Amelia Island: The Florida Family Vacation Spot You Don’t Know About — But Should

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Lots of people hear “Florida vacation” and think of one thing: a certain mouse. We love the guy, and his home of Orlando (evidence here), but there’s a different kind of family vacation awaiting you on Amelia Island, a 13-mile-long strip of land off the coast of Jacksonville. Amelia Island offers a winning combination of seaside fun, natural beauty, southern charm and history. Plus: a healthy dash of pirate. Even better, it’s a destination that can flex to your family’s needs, whether you want to relax, explore nature, eat and drink well or live the really good life. (Of course, you can choose to do it all, which we highly recommend.) Need more vacay ideas? Check out our favorite family travel blogs, consider an unplugged vacation this year or maybe make it a family affair with the grandparents.

downtown amelia island
Deremer Studios

About Amelia Island

Spend any amount of time on Amelia Island (named for the daughter of King George II) and you’re likely to learn that it has served under eight flags over 400 years and is the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry. Another fun fact: it’s about the size of another island: Manhattan. (As a New Yorker, that last info was especially helpful, but it can give anyone a sense of the manageable size of the island.)

Big happenings here include the annual Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival in May, the Amelia Island Concours Week (a classic car event in March) and December’s Dickens on Centre, when the island’s historic district is transformed into a 19th-century holiday wonderland.

The island’s “downtown” area is a picturesque and highly walkable section filled with independently owned stores selling everything from antiques and eco-friendly goods to lavender products, gifts and fudge. As evidence of the more relaxed feel of the island, most stores close down by 6 or 7 p.m., at which point it’s a good time to head to one of the many waterside restaurants to dine al fresco and watch the sunset.

fort clinch signs on amelia island
Mimi O’Connor

Exploring Amelia Island’s History

Amelia Island is rich in all kinds of history, including civil war, maritime and architectural, and there are many ways to experience its rich past, including just walking around. Located on the busy, north end of the island, the Historic District of Fernandina Beach is home to beautiful, preserved examples of mid- to late-19th century architecture including Victorian, Queen Anne and Classical Revival buildings. (Many buildings have been converted to bed & breakfasts and are lovely, but FYI, not so kid-friendly.)

The kid-friendly Amelia Island Museum of History provides a nice, and easily digested overview of the island’s past. It is housed in the former Nassau County Jail, and you can check out a cell and related documents here. The pirate/shipping section of the museum is fun for kids, where they can learn to speak “sailor” in several languages, command a ship’s wheel etc.

fort clinch on amelia island
Mimi O’Connor

Fort Clinch, an imposing Civil War-era outpost that was never completed is a major attraction here. Located in Fort Clinch State Park, you can visit to explore the barracks (pictured above), walk the cannon-lined outer walls and on select days, even talk to Union soldiers as channeled by historic interpreters.

The island is also the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry (a museum also celebrates this distinction), and you’ll find both Florida’s oldest lighthouse and the state’s oldest operating saloon. (The Palace Saloon is on the main drag of Centre Street.) For more info and an interactive guide to Amelia Island’s history, check out the Amelia Island Augmented Reality Experience app.

beach on amelia island
Deremer Studios

Outdoor Activities and Adventure on Amelia Island

No matter your family’s preferred way of enjoying the great outdoors, you’ve got options here.

There are, of course, the beaches. Free and uncrowded public beaches can be found along the entire eastern side of the island. Aside from surf and white sand, Main Beach Park has facilities including a playground, mini-golf and picnic shelters; it’s also wheelchair accessible thanks to a Mobi-mat. A favorite activity of kids (and adults) at this or any beach on the island is hunting for shark teeth millions of years old.

people kayaking on amelia island florida
W. Herb Clark/Deremer Studios

Take the to the water, and you can see dolphins, or even some of the wild horses that live on nearby undeveloped Cumberland Island, part of the National Park Service. (Fun fact: JFK Jr.  and Carolyn Bessette’s top-secret wedding took place on the island.) We spotted both during a lovely pet-friendly family sunset cruise operated by Amelia River Cruises and Charters, but you can set foot on the island by taking a ferry or, for the strong and thrill-seeking, kayaking over with Amelia Island Kayak Excursions. We tried the kayak company’s guided tour through the calm waters of Egan’s creek salt marsh (see above), which is extremely kid-friendly yet still feels like an adventure.

bike riding in fort clinch state park
Mimi O’Connor

On land, be sure to explore Fort Clinch State Park a more than 1,100-acre park, home to hiking and biking trails, fishing spots, as well as the historic Fort Clinch. An easy bike ride to the fort along the park’s central drive is sheltered by gorgeous, ancient oaks draped in Spanish moss and lined with blooming magnolia trees and other lush greenery.

To explore the island on land or in the water, bike and kayak rentals are easy to arrange, and can even be dropped off at your hotel. You can fish here too. Take your pick from the fishing pier at Fort Clinch, the old bridge at the south end of the island or surf fish anywhere along the island’s 12 miles of beach. Non-resident fishing licenses are $17 for three days.

