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Fyllis: Amelia Island, Florida
Amelia Island:
A Town Time Forgot -- Thank Goodness

By Fyllis Hockman
Photos by Victor Block

t's a town time forgot -- or maybe it just refused to move forward. Serene and unpretentious, Amelia Island remains in the 1900s -- reveling in its long, colorful history, quite aware it no longer has to prove anything to the rest of the world.

Therein lies the charm of this tiny stretch of land, 13 miles long and two miles wide, just off the northeastern tip of Florida. And abundant charm it is. Most visitors come for the beautiful beaches, award-winning golf and tennis, luxurious resorts and other accouterments of world-class vacation destinations.

For me, the main attraction is the seaport village of Fernandina Beach where a sense of Victorian splendor still abounds. Untouched by t-shirt shops and cell phone stands, the town pays homage daily to its elegant past.

Also absent is the caterwaul of car horns. They're just not there. The downside is that drivers stop their cars in the middle of the street to chat with a friend. On the other hand, no one seems to mind.

tree-lined sidewalk at Amelia Island's historic downtown area

A place that has not heard of Benetton's, the island's modern history dates back to 1562, when it was discovered by the French. Amelia progressed as far as the turn-of-the-20th-century and stayed there. Why not? It was at its peak of prominence and prosperity. Close your eyes and you can still hear the sound of trolleys casually clunking along cobblestone streets.

As the only territory in the United States to have seen rule under eight flags, Amelia Island still retains many of their influences: from French, Spanish and British to pirates, patriots and Confederates. Often summed up as "the French visited, the Spanish developed, the English named and the Americans tamed," (conveniently overlooking its very prominent position as pirates' playground during the early 1800s), Amelia not only has been at the epicenter of Floridian history but international politics as well.

building displaying seven flags of states that have ruled over Amelia Island
This building displays the seven flags that have flown over Amelia Island since the French arrived in 1592.

But that was then and now is still then. Hailed as "The Queen of Summer Resorts" by American Resorts magazine in 1896, the island soon after lost its tourist base to stops further south. As a result, mass modernization bypassed the island -- a disguised blessing that allowed Amelia to remain an authentic Victorian seaport village.

Fifty blocks of green-canopied streets winding around the island's historic downtown area house ever-gracious 19th-century Victorian "cottages." This exclusive Silk Stocking District of Amelia's Golden Age has now found a home on the National Register of Historic Places.

Street after street, house after house, enchants, charms and captivates visitors, be they on guided tours, informal strolls or atop horse and buggy.

horse carriage on historic Centre Street with Victorian house in the background
Historic Centre Street.

Most of the homes, ablaze in multiple shades of tans and turquoise and mints and mauves, sport some strange appendage on the roof alternately identified as a turret, cupola, gazebo, or belvedere. Wraparound porches adorned with decorative balustrades and whimsically designed gingerbreading give each structure its personal charm and distinction.

Although several homes are still privately owned and occupied by original families, many have been transformed into enchanting bed and breakfasts, decked out in Queen Anne, Italianate, Chinese Chippendale or any number of other building motifs fashionable at the time. This mini-course on Victorian architecture belongs on any itinerary as much for its sightseeing value as for the gracious accommodations.

Hospitality gushes through every lush towel and hand-designed window treatment of Hoyt House, a 1905 canary yellow and periwinkle blue Victorian dollhouse mother-henned over by owners Myrta Defendini and Deborah Gold. Re-capturing the tranquility of the Victorian era is unavoidable as you stroll the resplendent garden, stop for a wistful moment at the gazebo, sway softly on the porch swing or sprawl out beneath the 300-year-old oak. Sipping of a mint julep is optional.

For even a grander step backwards, drop by the Florida House Inn, whose 1857 origin makes it the oldest tourist hotel in Florida. Keep an eye out for one of innkeeper Ernie Saltmarsh’s prize quilts, which may be found adorning beds, walls, sofas and occasionally other unexpected objects.

colorful building displaying seven flags

Adjacent to the romantic courtyard, with its long brick circular fountain gurgling seductively, the old Southern custom of boarding-house-style dining is resurrected in the same dining room where the turn-of-the-century Carnegies came for dinner every Saturday night.

Each B&B comes with its own colorful history, a past inextricably linked to the development of the Island, the state of Florida, and often the country. Be sure to join a walking tour sponsored by the Amelia Island Museum of History, Florida's first oral history museum -- which itself was privy to a lot of it first-hand in its former role as county jail during the 1870s. The guides not only take visitors inside the residences but inside the people whose ambitions and traditions, dreams and desires, frailties and foibles shaped the homes they lived in and the island they lived on.

A stroll down Centre Street, with or without guide, reinforces the connection with yesteryear. A Norman Rockwell painting of a town, Fernandina's horse-drawn carriages, outdoor cafes and quaint shops decked out in resplendent Victorian finery reflect an earlier easier era. Just the presence of individualized shops is a welcome antidote to the sameness of suburban malls.

And then there's the Palace Saloon. Operating since 1903, it is the oldest saloon in Florida with much of the interior dating back to 1878, when the building was first constructed. Although its choice of libations may have changed from Red Cross Rye and Turkey Mountain Corn Whiskey to Miller Light and Sex on the Beach, little else has.

The original swinging doors, embossed tin ceiling, player piano, brass cash register and opulent 40-foot mahogany bar embellished with hand-carved figures of undraped women still draw the thirsty, the curious and the fun-loving. The former watering hole to Carnegies, Rockefellers and du Ponts, as well as the shrimpers and seamen who dominated the port city, is now the tavern of choice for tourists, locals and shrimpers and seamen who still frequent Amelia Harbor.

Indeed, Amelia Island's thriving shrimp industry is yet another throwback to its glory days. The birthplace of the shrimping industry still earns accolades as over two million pounds of shrimp cross Fernandina docks each year. However, they no longer sell for the nickel a pound they cost in 1906.

shrimp netters hand-weaving nets, Amelia Island
Shrimping, once the largest industry on Amelia Island, is still done with great care as shrimp netters hand-weave nets for the fleet.

A walk by the harbor at sunset captures the essence of Amelia Island. The tall masts of the shrimp boats are lined up, silhouetted against the sinking sun. One boat, apparently ever optimistic that the South may rise again, flies a Confederate flag overhead, further testimony that the island remains unwilling to give up its past.

For more information, call 1-800-226-3542 or visit www.ameliaisland.com.

Related Article:
Key West, Florida

(Posted 5-26-2011)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy


Ed Boitano's travel blog/review
Eugene Chaplin Introduces Chaplin's World Museum in Vevey, Switzerland

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Lake Geneva/ Matterhorn Region and Switzerland Tourism recently blew into Los Angeles with the most esteemed guest, Eugene Chaplin. A man of remarkable lineage, he is the fifth child of Oona O'Neill and Sir Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin, the grandson of playwright Eugene O'Neill, the brother of Geraldine Chaplin and father of actress/model Kiera Chaplin.

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