If I could, I’d travel the world on horseback.
By Hope S. Philbrick
For my birthday, I planned an escape to one of my favorite places: Amelia Island, Florida. I’m not alone in my adoration of the place: Amelia Island has been named among the Top 10 North American islands by Conde Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards for six consecutive years.
If you start in the Keys, Amelia Island is as far north as you can go on the nation’s East Coast without leaving Florida: You can stand on the shore and, if facing the right direction, see St. Marys, Ga. (Thanks in part to such close proximity, Amelia Island shares more cultural commonalities with Georgia than it does with South Florida.) Amelia Island is just 13 miles long and two miles wide. Nearly 10 percent of the island is authentic nature: the north and south ends of the island are park preserves.
There’s much to love: The island has long stretches of white-sand beaches, tree-covered parks, the historic town of Fernandina Beach—many of the buildings are on the National Register, along with the 50-block Historic District—several historic sites, and a relaxed seaport vibe. To fill the days, you might choose among tours, spa, golf, dining, biking, shopping and beach activities.
Since I was traveling alone, the itinerary need not please anyone but me. So I picked options with a horse theme. It was fantastic.
Here’s the inside track on some of the island’s equestrian fun:
Any tour led by a guy who calls himself Pajama Dave is bound to be relaxed fun, and this one lived up to expectations. (Pajama Dave’s tagline: “Livin’ Life Comfy.” Seriously, how can you not love it?!)
Amelia Island is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Intracoastal waterway, Nassau Sound and Cumberland Sound, which is one of the largest and deepest inlets on the East Coast. So a boat tour is a great way to get to know the island and its surroundings.
While narrating the tour, Pajama Dave covers a range of topics. Regarding industry, he explains that Amelia Island used to be a shrimping hub with a processing plant that serviced more than 130 shrimp boats, but an increase in imported farmed shrimp has seen the industry decline so there are now only five shrimp boats based on Amelia Island. (It’s true and informed grownups buy wild-caught U.S. shrimp—it costs a bit more, but it tastes better, is better for the environment and the economy.) Other businesses on the island include a paper mill and Burbank Sport Nets, the world leading maker of hand-tied nets.
History buffs will enjoy the fact that from the boat you can glimpse Old Town, the original encampment of the Timucuans and the last Spanish Town in the Western Hemisphere in 1811. You can also see the pre-Civil War-era fort at Fort Clinch State Park.
Wildlife sighting opportunities abound during the tour. The area is home to manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, more than 300 varieties of birds and, on Cumberland Island, Ga., more than 200 wild horses (as well as deer, bobcat, boar, turkeys, armadillos and birds).
Of course, the horses are a main draw since it’s rare to be able to observe horses that are truly and completely wild—and by boat is the easiest, best and safest way to observe them. “They’re wild and they’re dangerous,” warns Pajama Dave. “Every now and then someone who thinks he’s a horse whisperer winds up getting hurt.”
Life for a wild horse presents real challenges: “On average, a wild horse will live six to eight and maybe ten years,” he says. “They eat lots of marsh grass, so there’s too much salt in their diet.”
Cumberland Island is Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island and is designated as a National Seashore by the National Park Service. It’s protected from development and the number of daily visitors is limited to help protect the pristine maritime forests, beaches and marshes. The only way to get to the island is by boat. (For more information, visit the National Park Service’s Cumberland Island website).
Amelia River Cruises & Charters may not stop on Cumberland Island, but gets you close enough to see the horses. And makes sure the trip is safe, relaxed, informative fun.
Odds of Encountering Children: Depends on the specific tour selected, time of year and basic luck. But the boat is large enough to find a seat by other grownups, plus the tour guide speaks into a microphone to dominate ambient noise. For the best odds, avoid the one-hour Family Sunset tour and take the Adult Twilight Tour instead. The two-hour tour is offered on Fridays and Saturdays only and features live music for $28/adult. You can also charter a private tour. 21 Plus Salute!
At eight years old, Boomer is a celebrity in his community, the star of numerous articles and even a book. Pretty impressive for a Percheron draft horse who pulls carriage tours around Amelia Island.
Raised by the Amish, Boomer is the largest horse in northeast Florida at 19 hands tall and 2,300 pounds. He knows the tour stops so well that if the driver gets engrossed in an anecdote about one of the sites passed en route and lingers longer than usual, Boomer gets a bit impatient. Despite that, and his habit of stealing ice cream and lattes from people, the gentle horse wins the affections of all he meets.
Standard tours last approximately a half-hour and pass major landmarks in the Historic District of Fernandina Beach ($15/adult). Private tours, available by advance reservation, can pick up and drop off at downtown locations of your choice. (All tours operate only in evening hours, when temperatures are cooler and more comfortable for the three horses owned by the company.)
