When Floridians and Georgians want a nearby escape, many head to Amelia Island, a golf and sand-swept playground that encompasses 13 dune-filled miles of Atlantic beach. Amelia Island’s location near the border of both states makes it an easy road trip. But many in the know try to keep quiet about the tucked-away barrier island that’s the size of Manhattan, all the better to have it to themselves.
While Amelia Island resides in the Sunshine State, you’ll see more Spanish-moss-draped oak trees than palms. The pace is slow and relaxed— everyone wakes up early to hit the often-uncrowded beaches, and evenings are best spent with sundowners overlooking the water.
If you want a domestic destination that’s easy to get to (it’s 30 minutes from Jacksonville International Airport) and yet a bit off the beaten path, read more about the laidback island off the northeast coast of Florida:
Where to Stay
The best option among Amelia Island hotels is The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island. The Forbes Travel Guide Recommended property celebrates its 30th anniversary this year by debuting an extensive renovation.
Wimberly Interiors brought the oceanfront hotel’s surroundings into the 446 rooms and suites with a sandy palette and lots of light wood, including an oversized mixed wood chevron-patterned piece behind the bed. Artwork incorporating blues and greens punctuates the space. A cane loveseat and glass-topped table do double duty as a dining area and a desk, and there’s also a sofa for lounging. All accommodations have sliding glass doors that open to balconies and water or coastal views.
Where to Eat and Drink
While there are more than 90 Amelia Island restaurants from which to choose, you have to join the Lilly Pulitzer-wearing throngs in the dark-wood-filled dining room at Salt.
The fine-dining restaurant has been a longtime fixture at the luxury hotel, but it’s getting new life after the addition of chef de cuisine Okan Kizilbayir. Previously, Kizilbayir served as sous chef at New York’s Five-Star Le Bernardin and before that as sous chef at Blue by Eric Ripert at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.
Here, he cooks fish to perfection, from the tender skate with pesto on quinoa to the Atlantic halibut doused in truffle jus with morels. If you can handle another fish course, get the delicate snapper ceviche with avocado, corn and lime with a corn broth poured tableside. Opt for wine pairings — a subtle 2018 William Fevre Champs Royaux Chablis didn’t overpower the ceviche, and a 2018 Trimbach Riesling added even more freshness to our skate.
Tip: Even if you’re trying to shed some COVID pounds, don’t bypass the bread service — it comes with butter and a sampling of the restaurant’s collection of 40 salts (we loved the mesquite and the infused-in-house black garlic). If you have the excellent Stacey waiting on you, he might sneak you some others to try, too.
As part of the renovations, The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island added three new culinary choices. Perched poolside, Coquina is North Florida’s largest alfresco restaurant and ocean-view bar serving Spanish-influenced cuisine. Sit in one of the hanging chairs and nosh on the tuna poke bowl.
The nautical-inspired Tidewater Grill woos sports fans with local Mocama Brewery beers on tap and pub bites like a saltwater pretzel with locale ale cheese, and lump crab and corn fritters. For something different, try the wild game charcuterie board.
A line consistently snakes out of the new First Drop café as people are eager to order an iced caramel macchiato (the most popular drink) and an egg and cheese croissant or the housemade gelato or sorbet before hitting the pool.
Be sure to end the evening at The Lobby Bar. While the revamped contemporary white and gray interiors are inviting, take one of the house-infused bourbons outside to the large fire pit — or one of the nearby Adirondack chairs — and watch the sun sink into the Atlantic.
What to Do
The island’s most famous resident, author John Grisham, has been a fan of The Ritz-Carlton since its opening. “We were charmed by the hospitality of the resort and the laid-back vibes of the other guests,” Grisham wrote in an ode to Amelia Island. “It’s oceanfront, with miles of wide public beaches in both directions, perfect for the kind of serious loafing that I have come to appreciate.”
If you’re looking to do some loafing, the beach is the obvious place. But more guests flock to the popular oceanfront pool in the heart of the hotel surrounded by loungers on stadium-style tiers (there’s an adjacent kiddie pool and an indoor pool if the weather doesn’t cooperate). Go early to secure your chaise lounge or upgrade to one of the new luxury cabanas, each outfitted with a circular day bed, sitting area, minifridge and television.
Or drop off the children at the Ritz Kids club, where they will be entertained by Amelia, the yellow-bellied rescue macaw that’s a nod to the island’s pirate history, while you go to the spa.
The Ritz-Carlton Spa, Amelia Island is the third-largest spa in the hotel chain (after Florida’s Grande Lakes and Naples). Its 27,500 square feet include an indoor hot tub with waterfalls, showers equipped with eucalyptus mist bottles, a steam room, a sauna and an outdoor saltwater pool with underwater music.
You’ll notice pink Himalayan salt lamps adorning everything from the check-in desk to the relaxation room to the treatment room. The lamps are supposed to help purify the air and boost your mood, but they also are a reminder of the salt marshes and the salty Atlantic water just outside.
The Four-Star spa adds salt into its treatments as well. During the 75-minute Sea Salt Bath & Massage, you’ll soak in a chromotherapy whirlpool tub with two heaping cups of salt. Let the healing, chakra-balancing changing lights and the powerful jets lull you into tranquility in the dim room. When the lights and jets automatically turn off, it’s your signal to dry off and slip into the treatment bed, where a therapist will massage you into oblivion (our vaccinated therapist offered to wear a mask before the service began).
Explore the Island
The southernmost of the Sea Island chain, Amelia Island mostly draws in visitors because of its wide beaches lined with 40-foot, sea-oat-flecked dunes. But there’s more to do on the sand than just lay out.
The Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve’s Boneyard Beach offers a stunning, stark backdrop for photographers with 30-foot bluffs and huge driftwood trees scattered along the shore. Amelia Island State Park is the only Florida state park to allow horseback riding on the sand. And American Beach is a historic haven established by A.L. Lewis, co-founder/president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, for Black travelers during the Jim Crow era. American Beach became a tourist favorite, attracting notables like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, James Brown and Hank Aaron.
For land-based pursuits, the island offers five golf courses, including an 18-hole championship option at The Ritz-Carlton designed by PGA Tour veteran Mark McCumber and World Golf Hall of Famer Gene Littler. Bike paths, including the Amelia Island Trail, crisscross the 18-square-mile island. Running from Peters Point Beachfront Park to Amelia Island State Park, the scenic AIT is part of the East Coast Greenway network that stretches from Florida to Maine.
Be sure to venture over to Fernandina Beach, a city on the northern part of the island with a 50-block National Historic District. Stroll the charming downtown to see a mix of Queen Anne, Italianate, Gothic Revival and Victorian architecture, and peruse mom-and-pop shops like Fantastic Fudge, popular for its ice cream and fudge, with the latter making a sweet Amelia souvenir.