Spend a weekend in the surf and sand on one of the South's most beautiful islands.

Morgan Murphy

If you yearn for one last summer jaunt to the beach, look no further than Amelia Island, Florida. Just 30 minutes north of the Jacksonville airport, its emerald waters have long attracted visitors. Coupled with excellent restaurants and a myriad of activities for when the sun shines too hot (or not at all), Amelia creates a retreat like no other.

Friday--Settle In

Time seems to ebb and shimmer as you cross the Thomas J. Shave Bridge to Amelia Island. If you arrive in the early afternoon, stop first at the Down Under Marina Restaurant, which lies beneath the bridge on the mainland side. The huge entrées start at $15 and top out at $20. Take our advice and opt for a battered seafood dinner. Down Under could fry a dishrag and we'd eat it.

Once you're stuffed with the bounty of the briny deep, wallow your way onto the island. It offers plenty of fabulous places to stay, but, in truth, most are pricey. If you'd like to wake up near the village charm of Fernandina Beach, a quaint 50-block town listed on the National Register of Historic Places, park yourself at the Hampton Inn & Suites at 19 South Second Street. Rates range $114-$180; (904) 491-4911.

If you want a full-service resort where the beach comes with umbrellas, boogie boards, and kites, you can't go wrong with the Unlimited Summer Fun package at The Ritz-Carlton. This month package rates begin at $199; (904) 277-1100. 

Saturday--Play All Day

Eight flags have flown over the island, starting with the French in 1562. Celebrate that heritage by ordering French toast at Marina Seafood Restaurant, one of the few restaurants in town that cooks up the first meal of the day. A full breakfast starts around $3.

For golfers who want to squeeze in a round, The Ritz sports lush, private fairways ($130 greens fee on weekends before 3 p.m.). Royal Amelia ($60) and North Hampton ($65) are gorgeous semiprivate courses that won't put your budget in a hole. The island also boasts a fantastic public course, Fernandina Beach Golf Club ($40).

Plenty of activities remain other than chasing little white balls through palmettos. If you're not ensconced at an oceanfront property, make your way to one of Amelia's public areas, Main Beach or American Beach. If you aim to pull your meal out of the water, you can catch everything from Spanish mackerel to pompano right here. Bait & Tackle gladly rents the equipment you need, all for $20. The shop's owner, Capt. Jim Johnson, can take up to six people tarpon fishing (prices range $275-$425).

To land a fish sandwich the easy way, eat lunch at The Surf. The outside seating (often accompanied by live music) relaxes, as do the drinks they serve, such as the Cookie Monster and Bahama Mama. Sandwiches run about $7.50, but big eaters might want to order the Seafood Platter ($20).

Use the afternoon to shop the charming stores of Palmetto Walk, about 11 ½ miles west of The Ritz-Carlton. If you need another exciting diversion, consider learning to sail. Windward Sailing School teaches weekend courses in coastal navigation, basic seamanship, chartering, and so forth.

For dinner, Baxter's elegant dining delights visitors. The refined atmosphere doesn't negate its beach setting. People feel comfortable milling about in Hawaiian shirts. The best part about this place is that it's open till 11 p.m. 

Sunday--Still Plenty To Do

For your final day, scrounge time for more shopping in downtown Fernandina Beach. Don't miss Fernandina's Fantastic Fudge shop, and make sure you peruse the shelves at nearby Book Loft. Perhaps the best store we found, ZZ Toys (pictured) amazes with a spectacular collection of kites, tin toys, cool games, and beach accessories. If you missed breakfast, catch brunch at one of Fernandina's newer restaurants, Café Karibo. Then spend the rest of your afternoon at Fort Clinch State Park, where you can collect shells, hike, watch for wildlife, and swim.

Wind down with supper at Joe's 2nd Street Bistro. Joe's has a relaxed island feel, and the entrées start at $17. Dining may prove wiser than taking one last stroll on the beach. If you gaze at Amelia Island's perfect shores one more time, you may never want to go home.

For more information: Contact Amelia Island Tourist Development Council, 102 Centre Street, Fernandina Beach, FL 32035; (904) 261-3248, 1-800-226-3542, or www.ameliaisland.org.

This article is from the August 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.

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