TORONTO — With endless lures for Canadians in the Sunshine State, the laid-back destination of Amelia Island is quietly encouraging travellers to see its part of Florida.
“We’re proud to have a 98% satisfaction rate from visitors,” said Amy Lacroix, Director of Marketing for the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We know once they visit once, they’ll return.”
Amelia Island, located on the northeast coast of Florida, just south of the Georgia state line, is one of the Sea Islands, a group of barrier islands that lie along the eastern coast of America from South Carolina to Florida. Similar to neighbours such as Hilton Head Island, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, Amelia Island hopes to encourage Canadians visitors to spend time getting to know its small town southern charms.
The island, also known as the Isle of Eight Flags, has the distinctive history of being overseen by eight different flags since 1562 including Spain, England and France, was a prized possession in previous centuries because it had one of the deepest natural ports of the south. Amelia Island also holds a unique place in Florida’s history, as the terminus of the state’s first cross-state railroad, built by industrialist Henry Flagler.
Named by the British in tribute to King George II’s daughter Amelia, the island also has notoriety because of French privateer Louis Michel Aury, who claimed the island for a few months in 1817 for the revolutionary republic of Mexico. The pirate history is alive and well on island and in October the inaugural Fernandina Pirate Festival will launch, organized by the Fernandina Pirates Club.
With 10,000 to 15,000 permanent island residents, tourism is an essential part of the island’s economy as well as the shrimp industry, celebrated each May with the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival, which begins with the blessing of the shrimp boat fleet. But Amelia Island is also known for its marine life with loggerhead, leatherback and green sea turtles regularly coming back to the island to lay eggs during the season from May 1 to Oct. 31, and for rare Atlantic right whales, whose migration route takes them past the island every December and January.
The island’s 13 miles of Atlantic Coast beach is paired with the highest sand dunes of Florida and extensive marshlands, creating a playground that is perfect for those who want to swim, kayak or stand up paddle in the waves, bike, fish or birdwatch, golf one of the six courses, look for shark teeth in the sand, walk the extensive boardwalks across the dunes or just find a lounge chair and watch the world go by. As Lacroix explained, “I came to the island intending to stay six months, maybe a year. Now it has been 10 years.”
Amelia Island offers a wide range of accommodation, from the recently renovated Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, with US$100 million investment in 2010 to update the 1,350-acre property to The Ritz Carlton Amelia Island, which opened in 1998, with 446 rooms and 48,000 square feet of meeting space.
The main town of Fernandina Beach is host to the island’s festivals, including the annual Amelia Island Jazz Festival and Amelia Island Film Festival, and features a historic district, many of the island’s Spanish moss-covered live oaks, and the oldest hotel of the state, The Florida House Inn, which opened in 1857 as a boarding house with an illustrious former guest list including Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Ford and Laurel & Hardy.
In the competitive market of Florida tourism, Amelia Island is focusing on its mix of natural beauty, luxury amenities and small town charms to be the magic combination to encourage more Canadians to visit this part of the Sunshine State.