Lee Williams, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 01, 2011
Since 1562, when French explorer Jean Ribault set foot on its beaches, eight flags have flown over Amelia Island.
After a quick weekend getaway to the island, it's easy to see why Amelia has garnered so much attention over the years.
A port frequented by pirates and smugglers early on, Amelia Island has long been a destination hot spot -- a real fantasy island featuring upscale resorts, beautiful beaches, fresh and saltwater fishing, challenging golf courses, great food, and plenty of places to explore.
My wife, Helen, and I recently traveled with friends Caleb and Sondra Didriksen to the island, which sits at the northeasternmost tip of Florida off the Atlantic Ocean, about 20 to 25 minutes east of Jacksonville International Airport.
The island, 13.5 miles long and ranging in width from a quarter mile to 2 miles, is easy to navigate, and we quickly found our home for the weekend -- the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort.
Staying beachside in the Sea Dunes villas, we were greeted by the wonderfully simple sound of waves crashing against the shore, one after the other. We chose a two-bedroom villa instead of staying at the hotel -- it's great having your own kitchen -- and kept our balcony door and bedroom windows open from the start, allowing the rhythmic sounds of the waves and salty air to provide a constant reminder of the ocean outside.
The sea is certainly a big selling point for the Omni, general manager Paul Eckert said, so much so that a new lobby for arriving guests is being built to showcase views of the Atlantic.
"We want you to connect with the ocean when you arrive," Eckert said.
Omni purchased the property in September 2010 and last month announced an $85 million "reimagination" project for the resort that includes adding 155 rooms to the hotel, an additional 20,000 square feet of meeting space, more restaurants, and new roads and walkways. The resort is massive -- 1,350 acres -- and features private seashell-covered beaches, three golf courses, a tennis center with 23 courts, a fitness center, a two-tiered swimming pool, and numerous restaurants and gift shops.
The tennis center was home to the women's tour Bausch & Lomb Championships for years before it was canceled in 2008, but our trip was still full of high-level tennis with the Hogue Cellars Amelia Island Futures Championships, a men's tournament for lower-ranked pros and college players competing for spots in the pro tournament.
The golf courses wind their way through the resort and feature seven oceanside holes. Caleb and I played Oak Marsh, a short, shot-making course (6,019 yards from the blue tees) that is true to its name. Live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss line most of the fairways, and dense marshland comes into play on the back nine.
Steve Schoninger, a cart and bag attendant at the course, describes Oak Marsh as a "killer," but he prefers to play the Ocean Links layout "because it has lot of par 3s, and I'm determined to get a hole-in-one before I die."
While we played golf, Helen and Sondra ventured off to the island's only other premier resort, the Ritz-Carlton, where they spent the morning in the spa getting facials before lunching poolside.
Eckert said having just two major resorts keeps the number of guests on the island manageable, which explains why it was so easy to get around. We rented an SUV at the airport, and it certainly came in handy, but the Omni operates an efficient transportation system that shuttles guests across the resort.
The shuttles also provide nightly trips to and from historic downtown Fernandina, a marina rich with eclectic shops and restaurants. One of our drivers explained that the Omni has a "no guest left behind" policy, making sure that everyone gets back to the resort, no matter what time it is.
Away from the resort
Visiting the island in November -- the off-season for beachgoers -- was a plus; imagine being at Disney World and not having to wait on a single ride. Not once did we have to wait for a table at a restaurant, the beach was nearly deserted during late-afternoon walks, and traffic was a nonissue, providing a welcome contrast to the daily battle in Dallas-Fort Worth.
"Definitely the best time of year to come here," said fishing guide Lawrence Piper.
Piper (www.theanglersmark.com) took us fishing one afternoon, trolling oyster beds in the backwaters of the Nassau River for redfish and speckled trout. While the fishing was hit-and-miss (and more miss than hit, although Caleb did manage to pull in a 20-inch redfish), being on the water was well worth the time.
We also spent part of an afternoon at Fort Clinch State Park, a gorgeous, well-preserved area (bordered by Egans Creek Marsh, the Amelia River and the Atlantic Ocean) that is also home to the actual seaside fort, which was built (but never finished) in the mid-1800s and served as a military post during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World War II.
Weekend reenactments are conducted monthly, although there has never been a real battle at Fort Clinch.
Amelia Island is definitely worth a return visit, and we already have a short list of things to do during trip No. 2: a day trip to Cumberland Island in Georgia, more time strolling the charming streets of downtown Fernandina and an overnight road trip to Savannah.
Even without these in mind, we would go back for the waves, golf, tennis, shopping and endless fresh seafood. While checking out of the Omni, I couldn't help but overhear a woman next to me talk about the lunch she'd enjoyed the previous day. Specifically, I heard her gush about the "lobster corn dog" she'd eaten at 29 South Restaurant in Fernandina Beach.
"Oh my God, it's the best thing ever," she exclaimed.
Yet another thing to add to the list of things to do during trip No. 2.
Lee Williams, 817-390-7840