sans the crouton) is astonishingly delicious! If your heart is set on barbeque, just remember to skip the bun. Some gluten-free sides are also available. // www.thehappytomatocafe.com
If you?re in the mood for a more leisurely lunch, check out the wildly popular Caf? Karibo. The tag line of this charming eatery is ?eclectic cuisine + affordable gourmet,? which is definitely on point. It?s rare to find something on a pub grub menu that?s gluten-free, to be sure, but the Crabby Con Queso here is simply scrumptious! The Southwestern inspired cheesy corn & crab dip is served warm with corn tortilla chips and the portion is large enough for sharing. Several of the gourmet sandwiches are gluten-free as prepared, if ordered with gluten-free bread, which made it hard to choose just one. We opted for the Pig & Apple made with lean baked ham, crisp apple slices and white cheddar on gluten-free bread. This pick can be described in two words ? absolutely divine! If you prefer to have dinner at Caf? Karibo, don?t miss their signature dish, Coquille St. Jacques. Available in a half or full order, the entr?e of pan seared sea scallops with shitake mushroom cream sauce will knock your flip flops off! // www.cafekaribo.com
Like most places, interesting gluten-free meals are more bountiful for dinner than for lunch on Amelia Island. That?s not to say every menu offers gluten-free specialty items, but that doesn?t take away from the deliciousness of their offerings. However, we did enjoy some special dining options we weren?t expecting to encounter at all.
After speaking with the friendly owner, Luca, of Ciao Bistro, located in the center of downtown Fernandina Beach, we booked a reservation for dinner. That decision was mostly driven by the promise of fresh gluten-free pasta ? a rare treat when dining out, no doubt. Again, making a decision when so many seemingly delicious dishes are available wasn?t easy. However, being served Fettuccini Alfredo with actual fettuccini pasta was just too exciting an opportunity to pass up. The perfectly creamy sauce and pasta that reminded us of the best wheat pastas in Italy, and the added optional local shrimp, is a gluten-free dish made in heaven! Ciao has a nominal entr?e sharing charge and our pasta dish was large enough for two people, especially if pre-entr?e salads are ordered. Try gelato for dessert ? if you have room for it. The wonderful ambience at this fast-paced bistro and the amazing Italian meal made for an absolutely lovely dining experience! // www.ciaobistro-luca.com
For a romantic dinner, complete with crisp white linens and candles, Le Clos is hard to beat. From the quaint outdoor patio to the cozy dining room, you?ll be instantly transported to Paris. Can you imagine ordering escargot without having to shun the bread? Sure, the crusty French bread normally served is off-limits, but freshly baked mini gluten-free rolls more than make up for that. The perfectly cooked snails smothered in garlic parsley butter were simply magnifique! While the Seared Salmon and the Roasted Duck are both splendid main courses, many of the entrees are naturally gluten-free ? or can be modified to be so. To round out our French meal, we shared the velvety cr?me brulee for dessert. Truly a sweet ending to an excellent evening! // www.leclos.com
If you?re in the mood for Spanish tapas, La Mancha, located at the beach, is a wonderful option. Tapas are meant to be shared and thankfully, so much of the menu here is gluten-free, there is plenty to taste and share! To start, the Ensalada Griega is a lovely salad with feta cheese and Kalamata olives. The Mussarela de Bufala (caprese salad) with amazing imported buffalo-milk mozzarella, fresh basil and tomato slices is divine. Another great sharing plate is the Gambas Ajillo, which consists of local shrimp saut?ed in olive oil, garlic and parsley ? this dish is simply perfect! Another popular seafood plate is the Scallops Mondragon. With an easy modification of no panko crust, the pan-seared scallops on a bed of creamy poblano pepper sauce are absolutely amazing. One of the more unique selections on the menu is Tortilla la Mancha. The naturally gluten-free quiche style dish is made with sliced potatoes, spinach, manchego cheese and tavern ham is both tasty and very filling. For a serious red meat fix, the Picanha a Palito ? tender grilled top sirloin with a Spanish blue cheese sauce – should fit the bill. There are many more gluten-free dishes, including generous entr?e plates, on La Mancha?s extensive menu than can be listed here. The one house specialty not to miss is the amazing homemade sangria! // www.lamancharestaurant.net
Though we weren?t blown away by special dessert options in the area, we did find some wonderful gluten-free cookies at The Picnic Basket. Their naturally gluten-free Amaretti cookies made with almond flour are melt-in-your-mouth delicious! // www.picnicbasketfernandina.com
Hands down, the most delightfully sweet find of the trip was discovered at Fantastic Fudge. The place serves in-house made confections as well as ice cream and there was always a line. Sometimes the line winds down the sidewalk downtown. One taste of the silky smooth fudge will explain why. The addictive chocolatey pecan laden treat was amongst the best we?ve had anywhere! // www.fantasticfudge.com
Other places in the area to consider include, Arte Pizza, 29 South Eats, Espana and BarZin Bistro. For a beautiful sunset view, grab a cocktail on the deck of The Salty Pelican, before heading to dinner.
If you want to stock up on gluten-free snacks during your visit, look no further than Nassau Health Foods. This expansive shop is a little off the tourist beaten path, but it?s totally worth the trip. The well-appointed store stocks a huge array of allergen-free products from many companies of various sizes, and has an onsite caf? that offers some gluten-free meals. It?s the go-to place for the gluten-free set in the area, no doubt! // www.nassauhealthfoods.net
In a nutshell, Amelia Island has something for everyone ? beautiful beaches on the Atlantic Ocean, a historic downtown area, worthwhile museums and unique shopping experiences. Throw some fabulous gluten-free dining into the mix and you?re all set for a wonderful trip! // www.ameliaisland.com
By Tiffany Janes