Barrier islands dot the maritime landscape along the Florida's Atlantic coastline, and while some are only accessible by boat or ferry, others are reachable by bridges. Either way, they're ideal getaways for a day, a weekend, or longer. Just minutes from Florida's beautiful north eastern coast, you'll find the secluded and State Park protected islands of Amelia, Fort George, Big Talbot and Little Talbot -- all within a few miles of each other and each offering pristine coastal habitats, wildlife rich marshlands, inland communities, long cultural histories, a wide variety of land and water based eco-activities, and a welcome respite from big city life. The Talbot Island State Parks are made up of seven individual State Parks: Little Talbot Island, Big Talbot Island, Amelia Island, Fort George Island, Yellow Bluff Fort, Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve, and George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier (a one-mile pedestrian fishing bridge reached from Amelia Island).
The largest of the islands in this system and the most developed is Amelia Island. Less than 30 miles from Jacksonville Airport, Amelia is home to fewer than 23,000 permanent residents and is a combination of historic architecture, a proud local community, world class golf courses, pristine white sand beaches, off-the-boat fresh shrimp, luxury resorts, and a quaint village atmosphere in the town of Fernandina Beach. An eco-tourism goldmine, what the island does best is to preserve its marshlands, waterways, and Spanish Moss-covered oak trees, creating a haven for wildlife, including turtles, dozens of species of birds, and marine mammals.
While the rest of Florida pushes up the prices and fills with northern tourists during the winter high season, this north-eastern-most pocket of the state is actually in low season right now, with temperate days and cool nights. The sun shines bright and although you may not be donning bikinis at this time of this year, there is so much more to keep you occupied and enjoying the great outdoors.
Much of the tourism development on Amelia Island is the result of the environmentally sensitive planning of the island's first real resort, Amelia Island Plantation (tel. 800/874-6878; www.aipfl.com). Developed in the early 1970s, the Plantation is a 1,350-acre resort nestled between the marshlands and the ocean on the island's south end. With a full-time naturalist and a team of dedicated eco-aware staff members, the Plantation prides itself on its green approach to everything from water conservation to animal rescue. It protects the island's natural habitat with minimally invasive construction and by doing so, ensures the survival of the area's tidal marshes, oceanfront dunes, grasslands, and savannahs. The Plantation runs a program of nature tours and walks on the resort grounds and beyond that are both educational and informative. You can walk, hike, bike, kayak, and even Segway around the expansive grounds. I took a nature walk along the beach just in front of the main hotel complex (Amelia Inn) and apart from seeing dozens of dolphins swim past and watching pelicans dive for fish just offshore, we collected shell samples, learnt about the delicate coastal habitat and found fossilized sharks' teeth. One-hour nature walks cost $10 for adults and $7.50 for children. A Segway safari tour around the property, either along the ocean front or around the marshlands costs $80 per person, or a special Sea Breeze Segway tour through the maritime forest exploring the sand dunes is $95.
Their off property tours are also an attractive option. Visit the historic Civil War-era Fort Clinch located a few miles up the road near Fernandina Beach. A three-hour tour of the State Park and the fort itself costs $35 for adults and $15 for children. Hike the maritime forest trails and discover remote beaches at Talbot Island State Park on a two-hour nature tour that is priced at $35 for adults and $15 for kids. Enjoy a wildlife hike and scenic drive, followed by a search for alligators on a guided boat tour on a six-hour Okefenokee Swamp tour that includes lunch at $85 for adults and $50 for children. For the same price spend a full day on neighboring Cumberland Island on a guided tour that visits the ruins of Dungeness, a Carnegie family estate, and may include encounters with wild horses, deer, boars, and turkeys. All tours can be booked through the Nature Center on the Plantation property by telephoning extension #5082.
Fort George Island
Fort George Island, located a few miles south of Amelia and connected by a series of bridges, was once a ceremonial gathering point for the Timucuan Native Americans. Its 18th-century fort, which was the island's namesake, has long since disappeared but what remains is a small collection of historic buildings and an ecologically diverse area for boating, fishing, wildlife viewing, off-road cycling, and hiking. The early 19th century Kingsley Plantation is at the northern tip of the island and is part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. The drive into Kingsley Plantation is along a scenic, narrow and bumpy dirt road lined with Sabal Palm trees. Admission is free and visitors can explore the grounds, which include slave quarters, a barn, the waterfront, plantation house, kitchen house, and gardens. Each February, Kingsley Plantation hosts Black History Month events and every October the Kingsley Heritage Celebration.
