Amelia Island: It helps slow the mind

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AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. - In those fresh and heady days of new romance, a getaway is something of a forbidden pleasure. Almost any place will do.

Later, when the ink on the marriage announcement has long dried, romance becomes a matter of absence: absence of kids, office politics, social commitments, bill-paying, the appointment with the Terminix man. But turning off the worry spigot isn't automatic. A place of ease - of unhurried moments, natural beauty, a graciously preserved past - can help slow the mind.

That is why the Husband and I headed for Amelia Island, a snappy 30-minute drive from the Jacksonville International Airport.

Amelia is historic but modern, natural but convenient. That means options enough to please both partners, but few enough to forestall arguments. The major dilemmas:

Where to stay: B&B, upscale resort, motel or cottage rental;

Where to dine: white-tablecloth scene or a beachside burger;

What to do: kayaking, cycling, boat tour, horse riding on the beach, bird watching, a spa treatment - or heaven forbid, simply sitting on a porch swing with a glass of wine and a book, and letting the world go on around you.

We went for the combo approach. Each day we would do one active thing, to keep ourselves from becoming fat and bored. But we'd also set aside time for strolling, reading, cocktails and an afternoon snooze. Mostly, we'd turn off our cell phones and soak up the ambience.

The commercial hub of Amelia's 18 square miles is Fernandina Beach, a cozy Victorian town of moss-draped oaks and red brick churches. The town's history is one of location: On the protected waters of the Intracoastal, Fernandina lies just a few miles from both the Atlantic and rich farming lands - a prime base for explorers, traders and pirates since the mid-1500s. Over the centuries, the town has served under eight flags.

Old ways still prevail here: Locals rock on the wide porch at dusk, a horse carriage carries visitors past red brick courthouse and churches, and a young father burns off his toddler's evening energy by climbing steps of the old post office. Most everyone takes a moment to nod hello, and from the pedicurist at Magna's Salon to the ticket taker at the 19th-century Fort Clinch, people are unfailingly helpful.

Slipping into the village mind-set was easy enough: We bypassed beachfront resorts in favor of Hoyt House, one of several historic homes-turned-B&Bs where the cookies are homemade and the staff happy to call around to see if anyone rents a sailboat uncaptained (unfortunately, not). We dropped our urban attitudes and wandered past century-old storefronts to the waterfront to drown our city stress in a sunset cocktail.

Fernandina Beach is considered the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry, and though the number of boats is dwindling - foreign shrimp imports have pushed out local fishermen - the marina is still the centerpiece of this town of 11,000. Sunset on the Intracoastal, at the end of Centre Street, is a visitor-preferred way to end the day.

We should have made dinner reservations at one of Fernandina's many gourmet restaurants on a busy weekend. But it didn't much matter - funky local seafood joints better suited our mood, and we passed the evening gorging on shrimp and sipping beer at Marina, a historic trading house-turned-seafood restaurant.

The next morning, we headed off early to snag a kayak before the weekend crowds rolled in. If regaining a sense of romance is about candlelight and hand-holding, it's also about teamwork - and there's no better place to get in sync than in a kayak built for two.

We set off on a waterway lined with tall marsh grasses, home to birds and the simple beauty of woodlands beyond. The channel eventually led to an island beach, pristine but fast filling with boaters this hot Saturday. When the iPod speakers of our neighbors cranked up, we got back in our kayak and fought the current back to the rental dock, lest we be late for another romantic weekend ritual: massage at a local spa.

Another cocktail, another sunset, another day at rest.

And so we kept with our plan: mornings of action (kayaking, cycling, a Segway tour) followed by afternoons of leisure (the spa, a bar, a nap) and just noodling around.

We'd been to Amelia once before, perhaps a dozen years ago, and were glad to find that Fernandina Beach hadn't much changed. The main street remains intimate, without a high-rise in sight. Historic homes are in demand, and eyesores of the modern ilk remain invisible from Centre Street (though a Hampton Inn of regrettable architecture is a block away). On the plus side, options for dining and activities have increased, and a few spas have opened.

But like most of Florida, Amelia Island is busier, denser, and growing more vanilla by the minute. Where long stretches of beach were once visible, the road is now dock-to-dock with beach houses, with grand statements dwarfing the comfy older cottages. Farther south, expensive retirement and second-home communities have commandeered the waterfront. The Surf, an open-air beer-and-burger joint with live music, has been sold to developers, and ale will stop flowing in September.

Thank our predecessors for the state parks that flank much of the beach and wetlands, a Maginot Line dividing past from future.

We spent our last morning in one of them, St. George Island. Maren and Greg Arnett of Ecomotion Tours are living out their post-corporate dream here, giving tours via Segway through the woods of St. George and adjacent Kingsley Plantation, a former slave-holding cotton plantation.

Segway tours are offered in many urban environments, but rolling along wooded paths on these self-balancing scooters is a rare treat - even for many disabled guests, the Arnetts discovered. The two-hour tour eases through a forest of scrub pines, wildflowers and native plants, with Greg stopping occasionally for updates on natural and human history. The battery-powered Segways are so quiet that birds and wildlife are undisturbed.

