Beautiful Beaches, Bountiful History, and a Blossoming Food Scene

August 2023
Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw
Photographs by: 
Paul Grimshaw

Old Florida and sea island beauty wrapped up into one

Great travel opportunities don’t always require passports, redeye flights or exotic locations. Sometimes a half-day drive can yield new destinations you may have never before considered. Such was the case for me when I was offered work in Fernandina Beach, Florida, the heart and soul of Amelia Island and just about a six-hour drive from the Grand Strand.

My side hustle, performing music in restaurants and bars, is affording me opportunities up and down the East Coast to do a little domestic exploration, with Fernandina Beach among the most recent stops. Just north of Jacksonville, Florida, this old seaport and beach town is so close to that little hunk of Georgia that separates South Carolina from Florida, that you can see the Peach State from the banks of the Amelia River in the heart of downtown.

Reminiscent of other old seaports of the Southeast, such as Charleston, Savannah, Beaufort and Southport, Fernandina Beach is its own unique version of old Florida and sea island beauty wrapped up into one.


Stay on the oceanfront for a traditional beach getaway, or downtown in the historic district for proximity to bars, restaurants, museums, historical walking tours, and live music. Either way, you’re never more than a 10-minute drive to all Fernandina has to offer. For most visitors, traditional B&Bs, AirBnB or VRBO might offer the best solutions, though Hampton Inn has hotels in the historic district and on the oceanfront. When ultimate luxury is required, consider The Ritz-Carlton or Omni Amelia Island Plantation. I opted to stay in HaRVey, a recently purchased motorhome. Through Hipcamp, a website dedicated to private owners offering parking places at their homes, I was able to cut my accommodation bill to $50 per night and was within walking distance to all the shops and great restaurants of the downtown area. My electric bike got me to the beach in less than 10 minutes without the hassle of driving or finding parking.


Fernandina Beach is perfect for walking. Flat as a pancake, this old town is loaded with antebellum homes and buildings. The visitor’s center, located in an old passenger railroad terminal, can give you a free guided walking tour map. I found Florida Stories, a free app for my phone specializing in self-guided tours. The app allowed me to listen to audio narrations and follow an historic trail through town offering fascinating insights into the history of the place and the people that made the city what it is since its first European explorers came in the 1500s. Native Americans called the region Napoyca. Its bounty from the sea helped provide them sustenance for thousands of years prior to colonization.

Fort Clinch State Park may be Amelia Island’s most well-known feature. This 1,400-acre park is home to the Civil War-era fort for which it’s named. Historians in period dress offer programs, demonstrations, and answer questions from the park’s annual 245,000 visitors. The park also offers unparalleled wildlife viewing and natural beauty among its maritime forests, sand dunes, and tidal marshes. Miles of well-maintained trails, a large camping area (book early for this option) and a wonderfully natural beach make Fort Clinch State Park one of Trip Advisor’s most highly ranked places to visit in North Florida.

Rainy days, or when you need a break from the beach, shouldn’t hamper your visit. Fernandina Beach is home to the small, but well-maintained Amelia Island Museum of History, covering 400 years of the area’s history. Housed in the former Nassau County Jail (circa 1938), the museum tells the story of the island in detail, including its unique nickname “Isle of 8 Flags.” This monicker hints at the turmoil of the region. First under French rule in 1562, then Spanish rule in 1573 before the English arrived hoisting the Union Jack, only to lose it again to the Spanish, before American Patriots briefly hoisted their flag and then the newly formed U.S. Flag.

The U.S. was ousted by Scottish-born mercenary Gregor MacGregor, who hoisted the Green Cross of Florida for the Spanish in 1816. Then came French-born Luis Aury, a pirate who claimed Amelia Island for Mexico before the start of the Civil War. The Confederates took control of the partially built Fort Clinch, raising the National Flag of the Confederacy before the U.S. finally recaptured Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach in 1862. Whew….

If history isn’t your thing, there are countless fishing charters, watersports expeditions, kayaking, boat tours, bike rentals, nearby golfing, a large, well-attended Shrimp Festival each May, songwriter’s festival each April, The Island Hop Craft Beer Festival in early October, jazz fest, and a Dickens on Centre Christmas Festival in early December.

Amelia River Cruises offers a variety of adventures. Among its most popular is the two-hour Adult Twilight (sunset) BYOB booze cruise featuring live music and river tours out to Fort Clinch, over toward Cumberland Island, where wild horses roam the beach, and back to the downtown marina.


The annual Shrimp Festival, which draws more than 20,000 visitors, hints at the seafood industry that was such a huge part of Fernandina Beach’s development. The region is widely known as “the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry.” Once home to more than 100 working shrimp boats, commercial shrimping is a fraction of what it once was, but shrimp still reign supreme at area restaurants.

While there are easily three dozen restaurants in town, serving everything from pizza-by-the slice to traditional Cuban fare and even fine-dining options, here are a few of the local favorites along Center Street and its side streets worth a try:

España Restaurant & Tapas has a Seafood Paella loaded with local shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels and fresh seasonal fish ($50 serves two). Indoor/outdoor seating and unmistakable Spanish charm have made España sometimes difficult for reservations, but worth the effort.

The aptly named Timoti’s Seafood Shack specializes in fast, fresh, local seafood in the form of traditional baskets, grilled and blackened fish, tacos, and many healthy options, such as tofu and chopped salads. With limited covered outdoor seating, it’s here that you’ll find locals stopping in for lunch or carryout orders. Classic cocktails and craft beer are available, too.

Hola Cuban Café can be a great place to start your day with a sweet, strong Café Cubano, breakfast empanada, or Pastelitos, fluffy puff pastry served savory (beef or cheese), or sweet (guava or guava and cheese). Outdoor seating under large shade trees and giant umbrellas just off the beaten path make this a very busy and popular spot for breakfast and lunch.

Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island is a close-to-home destination that many of us have driven by countless times on our treks south via I-95. With year-round appeal, history, and small-town charm, it’s a place I plan to visit again and again.