It’s so easy to take island life for granted. So easy to float across its intricate waterways, look out to the sandy white beaches where pirates once retreated for respite, zip by history-laden settlements, and miss the intricate details of luxury, the towering dunes, the nuances of exceptional service, and whispers of adventure waiting to happen along the way. Long before it was a vacation destination or caught in the throes of colonial possession by pirates and swashbucklers, the native Timucua people settled on what is now known as Amelia Island around 1000 B.C. and called the area Napoyca.
It’s so far north; it’s practically Georgia but distinctly Florida in a subtle way.
Steeped in history and elegant modernity, trekking to Amelia Island is the quintessential weekend getaway trip. The island has a history full of drama, secrets, and suspenseful discoveries. Still, the luxurious The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island resort and surrounding beach towns are a hidden gem.
Perched on the edge of the southernmost tip of the majestic Sea Islands and the northernmost of the barrier islands on Florida’s Atlantic coast, it’s 2.5 hours away and like entering another dimension and being transported to a special time and place.
Driving down A1A, which takes you over to the island, right into the heart of Fernandina Beach, you’re met with small-town charm with boutique shops, independently owned restaurants, and peach-colored cityscapes bordering the marina, against a backdrop of clear blue skies, with rain clouds in the distance.
I was excited to revel in the newest, travel-worthy epicurean experiences at the Ritz-Carlton for one reason alone: fraternizing with award-winning chefs and mixologists and partaking in a unique dining adventure. It pleasantly surprised me to see a spotlight on outstanding female and Mexican American chefs with an emphasis on seafood-forward cuisine. Every meal brought high energy, with Broadway show presentation quality without the memorable show tunes and obstructed seating views.
The star of the show is the AAA 5-star Diamond-rated Salt restaurant. With chef Okan Kizilbayir at the kitchen’s helm, his impressive resumé follows him like an overstuffed chest of treasures to behold. Before landing in Florida, he served as sous chef at Le Bernardin, the 3-Michelin Star fine-dining seafood restaurant led by Eric Ripert in Manhattan. Before that, he was the sous chef at Blue by Eric Ripert at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. One of the newest additions to the culinary offerings that chef Kizilbayir perfected invites guests to engage with the celebrated in-house talent through intimate dinners, cooking classes, and private tastings that honor local purveyors, in-season produce, and perfection in culinary technique.
The “Chef’s Theater” experience with the chefs from the five other resort restaurant properties and Okan is a highlight. This culinary experience is available as a mid-day/lunch experience; the monthly cooking demonstration showcases different techniques, dishes, and experiences for guests.
We enjoyed chef Okan’s “ode to spring” and assistant pastry chef Heidi Kabath’s presentation of Salt’s signature dessert, the chocolate soufflé. The only thing missing was a few chords from Vivaldi’s famous concerto. Like a stage production with lighting, technical support crew timed entrances and exits paired with wine, cocktails, and the beach as the backdrop is an immersive affair. Citrus-poached spring artichoke hearts, fresh fava beans, fennel fronds, and shaved black summer truffles were prepped in front of our eyes.
The next thing I knew, a glistening, silver-streaked fish with flashes of aquamarine was wheeled into the theater neé dining room: a whole, fresh halibut. Armed with boning and utility knives, chef-made quick work of the fresh haul, and medallions of the filet made their way to a hot pan with melted butter, ramps, morels, white asparagus, and a cream sauce. His executive sous chef and chef d’ cuisine was standing by, at the ready, to whisk each component back to the kitchen to place the finishing touches on our plates. A disk of milk chocolate sat jauntily on the side of the chocolate tower as we poured ramekins of vanilla bean flecked creme Anglais over the piping hot dessert. The result was a creamy, moist center with a nutty edge of sweetness on each bite. Decadent and symphonious, I could not help but applaud this meal.
Although it’s just three miles from downtown Fernandina Beach, there’s no need to venture far from the confines of the resort property to get a dose of vitamin sea, enjoy outdoor pursuits, or have five-star service. Take one of the daily property tours with one of the resort’s in-house naturalists to get an up-close and personal look at flora and fauna, native and invasive, around the island. Bike riding, hiking, and turtle watching combine natural scenery with The Ritz-Carlton’s signature high-end aesthetic.
Over 40 miles of bike paths are easily accessible from the resort. Cycling under the shady canopy of oaks and Spanish moss with the sea breeze whistling in your ear and waving through your hair as you ride to the historic American Beach and see NaNa, Florida’s tallest dune, or in tandem with the coastline, is pure poetry.
Skim the area and explore this stop on Florida’s Black Heritage Trail, visited by Black Americans to escape the state’s segregation laws. Founded in 1935 by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first black millionaire and president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, they listed it on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. It served as an idyllic getaway for famed sunbathers like Ray Charles, Zora Neale Hurston, Hank Aaron and James Brown, and me. I used the partnership The Ritz-Carlton has with Mercedes-Benz and reserved use of a car to explore the nearby American Beach.
After a day of exploration, the only things left to do are dine and relax.
Every room and suite has a private balcony and a view of the ocean. Waking up to the faint crashing of waves on the beach and being swayed by the breeze moving through the leaves of the native date palm trees is idyllic and relaxing. A trip to the hotel resort spa extends that relaxation. An indoor oasis with a heated outdoor pool and waterfall is the perfect setting to immerse yourself in pure bliss. Spa treatment options include ocean salt scrubs, hot stone massages, CBD oil treatments, and Chakra-aligning crystal work. End your time in one of the relaxation rooms or head to one of the heated resort pools for poolside snacks.
The seafood is the star of the show at the Ritz-Carlton restaurants, each presented in its unique style.
- Coast is the most seasonally inspired, offering locally sourced fish and seafood.
- Coquina takes a Latin approach, with bracingly fresh catch-of-the-day ceviche, table side-made guacamole, and whole roasted fish wrapped in banana leaves.
- Tidewater Grille is an upscale sports bar with sliders and grilled classics, with a Lowcountry feel.
- The Lobby Bar begins happy hour with the ring of a bell for “First Call,” which heralds a new infused whiskey each day alongside boatloads of fresh sushi dishes created in the open bar.
The depth and breadth of everything this quick island getaway island offers know no bounds. Be prepared to get lost while finding yourself amidst a vacation filled with luxury and beauty.