by Chelle Koster Walton, Florida Travel Editor

Amelia Island's natural charms begin with her overstocked wardrobe of moss-draped oaks. Practically part of Georgia, much of the island's terrain resembles that of her stone's-throw neighbor. The two most unusual aspects of Amelia's ecological complexion, however, are her marshlands and beaches.

Here, the Intracoastal Waterway becomes clotted with spongy clumps of grass, resembling Everglades terrain and layering Amelia's character with haunting eeriness.

Golf with the gators.


Beaches drop off from sand dunes up to 40 feet high. To reach south-end beaches, one must span sand moguls over boardwalk walkovers, then traipse down a few flights of steps. The nearby Sea Horse Stables offers visitors an unique and rewarding mode for exploring these hard-packed stretches of sand. Surfers also favor these beaches.

Horseback rides at dusk splendidly end one's day.


Atop one sandy bluff, The Ritz-Carlton crowns the beach with a touch of Old World elegance. The Sandbar is the place to dine at this end of the island -- a classic fish house on the intracoastal.

Between Peter's Point, north of the Ritz, and the island's north end, the dunes flatten out.

Route A1A takes travelers to Amelia's midsection and her seaside personality. The drive, known as Fletcher Avenue, passes vacation homes in every style imaginable -- including one shaped like a lighthouse. Sliders, the island's only beachfront restaurant, serves seafood with a view.

The road takes you to Main Beach, a popular stretch of sand popular with families. It has amusements, concessions and picnicking.

Atlantic Avenue leads to Amelia's one town, Fernandina Beach. A 30-block area known as Centre Street Historic District revisits the turn of the century, a time when Amelia thrived as a major seaport and tourist mecca. Within the district, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, nearly 50 preserved structures predate 1900.

Brick buildings adorned with expressive archways, neo-classic columns and Italianate flourishes line Centre Street, providing homes for smart boutiques, antique marts, churches, restaurants and saloons.

Where Centre Street bumps into the Amelia River, another chapter of island history was written. Here, at Fernandina's legendary docks, the shrimping industry entered modern times. The town is still known for its sweet Atlantic white shrimp and reaps 80 percent of Florida's annual harvest.

Off Centre, one comes upon the doily-trimmed Victorian mansions of the period. Many of these exquisite homes were opened to board early visitors. A number of them retain their hospitality function as bed-and-breakfasts. Most well-known are the Queen Anne-style Bailey House (1895) and the Florida House, a hostelry for the rich and prominent, including Ulysses S. Grant, since 1859.

A venture north of town takes you to a rowdier Fernandina past, to a time when President James Monroe branded the town a "festering fleshpot." Two of the island's most colorful characters contributed to that reputation: the pirate and the madame.

Between 1807 and 1821 (the year Florida joined the United States), the island was controlled by freebooters and pleasured by some 50 saloons and bordellos. Fernandina's Old Town remembers the days when main street was called Ladies' Promenade.

Before that time, the island was shuffled back and forth between six different ruling factions. France was the first, after Jean Ribault landed there in 1562. The United States became the seventh.

The Confederacy, for a short time, ruled as the eighth. A relic from this facet of Amelia bygones sits at the island's northernmost end. Fort Clinch State Park (entrance fee $3.25 per car of 8 or fewer) wraps around the well-preserved Civil War-era bastion that was eventually occupied, along with the rest of the island, by Lincoln's troops in 1862.

The beach here is more secluded and less developed than the rest. Shellers find the island's best caches and fishermen take to the jetty and pier on Cumberland Sound

                                                                  .Chelle Walton bar