Every parent gets it.
One December, out of nowhere, there’s a knocking at the periphery of our thoughts demanding to know Why, oh why? are you racking up so much debt for more stuff? Why not – this voice pesters – blow this popsicle stand and run away with the family to a magical world where somebody else cooks, bakes, decorates, gets overwhelmed, goes berserk-hangry, and drinks five too many eggnogs?
Why indeed. If you’ve been dreaming of closing your front door, turning the key, and sprinting-slash-prancing to your escape vehicle, do I have the destination for you!
Go ahead and pour yourself a Santa Clausmopolitan, get cozy, and we’ll begin our sweet holiday story.
Once upon a time there was a dazzling island sitting at the top of Florida, named Amelia after a real-life English princess. Over many moons, Amelia’s beauty enchanted her indigenous people and later, her visitors, to such a degree that she fell under the rule of eight different governing bodies (including France, England, Spain, and Mexico).
Fast forward to today, the beautiful 13-mile long Amelia Island shares with us her wondrous abundance – like gorgeous, uncrowded beaches blanketed in Appalachian crystal sand, magnificent sunrises and sunsets, charming villages, lovely locals, and a myriad of dining options with exquisite food.
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of kicking back on an Amelia Island chaise, you’re truly missing out. If you and the family are ready for something totally wonderful and different this December – or this spring break or this summer – put Amelia at the top of your let’s-go list.
Living the Kid-Friendly Beach Life
Wreathed in both the Atlantic Ocean and Amelia River, Amelia’s tide leaves daily gifts of seashells and shark teeth for families to discover. Wake your kids early to see the glorious sunrise, prep coffee, and offer breakfast treats on the beach, then turn the kids loose to hunt for gifts on one of the many beaches.
Burney Park Located on the southern end of Amelia and just a 6-minute drive from the Omni Amelia Island Resort, Burney Park actually nestles inside the historic American Beach. Why historic? Well, in 1935, America’s first African American millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, bought 200 acres of land and created a vacation destination for African American families – with a beach, nightclubs, restaurants, and hotels – to enjoy “without humiliation.” Learn more about this history at the American Beach Museum at 1600 Julia Street, Fernandina Beach, which is a 14-minute walk from Burney Park. Burney Park features restrooms, picnic tables, outdoor showers, and lifeguards in the summer.
Peters Point Beachfront Park This 5-star park is a lovely spot to picnic and play with the family. You’ll find clean bathrooms, lots of free parking, outdoor and indoor showers, and shaded picnic tables. Peters Point is great for hikers and bikers; the Amelia Island Trail begins at Peters Point Beachfront Park and ends 5.7 miles later at the beautiful Fernandina’s Main Beach.
Fernandina’s Main Beach This beach screams summer and comes with every amenity: a kids’ playground (with shade), a wooden boardwalk, picnic tables (yes, more shade), clean bathrooms, showers, barbecue amenities, two awesome restaurants with insane views, Putt-Putt Golf & Kona Ice, an impressive skate park, and lifeguards on duty through the summer.
The two restaurants at Fernandina’s Main Beach – Salt Life Food Shack with a roof-top bar and the Sandbar and Kitchen – serve family-friendly food, and it’s hard to say which is more impressive: the menu or the view.
Seaside Park Beach Just an easy stroll from the Marriott’s Residence Inn is Seaside Park – a beautiful strip of beach offering a wooden boardwalk, outdoor showers, free parking, and restrooms. Lifeguards are on duty at Seaside all summer.
It’s here that you’ll find the casual and lively Sliders Seaside Grill that has a downstairs restaurant with seafood, burgers, and steak on the menu, an upstairs restaurant/bar with a Mexican menu, and an outdoor patio with fabulous cocktails. Sliders also has a playground, live music, and striking views.
Let There Be Lights!
Tuck your darlings into your vehicle, hand each child a big Christmas cookie, and set out to see the sparkling island during the holiday season. While it’s not RVA-style holiday lighting, that doesn’t mean it isn’t spectacular.
On Centre Street in Fernandina Beach (adjacent to the Downtown Marina), the Christmas tree lighting happens in the last weekend of November, but the tree sparkles all December long.
Historic Downtown Fernandina Beach is home to the Dickens Illuminated Procession on the evening of December 12. The lantern procession begins near the Welcome Center (Old Train Depot) on Front Street. Marchers need only carry items of good cheer that sparkle or twinkle. (No open flames or candles.) Anyone can participate in this delightful tradition.
