Entering Florida from Georgia across the St. Marys River, which flows east out of the Okefenokee Swamp to the Atlantic Ocean, you may want to skirt around the metropolitan sprawl of Jacksonville by following old US-17, or getting off I-95 at exit 129, to Hwy-A1A, which runs due east to the brilliant white-sand beaches and picturesque historic buildings of Amelia Island. The main community on the island is Fernandina Beach (pop. 12,076), once the main port in northeast Florida. The eastern terminus of the first trans-Florida railroad, and long a popular tourist destination, Fernandina Beach retains many late-Victorian buildings, collected together in a wanderable 30-block historic district along the Amelia Island bayfront.
A local landmark, the Florida House Inn (22 S. 3rd St., 904/491-3322, $150 and up) is Florida’s oldest hotel, welcoming travelers since 1857, while at the center of town the lively Palace Saloon (117 Centre St., 904/491-3332) is another of “Florida’s Oldest,” with a lovely carved wood bar, very good burgers, and regular live reggae and other warm-weather music.
More history has been preserved at the north end of Amelia Island, adjacent to Fernandina Beach, where the well-preserved remnants of a pre-Civil War brick fortress stand in Fort Clinch State Park (904/277-7274, daily, $6 per car), with 250 acres of marshes, sand dunes, and coastal hammock forests, plus a nice campground, along the edge of Cumberland Sound.
South of Fernandina Beach, Hwy-A1A follows Fletcher Avenue along Amelia Island’s gorgeous white beaches, passing upscale resorts (including a Ritz-Carlton) before crossing over a bridge onto Talbot Island. Four miles south of the bridge, there’s a turnoff west to the 3,000-acre Kingsley Plantation (904/251-3537, daily, free), the last remaining antebellum plantation in Florida. You can explore the elegant old lodge and remains of more than 20 slave cabins on the grounds. The house is closed during the week for renovations but is open for tours on weekends with reservations.
Continuing south, Hwy-A1A winds across the dense native jungles of Little Talbot Island, where a large state park (904/251-2320, daily dawn-dusk, $5 per car) has hiking and cycling trails, a nice campground, and a magnificent beach. The scenic road, which has been dubbed the “Buccaneer Trail,” eventually ends up at the terminal for the ferry to Mayport (every 30 min.) across the St. Johns River.