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Beach bound: Florida’s Amelia Island offers history, cuisine and community

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Beach bound: Florida’s Amelia Island offers  history, cuisine and community
Bright colors and tropical plants mix with Spanish moss and Victorian facades on Amelia Island. PHOTO: CELINA COLBY

Amelia Island stretches just 13 miles along the coast of Northern Florida, bordering Georgia. Rich in history and boasting a thriving contemporary food scene, the island blends the Southern charm of Savannah, Georgia with the tropical scenery of a coastal community.

The island that visitors find today was forged in a fascinating history. Abraham Lincoln Lewis was the first African-American millionaire in the state of Florida and in 1935 he set his sights on Amelia Island. To combat the segregation of the Jim Crow Laws, Lewis purchased 216 acres of waterfront land on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island. Naming it American Beach, he developed the area into a thriving resort community for Black Americans.

For decades the beachfront was lit up with families experiencing the beautiful natural landscape, visiting restaurants and enjoying local nightlife. As segregation lifted Black vacationers spread across the island and the focus of American Beach became about preservation. Lewis’s great-granddaughter MaVynee Oshun Betsch, dubbed “The Beach Lady,” by locals, became a champion of the natural dunes on American Beach and spearheaded their protection and preservation under the National Parks Service.

The Fairbanks House bed and breakfast is housed in the 1885 Italianate home of George Rainsford Fairbanks. PHOTO: CELINA COLBY

Though the character of American Beach has evolved with time, that strong sense of community continues to resonate throughout Amelia Island. In Historic Fernandina, a compact neighborhood in the northern half of the island, stories always circle back to the strength of local bonds.

When Marisol Triana and Chris Garcia, the first generation Cuban-American owners of Hola! Cuban Café, found themselves needing to move their restaurant in the height of the pandemic, the community came together to help them. Neighbors sent over construction supplies, art pieces, even bored teenagers with restless energy to burn. Since then, the restaurant has become a neighborhood meeting ground, where locals can be found at all hours catching up over cafecito on the outdoor patio or swapping local news between bites of empanada.

For visitors to the island, historic bed and breakfasts reign over chain hotels. The Fairbanks House is one such property. The 1885 Italianate home of George Rainsford Fairbanks has been transformed into a sprawling inn run by father-son duo Rob and Flint Batterton. In keeping with the close-knit spirit of the island, staying at The Fairbanks House feels like staying at the home of a close friend. Rob cooks up multi-course breakfasts for guests every morning and Flint offers a rich history of the property and insider recommendations for dining spots.

The Book Loft, a fixture of historic Fernandina for more than three decades. PHOTO: CELINA COLBY

The best way to get a sense of the island landscape is by the water and for that options abound. Fort Clinch State Park is an extensive waterfront fort at the northern tip of the island that provides historical context and spacious views across the water to neighboring Georgia. American Beach still boasts the pristine dunes and soft sand beaches that drew Abraham Lincoln Lewis to the region. Or you can take to the water itself on a boat tour around the Amelia River and up past Cumberland Island, where you’re likely to spot dolphins, cranes and wild horses.

In the downtown strip of Historic Fernandina Victorian buildings house local shops and restaurants and mossy trees provide shade from the Florida sunshine.

In The Book Loft, a fixture of the neighborhood for more than three decades, you can pick up a copy of “Saving American Beach,” a children’s book based on the story of MaVynee Oshun Betsch, written by Heidi Tyline King and illustrated by Roxbury native Ekua Holmes. After a day of touring, visitors can satisfy their hunger with a wide spectrum of cuisines, from innovative Asian street food at Wicked Bao to classic French cuisine at Le Clos, a restaurant housed in a former single family home.

Rooted in a powerful historic tradition of people coming together, Amelia Island offers a unique travel experience. For however brief or long a time, visitors are welcomed into a close knit community where neighbors help neighbors and it’s never too late for a trip to the beach.