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
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.
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.
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 Saltmarshs prize quilts,
which may be found adorning beds, walls, sofas and occasionally other
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.
Shrimping, once the largest industry on Amelia Island,
is still done with great care as shrimp netters hand-weave nets for
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.