Published on Friday, January 20, 2017

Florida island with a Southern drawl

Graham McKenzie heads to Amelia Island and is won over by its coastline, its people, and its Bourbon...


Just south of the Georgia state line and tucked into the North east corner of Florida lies Amelia Island, one of the Sea Island chain that extends northwards. Whilst the state line says it's in Florida, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is just part of the 'South', such was the cordiality. Even the local accents and customs seemed to have more akin with 'yawl have a nice day' culture than the central Florida I am more used to. With 13 miles of quite magnificent beaches the island is more than just a pretty face. The vibe is that of a working, self-sustaining community where you are a guest among some friendly folk rather than just a paying visitor.

Heavy horses

There's a lot on offer on this island, not least of which are the waters that surround it. Take an afternoon boat trip and, if you are as lucky as me, you might see magnificent marsh land topped off by golden reed heads, dolphins up very close, white pelicans and wild horses on the nearby Cumberland Island which is actually (and I whisper this bit) part of Georgia. Interesting thing about the Cumberland wild horses is that they live about 20 years less than a captive because they eat a very salt heavy diet of sea grass and normally have a hundredweight of sand in their stomachs. Ouch!

The history and heritage of the area is mixed to say the least. Since the 16th century it has been a mash up of Native American, Spanish, British, French, Spanish and then American. Even the Mexicans were involved for a few months in the early 1800s. Evidence of this can be found all over town in the architecture, the cuisine, but probably most in the names. The Island was named by the omnipresent Brit/Georgian Robert Oglethorpe in honour of Princess Amelia daughter of King George II under a deal done with the Spanish. The main town Fernandina has obvious Spanish influence and the local defensive structure Fort Clinch was designed by the French. With a background like that, it's no wonder it's an interesting place to visit.

Local stall holders with caught shrimp, not farmed

Today Amelia Island has a mix of the old and the new. The historic downtown area has exclusively independently-owned retail outlets, cafes and restaurants. It's a local planning law that no national or multinational brads are allowed a presence on centre street and this makes it feel refreshingly old-style USA. Every weekend a farmers market takes place and the whilst this is not unique it still reassuring to find one where locals shop, chat and barter rather than be the exclusive domain of tourists.

Further afield the area boasts some of the best golf courses in the state with many associated with top brand hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton, which also has a new Bourbon bar to add to its appeal. The Lobby Bar has a range of rare and limited supply bourbons, plus a few new traditions such as 'First Call'. Each morning the head barman chooses a concoction, normally fruit based, through which a batch of bourbon will slowly drip through and thus be infused into a receptacle below. At 5.32pm precisely, an announcement is made to the bar that the bourbon is ready to drink. Why 5.32pm? Apparently that is the exact moment when prohibition ended on December 5th 1933.

Talking of Bourbon and spirits, Amelia Island has its own member of the growing Floridian Craft Distillery Industry. Marlin and Barrel is run and owned by a man dedicated to his craft and the quality of his products enough to give up a very highly-paid corporate job in aviation to do it. A tour around the premises will give you a big insight to this devotion and an idea of how the use of local ingredients helps not only the taste, but also the local economy. You'll also get the chance to try a few fingers of the liquor. Not that 'Amelians' are totally alcohol focussed, but the Palace Bar on centre street is universally recognised as Florida's oldest, continuously operated drinking establishment. Some accolade given the competition.

Five hours from Atlanta, two hours 45 mins from Orlando and only half an hour from Jacksonville International airport, Amelia Island is very accessible, lots of fun and full of southern hospitality.

Graham McKenzie was hosted by Amelia Island and Visit Florida, and travelled courtesy of Hertz Car Rental and stayed at the Residence Inn

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