Later that week, in homage to Charles Dickens, Fernandina Beach transforms into an English village at Christmastime. Costumed characters stroll, music wafts through the night, Santa visits, and readings of ‘“Twas the Night Before Christmas” are featured.
No matter when you visit during the holidays, drive through Historic Fernandina to see the many lighted homes, and check out North Ridge Lane in Fernandina Beach to wow the kids with a block of homes that clearly started decorating last May.
If you’re up for making a 30-minute drive to Jacksonville, you’ll be awed by JAX Illuminations. This 500,000-light display – produced by a husband and wife – is truly something. The entrance fee is $20 per vehicle.
Family Fun and Parent-Friendly
Just so you know: I could write a book on the endless activities on Amelia Island like boating, kayaking, jet skiing, river cruising, sailing lessons, surfing lessons – and on and on. The island has practically every rental under the Floridian sun, including bikes, boats (including kayaks and catamarans), surfboards, and a ton more.
If you’re looking for activities not to be missed, this list is long, but the good news is you can go back, right? So here goes…
In the hot months, head for Egan’s Creek Greenway in the morning or evening. This treasure of nature is a wild 300-acre region with hiking and biking trails that run alongside Egan’s Creek. The 5.6-mile trail loops and gets only light traffic. Plan to see creatures – like baby alligators, rabbits, stunning birds, maybe a bobcat – that call this marshland home. You’ll find picnic tables, kiosks with info about the Greenway, lots of shade, and restrooms at the Nature Pavilion. Begin your hike at Jasmine Street Fernandina Beach. And bring water.
Fort Clinch State Park sits on 1,400 acres of gorgeous land that boasts historic fort tours with reenactors playing their Civil War parts, biking and hiking trails, camping, a beautiful beach (although lifeguard-less and too rough for our sweethearts), and a playground. Daily entrance fee is $5 to $10 per vehicle.
One of the coolest activities ever for a vacationing family? Riding horseback through the surf. At Kelly Seahorse Ranch, we had a fabulous ride with a wonderful guide named Kris. For about an hour, we rode horseback through pretty (shaded!) paths and eventually onto the beach itself (not shaded). What you must bring (trust me): sunblock, long shirts, hats, and closed-toe shoes. No matter their riding ability, kids must be thirteen years old and four-and-a-half feet tall to ride. The pregnant need not apply. Kelly Seahorse Ranch is an 8-minute drive from the Omni Amelia Resort.
Sticking with horses, most Richmonders know the feral horse story about Spanish settlers who left horses on several Atlantic islands and the herds flourished. While you won’t find any wild horses on Amelia Island, you will find about 150 horses just a sandy toe away from Amelia on Cumberland Island, Georgia. The thing is, you can only get to Cumberland by ferry. The island has nary a hotel, restaurant, or car. You’re welcome to camp, hike the trails, and breathe in a truly wild space. Catch the ferry in St. Mary’s, Georgia (a 40-minute drive from Amelia) that takes you to Cumberland.
For a low-key family activity, visit the Fernandina Beach Farmers’ Market, located at North 7th Street in downtown Fernandina Beach. This lively market is open every Saturday, year-round, from 9 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., in all kinds of weather.
While activities and adventures are wonderful, families love good free fun, am I right? Amelia Island loves her playgrounds, so when the kids (or you) need a break from the sand and sun, head to one of these beauties to let the kids cut loose.
Not far from Main Beach, the Pirate Playground enchants kids twelve and under. Here you’ll find sand play, water-play, and intricate climbing structures including a spider web. Plus, the parental favorites: bathrooms, free parking, and shade. You’re also an easy block from Putt-Putt Golf & Kona Ice, casual dining, and stunning Main Beach.
Goffinsville Park is on the southern part of Amelia and delivers a great climbing playground for twelve and under, ample shade, and beautiful views of Nassau River. The road leading to this park can be hard to find, so keep all eyes open.
Central Park, designed for eight and under, is an enormous, grassy park with vintage trees providing canopies of shade. Best place to park: South 11th St, Fernandina Beach.
Let’s face it, some activities – free or not – are better when we ditch the little treasures or are fortunate enough to have a teen with mature taste in tow. If you’re looking for more adult-friendly entertainment, check out these impressive experiences.
