The Florida House Inn
With our comfortable room at the Hilton Garden Inn/Sawgrass as base camp, and looking for some adventure amidst the Ellis/Weber wedding festivities, my husband and I toured the beautiful coastal areas both north and south of Ponte Vedra, with their sweeping marsh vistas and weathered trees dripping with Spanish moss.
We first headed north to the very tip of Amelia Island to explore Fernandina Beach, a small town that is one of the oldest resorts in the state — as the saying goes, it’s “where Florida begins.” Fernandina has a Key West look and feel, with its shrimp boats and quaint Victorian carpenter Gothic houses. A 50-block area of downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places, and during the late nineteenth century, Fernandina’s docks were among the busiest in the South, welcoming ships from all over the globe. Tourists flocked there before Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railway took snowbirds farther south to warmer resorts in Florida.
It so happens that Joy Bateman, my colleague at this magazine, has both written and colorfully illustrated The Art of Dining: Amelia Island – A Restaurant Guide with Signature Recipes, which highlights the best restaurants, bakeries, and bed-and-breakfast establishments on Amelia Island. Naturally, we used Joy’s book as our guide to find a perfect luncheon spot — Brett’s Waterway Café — which is the only restaurant located on the harbor. We stopped for a beer at The Palace Saloon, built in 1878 and reputed to be the “oldest, continuously operating drinking establishment in the state.” Hand-carved mahogany caryatids gracing the 40-foot bar, and the tin ceiling and well-worn mosaic floors definitely made us feel as if we had stepped back in time.
We also peeked into the charming Florida House Inn, built in 1857 and (here we go again) the oldest, continuously operated hotel in the state of Florida. Many famous people stayed here over the years, including actors such as Laurel and Hardy. By now, I am sure you’re getting the message that this town is old! There are also modern motels in town — in fact we parked in front of a handsome downtown Hampton Inn.
We took a beautiful boat ride operated by Amelia River Cruises around fabled Cumberland Island, the nineteenth-century retreat of industrialist Thomas (brother of Andrew) and Lucy Carnegie, some of whose descendants, the McFadden and Copp families, live here in Memphis. Nancy Copp later told me they are always on Cumberland for Thanksgiving, where they especially enjoy traditional oyster roasts. She also says her husband, Dan, has a special talent for calling the alligators on the island — yes, you heard me, calling — and he is happy to demonstrate his unique call upon request. The Cumberland Island National Seashore is the most restricted park in the National Park Service system with daily visitors strictly limited; the only lodging is the Greyfield Inn.
On our cruise, we were thrilled to glimpse herds of the wild horses that have made the island home for centuries; brown pelicans flew overhead, friendly dolphins followed the boat, and a submarine headed out to sea from Naval Submarine Kings Bay base. Also barely visible were the ruins of Lucy Carnegie’s mansion, Dungeness. Cumberland Island (which is in Georgia) is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands along the Atlantic coast, with an amazing maritime forest and wilderness area and wide natural beaches, and its environment is stringently protected and preserved.
Once again on shore, we drove the length of Amelia Island with its 13 miles of pristine beaches back towards Ponte Vedra, with a stop at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for a fancy cocktail on the terrace overlooking dunes and the sea. We also stopped to read a historical marker telling us that in the mid-1930s, 200 acres on the southern end of Amelia Island were established as “American Beach,” which became an oceanfront haven for affluent African-Americans in those segregated times. It was a favorite haunt of celebrities like Cab Calloway and Joe Louis. The original 33-acre development is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The next day we drove south along the ocean drive on route A1A to St. Augustine which is only about 40 minutes from Ponte Vedra, and, as every schoolchild should know, Ponce de Leon landed here in 1513 – 500 years ago – taking possession of the region for Spain. Now firmly in U.S. hands, of course, the town is a major tourist attraction, with an old city historic district featuring narrow pedestrian streets, walled gardens, and many outdoor bars and restaurants.
It is a little bit touristy, but charming and fun. We had lunch at a place called Scarlett O’Hara’s, which had been recommended by the bride and groom. We didn’t make it to the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park (not so sure that Ponce de Leon actually found the fountain, but there is a little natural spring there). We visited the old fort, and then our last stop was the former Ponce de Leon Hotel, a grand, Moorish-style palace with Tiffany-stained glass built by Flagler in 1888; it’s now the focal point of Flagler College, a small liberal-arts institution that has thrived in the heart of downtown St. Augustine.
On the return trip to Ponte Vedra from St. Augustine, we took Interstate 95 back towards Jacksonville, which is located on the St. Johns River and is the most populous city in Florida and the center of a thriving metropolitan area. Aside from all the amenities of a major urban center (including the NFL Jaguars), Jacksonville is known for its military bases, its outpost of the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, and its great beaches that stretch all along its eastern edge.
One particularly interesting neighborhood is called Mandarin (after the orange), and is located in the southernmost portion of Jacksonville, which offers a wide variety of excellent water views. In the nineteenth century, Mandarin was a separate farming village that shipped oranges, grapefruit, and lemons to Jacksonville and points north on the steamships that traveled the St. Johns River. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famous author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whom most of us associate with her native New England, liked this tropical paradise so much that in 1867 she bought a cottage in Mandarin. For the next seventeen winters she welcomed tourists to her home, and in 1873 published a series of sketches of the land and the people of the area under the title Palmetto Leaves. Now, how about that for interesting?