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Floating off the northeastern tip of Florida and measuring just 13 miles by 2 miles, Amelia Island has always been a crossroads of culture. Over the course of 450 years it’s been claimed by the French, the Spanish, the English, the Amelia “Patriots,” the Republic of Florida, Mexico, the United States, and the Confederacy.

Why all the geopolitics? Geography. Amelia is blessed not only with the deepest natural harbor in the south, but with a location that makes it perfect for both commerce and military ventures. Amelia did not develop as a major city like Miami thanks to railroad tycoon Henry Flagler, who bypassed the town when he created the first rail line down Florida’s east coast in the 1890s, opening the region to tourism. The result is a time warp of Victorian beauty while other Florida vacation spots became fun-in-the-sun theme parks.

At the island’s northern end, Fernandina Beach is Amelia’s only town, with a 52-block center listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In total, more than 450 of its buildings went up before 1927, including some of the nation’s finest examples of Queen Anne, Victorian, and Italianate mansions, left over from the Goodyears, Pulitzers, and other wintering socialites. Cobbled Centre Street is the island’s most appealing stretch, lined with galleries, B&Bs, century-old restaurants, and the Palace Saloon, open since 1878 and thus the oldest original-location bar in Florida. It’s one of the town’s unofficial headquarters during the spring Shrimp Festival, when the island is flooded with visitors who show up for boatloads of seafood, music, and fireworks.

Away from town, Amelia’s landscape blends upland and maritime forests, saltwater marshes, and gorgeous coastline; both the northern and southern ends of the island are preserved as stale parks. Nature-oriented visitors can explore by bike via a network of trails, kayak or bird-watch in its marshes and rivers, or ride horseback along its 13 miles of white sand beaches and high dunes. In late spring and early summer, loggerhead turtles lay their eggs in the island’s soft sand, while in late fall and early winter northern right whales are frequently spotted along the coast.

One of Amelia’s choicest, most pristine stretches of beach belongs to the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, where guest rooms all enjoy enviable views and perfect sunrises. Frequently voted one of the finest resorts in the South, the Rilz-Carlton offers southern hospitality, tennis, golf at the adjacent Golf Club of Amelia Island’s championship course, and exceptional dining in ils acclaimed restaurant, The Grill. A little to the south, its friendly rival, the huge Amelia Island Plantation, sits on 1,350 beachfront acres and offers an outstanding array of nature and sports options, including golf courses designed by Pete Dye and Tom Fazio, 23 clay tennis courts (home to the Bausch & Lomb Championships each April), miles of bike trails and beaches, and its own nature center.

For an alternative to the big resort hotels, head to the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge, a Nantucket-shingle—style beachfront inn with the look and feel of the 1890s. Twenty rooms and two cottages are decorated in late 19th-century style, with hardwood floors, oversize marble bathtubs, and a strong maritime theme. Here, the emphasis is on pure relaxation, rocking-chair-on-the-porch, kite-flying-on-the-beach style.