It's a sympathetic marriage of old ways and new - and a reminder that evolution will have its way. Nothing stays the same: not land or towns or people, or even our romance. But with careful tending and occasional restoration, the harmonies remain in tune.


Relaxing Amelia Island

You can fly nonstop from Philadelphia International Airport to Jacksonville on United and US Airways. The lowest recent round-trip airfare was about $271. From Jacksonville, it's a 30-minute drive to Amelia Island.

Places to stay

Amelia Island Plantation

1-888-261-6161, 904-261-6161

www.ameliaislandplantation.com

This 600-unit resort (villas, houses and a luxury inn) plus four golf courses is a top choice for families and friends traveling together, with kids programs, seven restaurants, tennis, biking paths, excursions, gym, the area's best spa and game room.

Ritz-Carlton

1-800-241-3333, 904-277-1100

www.ritzcarlton.com

Spectacular beachfront location. Spa, golf and children's programs.

Elizabeth Pointe Lodge

1-800-772-3359, 904-277-4851

www.elizabethpointelodge.com

Beachfront lodge recalls old-style resorts on Cape Cod, with wide porches, a nautical-themed sitting room and fireplace.

Hoyt House

1-800-432-2085, 904-277-4300

www.hoythouse.com

Gracious 10-room inn in a 1905 home. Traditional decor with real antiques. Has a pool, hot tub, bicycles. In Fernandina Beach historic district.

Addison on Amelia

1-800-943-1604, 904-277-1604

www.addisononamelia.com

Luxury inn mixing contemporary and traditional touches. In Fernandina historic district.

Hampton Inn & Suites

1-800-426-7866, 904-491-4911

www.hamptoninnandsuites.net

This new inn tries to fit in with the local ambience, though the architecture misses the mark.

Places to eat

The Verandah

1-888-261-6161, 904-277-5958

www.ameliaislandplantation.com

Embers at the Addison

904-321-2121

www.embersattheaddison.com

Marina Restaurant

904-261-5310

Joe's 2nd Street Bistro, Fernandina Beach

904-321-2558; www.joesbistro.com

Things to do

Jacksonville

1-800-733-2668, 904-798-9100

www.visitjacksonville.com

Boasts charming historic districts such as Avondale and several worthy museums, including the Cummer Museum of Art (excellent kids area), Jackson Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Science and History.

Fernandina Beach

Join the Friday-night ghost tour or visit

Fort Clinch State Park. Shopping is limited to things you probably don't need.

Shrimp Festival

904-261-3248

www.shrimpfestival.com

The first weekend in May (May 4-6 this year).

Cumberland Island

1-877-860-6787, 912-882-4336

www.nps.gov/cuis

The 34,000 acres of this Georgia island is a national nature preserve reached only by boat. A ferry goes daily from St. Mary's, Ga.; about 30 minutes from Amelia Island.

Fort Clinch

904-277-7274

www.floridastateparks.org/fortclinch

Built at Amelia's north end in the mid-1800s, the fort has never been used in battle. Since 1935, it has been a state park.

Beaches and parks

850-245-2157

www.floridastateparks.org

Long stretches of northeast Florida are preserved as state parks: Big Talbot Island, a nature preserve with an unusual coast bluff; Little Talbot State Park offers a long beach, campsites, boardwalks and ranger activities.

Fort George Island Cultural State Park is adjacent to the Kingsley Plantation (below).

Boat tours

Fishing and sailing charters are offered through the Amelia Island Charter Boat Association, 1-800-229-1682. Voyager Ventures offers sailing cruises on a schooner, 904-753-2388, www.voyagerventures.com. Amelia River Cruises offers scenic water tours, 904-261-9972; www.ameliarivercruises.com.

Spa

Top choice is the spa at Amelia Island Plantation; 1-877-624-1854, www.spaamelia.com. In Fernandina Beach, Magna's offers day-spa services; 904-321-0404, www.magnasalon.com. The Ritz-Carlton also has a spa; 904-277-1100, www.ritzcarlton.com.

Horseback riding

Ride the Beaches of Amelia Island offers freestyle riding; 904-277-7047, www.ameliahorsebackriding.com. Kelly Seahouse Ranch, in Amelia Island State Park; 904-491-5166, www.kellyranchinc.com.

Kayaking

1-888-305-2925; www.kayakamelia.com

From Kayak Amelia's base near Big and Little Talbot parks, you can paddle through marshes and onto beaches. Rentals and guided tours.

Segway tours

904-251-9477; www.ecomotiontours.com

Ecomotion Tours offers guided tours by Segway on Fort George Island.

Kingsley Plantation

904-251-3537

www.nps.gov/timu/historyculture/kp.htm

Many of the 19th-century buildings, including slave cottages, are part of historic exhibits.

For information

1-866-426-3542; www.ameliaisland.org

- Jane Wooldridge

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