The Annual Holiday Home Tour happens on the first weekend of December in the historic district. The tour showcases five gorgeous vintage homes that are decked out for the holidays. Costumed docents share stories and carolers stroll. The homes are within walking distance of each other, and the trolley also stops by the houses. Snooping encouraged! ($30 per person.)
Come February, Amelia Island’s Annual Book Festival pulls in full-wattage celebrity authors. The Book Festival’s keynote speaker on February 13 is the beloved Lisa Scottoline (rhymes with fettucine – her joke), and the gala dinner in February features five authors led by bestselling thriller writer David Baldacci.
Later in the year, enjoy the Concours d’Elegance (French for a competition of elegance). This festival – held in early March 2020 – delivers an elegant treat for the car-drooler in your family and features over 400 collectible, exotic, and vintage cars displayed by proud owners who want to show off their babies or sell them (as Seinfeld did in 2016).
Vacationers love a good tour and Amelia Island delivers – ranging from ghost and pub tours to golden era and museum tours. When local groups boast of preserved vintage homes and buildings through the years, that’s not a brag. Recognized on the National Register of Historic Places – much like Hollywood Cemetery and RVA’s other 224 yesteryear beauties – Amelia’s Fernandina Beach Tour of the yesteryear world spans a 52-block area that includes the original train depot (1899), Florida’s oldest operating saloon (built in 1878), and the Nassau County Jail (also built in 1878).
Last, but not least, Amelia Island is a golf hub. Home to five courses, and the two that score reliable raves both sprawl at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort: Oak Marsh Golf Course and the challenging Long Point 18-hole course. Long Point has appeared in the “Top 50 Courses in Florida” list from Golfweek and has been named one of the “Best Places to Play” by Golf Digest.
Amelia Island:Getting There and Staying There
The drive from RVA will take eight and a half hours without breaks. The closest major airport to Amelia Island is Jacksonville International (JAX), about a 30-minute drive to the island. Off-season tickets are about $170 round-trip and the busy season is closer to $450 round-trip. If you fly, you will need to rent a car to fully appreciate your stay. The island is thirteen miles long and nothing is super-close.
Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort
I know you see the word Omni and assume, Too rich for my blood, I’m out. But hold your seahorses! Turns out this 4-diamond, AAA luxury resort offers awesome prices that even we parent paupers might be able to handle. Omni Amelia Island rates drop as low as $199 a night (winter) and increase to just $419 a night, even on the wildly popular Fourth of July weekend.
Want to get the most out of your resort stay? When you’re paying resort prices, play on the property 24/7. This is not the time, say, to hang with the wild horses on Cumberland. If you’re paying for the Omni pools, be in the Omni pools. They are perfectly positioned so pool users can gaze out to sea. There’s a fantastic splash pool for the little guys, a ton of lounge chairs, even more shade, two hot tubs, and three fire pits. And the adult infinity pool gives the loungers the best view of all. Ditto the beach: If you’re paying for the Omni’s exquisite beach, keep all toes in the exquisite surf.
And, friends, it’s impossible to get bored at this resort. Take a look:
The beautiful, almost 1,400-acre resort is fronted by more than three miles of white-sand beach studded with upscale lounges, umbrellas, and cabanas. And that’s just the resort’s backyard if you will. The front yard is designed like a posh village with buildings connected by high-end mini-bus rides (my boys love a shuttle) that continuously roam the property squiring guests to the Omni Amelia’s restaurants, golf course, tennis courts, fitness rooms, and so forth. It’s worth every penny if you can swing it!
Residence Inn by Marriott Amelia Island
The Residence Inn had me at poolside fire pit, and yet there is so much more to this awesome value stay. The Inn’s guest rooms are like tiny apartments with fully equipped kitchens stocked with everything you need to whip up a spaghetti dinner. We stayed in a 2-bedroom suite with doors that actually closed. And the impressive breakfast, parking, and Wi-Fi are rolled into one easy-to-understand price. So no sticker shock at the end of your visit.
The pool – surrounded by comfy chaise lounges – sits right next to an extra-large hot tub and the fire pit. And there’s more good news: The Residence Inn is a 3-minute drive to Egan’s Creek Greenway; a 2-minute drive or 6-minute walk to Seaside Park Beach and Sliders Seaside Grill; and across the street from a delicious treat in DeNucci’s Soft Serve.
Photos: CHRIS BOEK, Deremer Studios LLC, omni hotels