Paddling my kayak through the spartina grass in Egan’s Creek, a wildlife-rich estuary on the north end of Florida’s Amelia Island, I don’t see the “footprint” behind me. Right, left. Right, left. I’m in the zone, taking in bubble gum-colored roseate spoonbills sweeping their wide bills from side to side as they forage for shellfish, oblivious to the two-foot swirl of water in my wake. But suddenly, I feel a jolt. Whoa! What was that?
A juvenile manatee emerges from the ripples created by its paddle-shaped tail, popping its head up inches away from me. He nudges the kayak in a playful gesture, and says hello. The marine mammal is so close, I can practically count the whiskers that cover the droopy, basset hound-like snout. These tactile hairs, called vibrissae, blanket the entire body. It’s believed they give manatees a sixth sense that helps compensate for their poor eyesight, allowing them to navigate dimly lit waterways.
The curious calf is not alone.
A behemoth creature that probably tips the scales at around 1,000 pounds emerges beside the youngster. That’s mom. She retrieves her errant offspring, rubbing her snout to his before submerging like a submarine beneath the murky water once more.
“Get any pictures?” shouts the guide leading the Amelia Island Kayak Excursions tour, a two-hour adventure that includes the marshes between Atlantic Avenue and the Amelia River.
“No, it happened so fast,” I reply.
The waters surrounding Amelia Island, the northernmost barrier island in Florida, are a feeding and breeding ground for these gentle giants, sometimes called sea cows. Getting close to one is a real stroke of luck.
In the spring, they migrate north from central Florida to graze on the plentiful sea grass that grows in shallow water, but when the fall chill sets in, they will return to a warmer climate.
For the last few years, marine biologists have been electronically tagging manatees to learn more about their migration patterns and behaviors, an unintentional perk for wildlife watchers because the buoy-like object on their tail makes them easier to spot.
When they make an appearance, manatees quickly become the stars of the aquatic show, but even if they are no-shows, you’ll appreciate the supporting cast of characters, like great blue herons that go from still-as-a-statue to lightning-fast fish catchers and the occasional lethargic gator sunning itself on the shore.
You’ve explored by water, so now explore by land. Hop on a pedal-assist electric bicycle from Eco Tours and see Fort Clinch State Park, a 1,400-acre wonder of maritime hammocks, sand dunes and tidal marshlands that has more in common with the South Carolina Lowcountry than the rest of Florida. Just prop your phone on the holder on the handlebars, pull up the easy interactive map, and take off to historic Fort Clinch.
There’s lots to see along the way.
As you pedal beneath tendrils of Spanish moss springing from ancient live oak trees, you’ll become attuned to the sonorous yet soothing chorus of birds that resonates throughout these coastal grasslands. More than 100 species can be observed year-round, while dozens of migratory birds, such as the brightly plumed painted bunting, make Amelia Island their temporary home.
Not all the Instagram-worthy wildlife has feathers. Deer forage in the verdant thickets, and bobcats slink through the brush after sunset.
When you approach the windswept sand dunes, look for the shy gopher tortoise that burrows in the sand. Resist any urge to “help” the terrestrial reptile by placing it in the water. These threatened dune-dwellers are not sea turtles, and they can drown.
Civil War enthusiasts will want to explore Fort Clinch, which rises above the St. Marys River. Seized in 1861 by Confederate troops, it became a center of blockade-running until it was captured by the Union in 1862. During the 1898 Spanish-American War, the fort was put into service once more.
There’s a lot to take in at this well-preserved brick stronghold. See everything from the officers’ quarters to the prison to get a feel for 19th-century military life. Costumed volunteers perform historical re-enactments the first weekend of every month.
For a sweeping waterfront view, walk along the top of the wall where cannons still stand at the ready. If you’re lucky, you may spot dolphins frolicking in the waves.
When you need a break from tours, stroll through Fernandina Beach, an Old Florida town composed of 50 blocks of graceful Victorian houses and rows of charming shops.
There’s no need to arrive with a plan; indulge in the sweetness of doing nothing. Literal sweetness. The sidewalks are lined with kids licking ice cream cones and nibbling fudge from nearby candy shops. Even furry, four-legged lollygaggers chew on goodies from a local pet bakery.
There are plenty of options for adult refreshments, too.
Partake in a free tasting at Marlin & Barrel, a local distillery that makes small batch rum and vodka (the popular Venture Craft Vodka is made from Florida molasses), or head over to the Amelia Island Schoolhouse Inn and get yourself sent to the Principal’s Office. At this trendy bar, school will be way more fun than you remember. You’ll never be tempted to play hooky.
It’s just the spot to raise a glass in a farewell toast to the island. Sip the Teacher’s Pet, a tangy, citrusy blend of vodka, grapefruit, elderflower and rhubarb bitters, or sit in the corner with a Dunce Cap, a gin-based cocktail made with St. George spiced pear liqueur and green Chartreuse.
IF YOU GO
Amelia Island, Florida, is 330 miles southeast of Atlanta via I-75. Direct flights from Atlanta are 1 hour to Jacksonville, Florida, which is 33 miles southwest of Amelia Island via I-95.
What to See and Do
Amelia Island Kayak Excursions. $60 for single-person kayak, $110 for two-person kayak. 3 S. Front St., Fernandina Beach, Florida. 904-557-5307, ameliaislandkayak.com
Eco Tours. Offers pedal-assist, GPS-guided bicycle rentals. Bikes are delivered and picked up from your tour location. $60 half day, $80 full day. 904-299-5949, ecoctoursa1a.com
Fort Clinch State Park. $2 per cyclist. 2601 Atlantic Ave., Fernandina Beach, Florida. 904-277-7274, floridastateparks.org/fortclinch
Where to Stay
Ritz Carlton Amelia Island. A luxurious oceanfront property near many of the island’s top attractions. $399 and up. 4750 Amelia Island Parkway, Amelia Island, Florida. 904-277-1100, ritzcarlton.com
Amelia Island Schoolhouse Inn. This 17-room boutique hotel in the heart of Fernandina Beach was the first schoolhouse on Amelia Island. $125 and up. 914 Atlantic Ave., Fernandina Beach, Florida. 904-310-6264, ameliaschoolhouseinn.com
Where to Eat and Drink
Timoti’s Seafood Shak. Popular fast casual seafood restaurant. Entrees $7.99-$15.99. 21 N. 3rd St., Fernandina Beach, Florida. 904-310-6550, timotis.com
The Principal’s Office. Cocktails $11-$13. The bar is inside Amelia Schoolhouse Inn, a 17-room boutique hotel that was the first schoolhouse on Amelia Island. 914 Atlantic Ave., Fernandina Beach, Florida. 904-310-6264, ameliaschoolhouseinn.com
Marlin & Barrel. 115 S. Second St., Fernandina Beach, Florida. 904-556-3837, marlinbarrel.com
Amelia Island Welcome Center. Ask about the free augmented reality app that brings the new visitor’s guide to life through your mobile device. 102 Centre St., Fernandina Beach, Florida. 904-277-0717, ameliaisland.com
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