You know the signs. Cooler temperatures and lower humidity bring us welcome relief from the dog days of summer. The local swimming pool is closed for the season. Boat yards begin to haul boats. And the thought of a long, cold winter spent staring at your boat under shrink wrap sends shivers down your spine. It’s time to head down the ICW.
South Carolina, Georgia and, of course, Florida, are the usual destinations for snowbirds living on the East Coast, with Florida being the most popular. Within the Sunshine State there are many places to stay and play during the winter. But after years of cruising and wintering throughout the entire state, my wife, Stacey, and I keep coming back to one of our favorite locations: Fernandina Beach and the surrounding area of Amelia Island. We first discovered Fernandina Beach while on our one-year, Great Loop adventure in 2003, and we’ve returned every couple of years, either by boat, car or air. For us, it’s one of those places that just feels right in so many ways.
It all begins with easy access to the ICW. Located at Mile 716, Fernandina Beach is Florida’s northernmost city, and you’ll pass right by it on your way south. It sits on the west side of Amelia Island, and it also can be reached from the Atlantic through the wide, well-marked St. Mary’s Channel entrance. Within walking distance to the downtown historic section is the Fernandina Beach Harbor Marina, rebuilt after suffering devastating damage from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. In fact, the Amelia River Waterfront Stabilization Project just recently finished Phase One that features a new seawall and walkway running along the downtown riverfront. Here, locals and tourists gather to watch the famous Fernandina sunset.
Strolling through the historic section of town, you’ll see a number of buildings flying eight flags that symbolize how it was ruled by different countries and factions since it was first discovered by a French explorer in 1562. After the Civil War, Fernandina Beach eventually became a thriving seaport known for its shrimp and tourism industries. And the area has continued to prosper and grow, making it one of the best-kept secrets along the ICW.
One of the first questions snowbirds have about the area is that of winter weather, especially considering that it’s Florida’s northernmost town. We’ve spent quite a bit of time here in December and February and we’ve always been comfortable. It’s not hot, but it’s rarely too cold to enjoy a walk with just a light sweater and wind breaker. During the coldest month of January, the average high temperature is 65 degrees and the average cold temperature is 46—certainly a big relief from the freezing, icy conditions typically found in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
Some things have changed during the time we’ve been coming here, and mostly for the better. The town now seems more alive, especially on the weekends when tourists staying in the surrounding area flock to the downtown shops, pubs and restaurants. But we’ve never found it to be overcrowded. And while we’ve seen new, more upscale establishments open and prosper, the town hasn’t lost its original charm. In fact, there seems to be a good balance between attracting tourists while respecting the lifestyle of local residents.
One hot spot that hasn’t changed much is the Palace Saloon, established in 1903. Designed with the help of Adolphus Busch, founder of Anheuser-Busch, it has served the likes of salty sea captains as well as the Carnegies and Rockefellers. Try their famous Pirates Punch, but only if you’re walking back to your boat. And if you need a quick morning recovery, you can’t beat the Cuban coffee and fruit pastries at the Hola Cuban Cafe.
While you probably won’t spend the entire winter here on your boat, the area has so many attractions you can easily take a week exploring the sights and enjoying the mild temperatures. In fact, think of Fernandina Beach as your introduction to Florida cruising. Only 6 miles north is beautiful Cumberland Island, where you can drop anchor or tie up for the day at the north end of the Sea Camp docks. If anchoring, be mindful of the 7- to 9-foot tidal swings and the shoal off Drum Pt. Island. From the docks you can hike a half-mile to the beach on the island’s east side and then about another mile to see the ruins of Dungeness, the old Carnegie estate. You’ll undoubtedly see the descendants of Mrs. Carnegie’s horses roaming wild on the property.
Just 3 miles north of Fernandina Beach another delightful attraction is the historic town of St. Mary’s, Georgia. As one of the oldest towns in the U.S., it takes pride in its Victorian homes, historic inns and colorful history. The Submarine Museum is a fun stop for everyone in the family, especially since you are close to the Kings Bay Submarine Base, home to the Navy’s Ohio-Class submarine force. Check your charts for the location of the restricted area and be sure to give way to these formidable vessels if you see one.
History buffs will want to visit Fort Clinch, just a couple miles from downtown Fernandina Beach. Built in 1847 as part of our coastal defense system, it was abandoned by Robert E. Lee in 1861 and taken over by Federal troops. During the Great Depression, it was restored to its Civil War condition and eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
But among the biggest attractions to the area are the absolutely beautiful and mostly empty beaches as you head south along the Atlantic coastlines of Amelia, Talbot and Fort George Islands. Most snowbirds already have their favorite Florida beaches—Daytona, Key Biscayne, Sanibel, Captiva and Fort Myers among them—but few compare to these. Rent a car and drive down Route A1A stopping along the way at designated parking areas to hike the trails to the beach. Pack a lunch and enjoy a picnic at one of the State Parks, where you’ll find plenty of shade under a canopy of trees covered with Spanish moss.
Our first stop was Amelia Island State Park at the southernmost tip of the island, where we had the beach entirely to ourselves in February. Continuing south just a couple more miles is Blackrock Beach, where I discovered a photographer’s dream of huge driftwood structures lining the beach. Another couple of miles brought us to Big Talbot Island State Park followed by Little Talbot Island State Park, both with amazing, mostly empty beaches. We continued a little farther, where Stacey, a watercolorist, spent the afternoon painting the Bahamian-like beach scenes at the Alimacani Park on Fort George Island. It was hard to believe we were just a few miles north of big, busy Jacksonville.
So, if you’re starting to see the signs of an approaching winter, consider joining the fleet of snowbirds heading south on the ICW. Now that you know one of my best-kept cruising secrets, make Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island your very first stop in the Sunshine State. If you’re like us, it won’t be your last.
This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue.