On Florida’s Amelia Island, a mix of tranquility and history

A sliver of light peeked between the drapes of my hotel room and woke me. The sun was not yet above the horizon, and I watched a shrimp boat move slowly across the water, the arms holding its trawl nets spread wide. I squinted, looking for the halo of seabirds that follow a working shrimp boat, but the view was blurry in the dim light, as if the day was not yet ready to come into focus.

Suddenly, the sun appeared, a half-globe of deep orange, and illuminated a small flock of sea gulls that flew close to the water’s edge. Then a maintenance ATV noisily fired up and drove onto the golf course immediately under my window. My silent sunrise over Amelia Island had finished its performance.

Amelia Island is at Florida’s northeast tip, about 25 miles northeast of Jacksonville and surrounded by water that seems to keep the fast pace of life at bay.

Toward the southern end are golf courses and luxury resorts. At its northern end is Fernandina Beach, a laid-back Old Florida town where people stroll the historic downtown after dinner, stopping at Fantastic Fudge on Centre Street for an ice cream cone.

Most of the hotels and restaurants are independents, and menus are dominated by old-fashioned Southern favorites— crab cakes, shrimp and oyster po’boys, pulled pork sandwiches, fried-fish baskets.

Amelia Island has a unique historical distinction: It is the only U.S. site that has been under the flags of eight nations (including the flag of the Confederacy). The first was the French flag, flown by Huguenots who landed on the island in 1562. The island was named after Princess Amelia, daughter of King George II of England. Fernandina Beach was named in honor of King Ferdinand VII of Spain.

Thirteen miles long and two miles wide, the island has a state park at either end — one with a 19th century fort and a half-mile fishing pier, the other with a mile-long fishing pier — and a continuous strip of beach along its Atlantic side.

The maze of islands, marshes and rivers that separates Amelia Island from the mainland is part of what makes it distinctive as a vacation spot, providing the settings for fishing, kayaking, nature walks, bird-watching, sunbathing and sunset watching.

Much of life on the island is lived on the water — the Atlantic Ocean on the east, Cumberland Sound on the north, the Amelia River on the west and Nassau Sound on the south.

Three centuries ago, Amelia Island’s location on the water turned it into a center of smuggling and piracy. Later the port was used for gun-running and for steamboats filled with tourists from New York.

Fernandina Beach claims to have been the birthplace of the commercial shrimp fleet in the early 1900s, the first place to use weighted bag-like otter trawl nets to catch shrimp in deep water. The island still has a working fleet of shrimp boats, although it is much smaller than it was a century ago.

Amelia River Cruises offers a variety of boat rides — sunset cruises, cruises along Cumberland Island and occasional eco cruises, on which shrimping is discussed and use of the trawl net is demonstrated. The eco cruises have ended for the season and will resume in June. But plenty of boat trips, tours of Fernandina Beach’s history, and Civil War re-enactments are available year-round.

My introduction to Amelia Island was a cruise out of Fernandina Beach along the west shore of Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia.

The boat motored away from the marina and north along Amelia Island’s west coast, past shrimp boats and Fort Clinch State Park, where people explored the thick fortress walls and sunbathed on the beach.

As we sailed slowly along the Cumberland Island shore, our guide pointed out some of its wild horses grazing in the swampy meadow and talked about the dilemma that the National Park Service faces — let the beasts live as wild animals, or provide them with an artificial environment that includes food and veterinary care?

Further on, we saw wild turkeys on the narrow sand beach. We passed a dock from which visitors could walk to the ruins of Dungeness, a castle-like mansion built by a member of the Carnegie family, and the private dock for Greyfield Inn, another former Carnegie mansion that has been converted into a luxury inn.

When I next returned to Amelia Island, a visit to Fort Clinch was at the top of my agenda. The brick fortress, built in the mid-19th century after Spain ceded Florida to the United States, is the heart of Fort Clinch State Park. Visitors can walk atop the walls, where cannons point toward the sea. On the first weekend of every month, costumed volunteers do historical re-enactments of the life of Civil War soldiers, and rooms are set up with the tools of that era.

The park has campgrounds, beaches, and a half-mile fishing pier. Only a few anglers were using the pier on the day I walked out to the end; most of the people were there for the walk in the salt air. A pelican, unperturbed by people that posed next to it for photos, perched on the railing, its eyes fixed on a fisherman.

At the opposite end of the island is Amelia Island State Park, which has a mile-long, pedestrian-only bridge across Nassau Sound, where people fish for whiting, redfish, flounder, speckled sea trout, jacks and tarpon. Just across the sound are the far reaches of the city of Jacksonville, but no sign of urban life intrudes here, just the quiet of Little Talbot Island State Park, a barrier island with beaches on one side, salt marshes on the other.

Kelly Seahorse Ranch conducts horseback rides along the beach in Amelia Island State Park. I took the ride on an overcast fall day, when brisk winds and a slow drizzle made the beach feel less like Florida and more like Northern California.

I was on Blaze, a chestnut American quarter horse, as our guide led us along a narrow trail that was lined with cabbage palms and Live oaks, across a creek, over dunes and onto the beach, where dredges were replenishing the sand on the eroded shore.

The wind got under my worn canvas fisherman’s hat and sailed it across the sand. At the edge of the sand was evidence of how powerful those winds can be: beheaded palms and oaks that stood naked, their leaves and small branches stripped by the wind.

We rode into the water at the ocean’s edge but never got above a leisurely pace.

Over several trips, I got better acquainted with Amelia Island on tours — a guided nature walk at sprawling Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, an unguided nature walk at Fort Clinch State Park and a walking tour of Fernandina Beach’s historic buildings, guided by a free app I downloaded to my iPad.

On my most recent visit, the walking tour took me to the old depot that was built for a train that ran from Fernandina Beach to Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast; the Victorian-style Nassau County Courthouse, now 123 years old; 19th century houses and churches, still in use.

I ended at the old county jail, a no-nonsense brick structure that now houses The Amelia Island Museum of History. The small museum includes old jail cells as well as exhibits on the Timucuan Indians, the island’s first residents; Spanish missions; the Civil War; and the island’s various industries.

I left as the museum closed and I debated where to go next. In the early evening, the answer was easy: Watch the sunset. I walked to the marina and Brett’s on the Waterfront. The wait staff quickly filled drink orders for other sunset-watchers, and the air was scented by just-cooked shrimp.

The sun lowered toward the horizon, painting the sky with orange and pink, against which the masts of sailboats docked at the marina were silhouetted. Just before the sun disappeared, I spotted the shrimp fleet docked beyond the sailboats, perhaps including the shrimp boat I had watched at sunrise on a different morning.