Amelia Island: When North Meets South
Sisters Danielle Norcross and Beth Aschenbach, creators of the lifestyle blog Palm Beach Lately, head to Amelia Island to discover the natural beauty, culture, cuisine and history of Florida’s northernmost point.
With only 30 minutes remaining of a five-hour journey from our home near Palm Beach to Amelia Island in Northeast Florida, the monotonous four-lane highway finally eased into a winding two-lane beach road, at times surrounded by endless marshland and at others canopied by old oak trees and wrapped in pine forest. A few remnants of Hurricane Irma piled on the roadside reminded my sister Beth and me just how severe the monster storm had been only one month earlier. But on this afternoon, the sun was shining, and a barely-there October chill in the air suggested a wonderful autumn weekend ahead in one of the oldest parts of our state. Any stress built up from our busy routines blogging and juggling family life flew out the window as Beth and I approached our destination for the weekend, the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge, a gray wood-shingled inn nestled among the sand dunes on a quiet stretch of beach.
Beth and I had come to Amelia Island for what we like to call a “sistercation,” a tradition we started years ago to take stock of our sisterly bond and reconnect in adventurous new ways. It’s not easy for us to interrupt our blogger-meets-mom rhythms that we love so much, but we always return from these jaunts to our jobs and our kids feeling refreshed and inspired. Past getaways have taken us to more familiar South Florida locales, but this time we decided to head north, beyond Palm Beach County and past Orlando, to the northernmost reaches of Florida to experience the area’s natural beauty and soak in the history, culture, and a little rosé, too.
Amelia Island had been on my mind since passing through the area four years prior. And Beth wanted to visit Fernandina Beach, a quaint harbor town on the island, known for having a mix of heavy French and Spanish cultural and culinary influences. From pictures we had seen, the tree-lined downtown, dotted with Victorian-era buildings, seemed like a cross between Key West and Nantucket, Massachusetts, two of our favorite places. So we booked a two-night stay at the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge and planned a weekend of outdoor activities including biking, sailing, shopping and eating.
Because of the area’s history as a shrimping and fishing village in the early 1900s, we were excited to check out the harbor and take in the sights of the quaint town by boat. After checking into our oceanfront suite at the lodge and unpacking our matching pink trunks, Beth and I set out for a private sunset cruise with Tony and Cindy Jones, owners of Windward Sailing. We knew we had arrived at the right place when we spotted the signature outriggers on some of the shrimp boats tied up at the dock. Tony and Cindy greeted us at the Fernandina Harbor Marina in the heart of town during the “golden hour,” when the setting sun casts a golden hue across the sky. They welcomed Beth and me aboard a 37-foot catamaran with warm smiles and asked us about our coordinating Hunter rain boots. “We are known to still dress alike,” I explained with a laugh. We spent the next hour under sail along the coastline, exchanging stories with Cindy and Tony and even seeing one of Kings Bay’s Navy submarines coming up near Cumberland Sound.
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Once the sun set on our charter, we thanked the couple for their Southern hospitality and headed for dinner at a popular open-air restaurant called Timoti’s Seafood Shak just a few blocks away. The casual menu had plenty of fresh, wild-caught seafood. We ordered the fried clam strips, grilled shrimp tacos and New England–style lobster rolls, which came served in paper-lined baskets, and we dug into the spread sitting at a wooden picnic table under the stars.
With our bellies happy, we made our way back to the lodge for a welcome full night of uninterrupted sleep. The next day, as moms to two young children, our internal alarm clocks still went off with the sunrise. The lodge’s homemade breakfast buffet was already under way, so we rolled out of bed—wearing matching navy “big sis, lil sis” jammies, of course—and followed the scent of coffee downstairs to find warm blueberry muffins, crispy bacon, cheesy eggs and fresh fruit awaiting us. We lingered at our oceanfront table on the wraparound porch mapping out our plans for the day.
Shopping in Fernandina Beach was at the top of our list, so we changed out of our pajamas and hopped into the car. On our way, we passed the Amelia Island Lighthouse, the oldest in the state, towering above the marshy waterways, as well as several Victorian-style homes and inns along the road. When we arrived on Centre Street, the scent of warm chocolate from the local fudge shop in the heart of the village wafted through the air as we meandered by an eclectic collection of restaurants and shops. It was easy to score local treasures, and our favorite finds included a pair of antique flamingos from Eight Flags Antique Market, the shop’s name a reference to the eight different flags that have flown over the city during its 455-year history, and a Florida map print from Hudson & Perry, a chic New York City–style gift shop.
We finished shopping at Pearl, a boutique known for its Lilly Pulitzer clothing that reminded us of home. A café next door called The Picnic Basket caught our attention, so we stopped in to check it out. A woman behind the counter helped us pack a basket with small goodies, including a charcuterie board, spinach and goat cheese salad, tomato and mozzarella sandwich, and petite desserts. Beth and I agreed the beach behind the inn would make the perfect lunch spot. From our perch on the coarse, light-brown sand mixed with tiny shells, we soaked in the serenity of the quiet North Florida coast, which felt worlds away from the busier, white-sand beaches down south. We spent the afternoon savoring soft cheese, nibbling macarons and giggling about random thoughts, just like we’ve always done since we were kids.
Afterward, we freshened up and headed back to Fernandina’s main street for a stroll and the last dinner of our trip. We were eating at Le Clos, an authentic Provencal restaurant led by owner, chef and Le Cordon Bleu graduate Katherine Ewing. As we walked up to the building, a pale-yellow cottage built in 1906, we spotted Katherine picking flowers from her garden to place on the tables. Inside the cozy house, filled with a dozen or so intimate tables, jazz music played softly, but it was the outdoor patio lined with large raised planters full of fresh herbs and vegetables that seemed extra inviting. We sipped our glasses of Château Val Joanis rosé under the warm glow of bistro lights and dreamed about future travels to France before capping off the evening with crispy calamari, fresh snapper and steak with pommes frites.
Our sistercation was quickly coming to an end, but we had a few hours left the next morning to explore. Leddy’s Porch at the historic Florida House Inn, the oldest still-operating hotel in Florida, had been recommended by friends for brunch, and we were curious to check it out. It began as a military boarding house in the mid-1800s and was later transformed into a lavish spot for travelers like the Vanderbilts and Carnegies. We ate our shrimp and grits in a lush courtyard that overlooked their 350-year-old live oak tree, imagining the couples dancing on the old pine floor at one of their elegant events.
After brunch, we needed some fresh air, so we picked up a pair of bikes from SuperCorsa Cycles. Shop owner and cyclist Drew Carver helped us load the bikes onto our racks so we could haul them to Fort Clinch State Park. While exploring a small section of the 1,400-acre area, we made two pit stops: one to hunt for shark teeth fossils on the northern beach—a plentiful landing spot for ancient treasures stirred up from the nearby St. Mary’s River—and another to see the Civil War–era fort. We didn’t find any fossils among what seemed like millions of tiny shells, but we did leave the park feeling invigorated from the hunt and our walk around the old fort.
It was time to go home, so we returned our bikes and navigated back to the southbound highway. For the next five hours, Beth and I reminisced about the people we met and places we visited, all of which surpassed our expectations. We thought about the fact that each business, from the sailboat charter and the bike shop to all of the delicious restaurants, began as an idea fueled by individuals with a passion for sharing what they love. It made us proud to be Floridian entrepreneurs, living out our dreams and celebrating our corner of Florida. The weekend reminded us how important it is to connect with the diverse landscapes, people and cultures across our state.