Specific tour routes vary every time: “This is not a cookie cutter tour,” says owner Cyndi Myers. “I can’t give an interesting tour if I’m bored by the information myself.” The conversation is indeed far from dull: architecture, history, legends and the current culture on Amelia Island are discussed wherever the ride rolls.
Odds of Encountering Children: Standard tours take a maximum of six people and the tour operators make every reasonable effort to separate couples from families. Still, for zero chance of kids, book a private tour. 21 Plus Salute!
Amelia Island is one of the few places in the nation where riding horseback on the beach is allowed, and several companies offer guided tours. I selected Stay’N Country Ranch because it also offers private rides—perfect if you want to be sure to avoid kids. 21 Plus Salute! Beach rides are $70 per hour per rider (up to four riders; trail rides are $40 per hour per rider—but spring for the additional $30 and ride on the beach since you can do it here but probably not the next place you go).
Owner Missy Freeman has been riding horses since she can remember and her love for the animals is clear. Her horses are gentle and well-trained—and some are celebrities who’ve appeared in Oprah productions. So whether you’re an experienced rider or a novice, if you’ve ever dreamed of riding on a beach this is where to make it happen.
Riding on the beach is peaceful. There’s a fantastic view, obviously, and the calming rhythm of waves, but also a smooth ride. On trails through woods, horses have to step over rocks, logs and puddles on terrain that varies so much that even when the horse is walking you can feel “bumps” on the saddle. The beach is flat so the horses can easily see their surroundings and be less skittish about minor obstacles, which can translate into a more comfortable ride. What’s more, the sand is great for horses: “Beach rides are great for horses’ hooves!” says Freeman.
One drawback about riding on the beach: It won’t seem like you’ve gone very far when the tour guide tells you that it’s time to turn around; but upon doing so you’ll see that distance was indeed covered, relax and savor the ride back.
Waterfront beach rides are beautiful, scenic and relaxing. It’s an hour-long escape you’ll treasure.
Odds of Encountering Children: Zero on a private tour. 21 Plus Salute!
Why Visit in 2013…
“Viva Florida 500.” This year, Florida is celebrating a major milestone: the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de León’s arrival on Florida’s east coast. For history buffs, Amelia Island’s dynamic past doesn’t disappoint: Amelia Island is the only place in America to have experienced life under eight different flags and has been under Spanish rule two different times. Historic sites and tours across the island provide a fun education.
Odds of Encountering Children…
Overall, Amelia Island is more adult-oriented than most Florida destinations. The island offers many activities that are geared to grownups, and you will consistently find more couples enjoying romantic getaways than you’ll spot families on vacation (though that does occur, and of course some people who live here have kids). Amelia Island is not a “Spring Break” destination.
Have only one day? You can fit in all this horsing around. Take the 90-minute 2:30 p.m. Beach Creek boat tour, schedule a carriage ride for 5 p.m., go horseback riding at 6:30 and then enjoy dinner at 8 p.m. or later.
What To Do…
If horses aren’t your thing, you’ll still find plenty to do on Amelia Island. Some options:
- Take a trike flying tour with Air Amelia.
- Visit the Amelia Island Museum of History, Florida’s first spoken history museum.
- Explore Fort Clinch State Park, one of the most well-preserved 19th century forts in the U.S.
- Take a wildlife tour with Kayak Amelia—you might see dolphins, egrets, herons, sea turtles, manatees and more.
- Explore Old Town, which celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2011.
- Zoom on a segway tour, available at Omni Amelia Island Plantation as well as with EcoMotion Tours.
- Test your mettle with SkyDive Amelia.
Where To Eat…
David’s Restaurant & Lounge
This fine dining restaurant boasts top-notch service, high-quality food and stylish attention to detail. The menu creatively organizes entrées under headings like Green (salad), Water (seafood), Fire (steaks), Wind (poultry) and Earth (dessert—perhaps because sweets are the real reason we love this planet). Order whatever strikes your fancy, the kitchen won’t disappoint. Open for dinner only, reservations are highly recommended.
Karibrew Brew Pub and Grub
This casual restaurant offers an eclectic menu, vibrant atmosphere, friendly service, relaxed vibe and beer that’s produced fresh on-site. Spicy shrimp & grits is a tasty match with summer wheat beer—but trust also the menu recommendations and pairing suggestions of your server. The veggie burger and fresh local shrimp are top sellers. Seating options abound, including at the bar, in the dining room and on the garden patio under live oak trees.
Where To Stay…
Where to Get More Information…
Amelia Island Convention & Visitors Bureau and Welcome Center
102 Centre Street
Fernandina Beach, FL 32034
-Top photo courtesy Amelia Island CVB; remainder © HSP Media LLC
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.