Still more outdoor activities include scaling the structures at the impressive Pirate Playground, play some pickleball, or go birdwatching or crabbing. Rain day? Head to the independently-owned Stories & Song Bookstore and Bistro, where book lovers may linger for hours, thanks to a café and upstairs gallery and performance space. Play and reading areas for kids are located on both floors. Another option is  Duck Pins Fernandina, where you can play a miniature form of bowling that’s perfect for little hands (and sip some creative cocktails if you want).

wicked boa restuarant amelia island
Mimi O’Connor

Amelia Island’s Food & Drink Scene

Because it’s a beach town, dining on Amelia Island tends to be casual, but everything we tried was fresh, and delicious. Yes, seafood is a big player here, but you will find options for picky eaters, too, and many restaurants offer open space for kids to get the wiggles out. Get the poke bowls and fish tacos from local spot Timoti’s Seafood Shack, find an extensive menu of fish and much more at the beachside mini-chain Salt Life, and enjoy lovely sunset views at the popular Salty Pelican. For burgers, the locals go to Tasty’s.

Do not miss the lively scene and savory cuisine at Wicked Bao (pictured above), Nathalie Wu’s fast-casual Asian street food spot. (Just slightly off the beaten path, it feels like a hidden gem, but in fact is a favorite of locals and critics alike. Nathalie herself will likely greet you and field any of your questions.) Home chefs should definitely make a stop at Centre Street’s The Spice & Tea Exchange, an emporium with an incredible selection of freshly ground spices, salt mixes and loose teas.

large brewery on amelia island
Mimi O’Connor

If you’re a beer-lover, you have your choice of welcoming and inventive breweries on Amelia Island. Check out Mocama Beer Company (above), a cavernous but sleek spot located in a former car dealership (where you can also get coffee and pastries in the morning) or First Love Brewing, a warm and inviting brewery run by married couple Jessie and Kevin O’Brien, with artisan pizza and wings. (She’s the brewmaster; he’s the chef.)

Foodies take note: for a unique upscale dining experience, make your way to the south of the island to the Omni Amelia Island Resort, where you can attend its Sprouting Project Dinners. The monthly event includes a tour of the resort’s aquaponic greenhouse, gardens and beehives, followed by cocktails and a five-course dinner incorporating items grown on-site. (That includes plants foraged on the lush property, which we found pretty cool.)

ritz carlton amelia island
Mimi O’Connor

Luxury Family Vacations on Amelia Island

Looking to upgrade your family’s vacation? You’ll want to stay on the south end of the island, where in addition to the Omni, you’ll find the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island (pictured above). Both properties offer beach-facing rooms and suites exclusively, as well as impressive amenities. Rates at the Ritz-Carlton range from $699-$999 a night, depending on the season. The Omni’s nightly rate is $349-499.

The Omni offers a Camp Amelia for kids ages four to 10, a nature center, adventure tours and more, much of which is open non-guests can utilize. Also at the Omni, serious golfers can tackle a Pete Dye-designed championship golf course and a Beau Welling-designed short course. The whole family can take on the Heron’s Cove Adventure Mini Golf course. (Courses for adults and kids are open to the public.)

At the Ritz-Carlton, dine at Salt, the only AAA Five Diamond restaurant in the state, pick up a gently used Birkin bag at the hotel boutique and enjoy the spa’s signature “Heaven in a Hammock” zero-gravity massage.

The Ritz also offers Ritz Kids for kids ages five to 12, with hands-on programming tied to the natural elements and animals of the island. To take things really over the top, book a tuck-in of cookies and story time with “Princess Amelia” and her pirate friend, who comes with the hotel’s resident parrot perched on his shoulder. Another option: a super cute Indoor Pirate Campout, with a tent, teddy bear, pirate storybook, treasure map and more. (Keep it all except for the tent. Cost is $125/night plus tax and service charge. Recommended for kids ages four to 10.)

marriott hotel poll on amelia island
Mimi O’Connor

Affordable Accommodations on Amelia Island

If you prefer a comfortable value option for your stay, consider the Springhill Suites Amelia Island and Courtyard Amelia Island, both by Marriott. The hotels are conveniently located down the street from the Main Beach and all its amenities and the entrance to Fort Clinch National Park. Courtyard’s room rates start at $199 a night; Springhill Suites rates start at $179. Prices fluctuate with the seasons.

The two hotels share a large and lovely central pool (with a hot tub and fire pits), and you can order food and drinks from the Tides Pool Bar & Grill. There’s also a Starbucks on the property.

Fresh and modern, Springhill Suites hotel opened in May of last year. It offers well-designed suites and many of the things that make traveling with kids easier: a tasty continental breakfast, laundry facilities and a shop to get late-night snacks. It’s also pet-friendly, with pets under 50 pounds being welcome.

If you’re a camping kind of family, you can book camping sites and cabins in Fort Clinch State Park, as well as on Cumberland Island. Cabins and campsites are available in Fort Clinch, with rates starting at $22/night and $12/night respectively. Campsites on Cumberland Island (which is technically in Georgia) are as low as $9/night.

This trip was paid for by the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer. 

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