Little Talbot Island
Little Talbot Island boasts five miles of pristine beaches and is known as an exceptional spot for observing migratory and native shorebirds. The beach can be reached by a series of raised boardwalks that cross sand dunes, swales and coastal strands, providing shelter and habitat for gopher tortoises, cotton rats, bobcats and plants like beach morning glory, sea oats and railroad vine. Big Talbot Island is home to forests of majestic live oaks draped in Spanish Moss and a variety of palms and aromatic shrubs. Coastal erosion has created the park's famous Boneyard Beach, lined with the silvered skeletons of trees that once grew near the shoreline. EcoMotion Tours (tel. 904/251-9477; www.ecomotiontours.com) runs cross-terrain Segway guided tours of Fort George Island. The two hour tours depart from the historic Ribault Club on the island and visit the Kingsley Plantation, traveling along more than three miles of maritime forest, abundant with plant and animal life. Follow sandy paths woven throughout the lush vegetation, with colorful butterflies, tortoises, ancient dunes, and waterside bluffs. Tours operate daily from Tuesday to Sunday in the morning (two hours for $85) and in the afternoon (one hour for $55). They also offer a two-and-a-half-hour tour of Little Talbot Island on Sundays for $85 per person.
Kayak Amelia (tel. 904/251-0016; www.kayakamelia.com) can arrange water based guided eco-tours and nature walks around Amelia Island and the neighboring Talbot Islands' State Parks. Explore the salt marshes and come face to face with dolphins, manatees, egrets and herons as your maneuver through the wetlands by day or on a special sunset or full moon trip. Trips are priced at $55 per person including all gear and a snack. They can also arrange for you to go it alone and rent your own kayak for $30 for four hours or $45 for a tandem kayak or canoe. Alternatively you can take part in an eco-bike adventure exploring the uplands hammock of Talbot Islands State Parks. Peddle the gently rolling trails on comfy Trek 300 bikes with huge old oak trees shading the path. A variety of birds, gopher tortoises, and armadillos will keep you company and cookies will be served as snacks. Bike tours are scheduled for Mondays from 10am to noon for $45 per person or you can set up your own bike eco-tour for another time with a minimum of three people.
Most visitors to these islands choose Amelia Island as their base. Accommodation on the island is varied -- from the luxurious five-star Ritz-Carlton (www.ritzcarlton.com) to small scale historic Bed and Breakfasts in Fernandina Beach. Staying at Amelia Island Plantation provides easy access to a multitude of activities and close proximity to the Talbot Islands, Fort George Island, and Jacksonville. Accommodation here is a combination of hotel rooms, guest suites and villas. Their current Winter Value Days rates let you enjoy a deluxe ocean front room at the Amelia Inn until February 28, 2009 from $149 for two adults and up to two children. Alternatively you can enjoy their fourth night free deal staying in a guest room located near the Racquet Park tennis club. Until May 31, 2009, stay three nights in a resort-view guest room or suite priced from $229 to $259 per night, get the fourth night free and get 25% off recreational activities like golf, tennis, on-property nature walks and bicycle rentals. Rates are as low as $259 per night for four adults in a resort-view two bedroom villa or you can opt for packages that include golf, tennis, spa activities or meals from a choice of their nine on-site restaurants.
At the northern end of the island, you will find the Bed and Breakfasts and historic inns of Fernandina Beach. Not a beach per se, Fernandina is more like a small seaport village with a combination of Victorian era homes, boutiques, galleries, 25 restaurants, Northeast Florida's oldest continuously operating bar (the Palace Saloon) and Florida's oldest operating hotel, the 150 year old Florida House Inn, all located in a 50-block area listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Double rooms at Florida House Inn (tel. 800/258-3301; www.floridahouseinn.com) start from $99 per night and the elegant and romantic The Addison (tel. 800/943-1604; www.addisononamelia.com) has double rooms priced from $165 per night. The 100-year old Hoyt House Bed and Breakfast Inn (tel. 800/432-2085; www.hoythouse.com) was double rooms priced from $100 per night with 50% off your second night for stays from December 12, 2008 to February 12, 2009.
Note: The author recently staye at Amelia Island courtesy of Amelia Island Plantation.