Leaving our hearts on Amelia Island

In early spring on Amelia Island, the Atlantic Ocean foams at the mouth, spitting froth along the creamy, prickly shore. Overnight, rain gives way to white skies and a warm sun that casts a shimmering pillar of fire on the water until evening, when the pastel shades of the shoreline’s homes bleed into the sky. Later, the ocean seems to disappear into the inky night. But you can still hear it pounding the shore and imagine it still foaming.

My family came to Amelia Island for that ocean. Like everyone else of Portuguese descent, we are sea-crazy and love nothing more than gathering at the beach, preferably in a rented house that brings back memories of our childhood summer home on the Jersey shore. We chose Amelia Island in part because we thought it would be a convenient hop for Matt, our busy Florida State grad student, over spring break. But the best laid plans, as they say….

Matt never made it to the beach. (More on that in a bit.) Indeed, with work pressing on several members of the beach bunch, it appeared for a time as if Jana — the wife, mother and homemaker among us three sisters — were running an inn. (We referred to her youngest, teenage James, as Lobby Boy, an homage to one of our favorite films, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” even if he was more like Cabana Boy.)

With each reconfiguration among the group, we vowed to make the most of our time together. Amelia Island is a great place to make such a commitment, because there’s plenty to do in — and here’s the real beauty of it — an atmosphere in which you can also do nothing at all.

The more athletic members of the group — namely Jana’s husband, Ray, and Cabana Boy — took to kayaking and hiking Egans Creek Trail, with its egrets, storks, turtles and (gulp) baby alligators. Gina, the youngest of the three sisters and our resident Chihuahua whisperer, joined James on the trail and on an Amelia River cruise — where they learned about the 13.5-mile-long barrier island, which lies in the northeastern-most part of Florida, across the St. Marys River from Georgia, 32 miles from Jacksonville.

“This part of Florida is really more Southern,” my chatty cab driver told me on my way there from Jacksonville International Airport. “I always say Florida begins with St. Augustine.”

And indeed as we whizzed along a more intimate I-95 than you’ll find in the North, palm trees and bushes mingled with and danced beneath pines and other trees that dripped Spanish moss. South Beach it ain’t.

But if Amelia Island has a Southern flavor, it also has a global one owing to its history. Named for Princess Amelia, daughter of George II of England, it is the only American locale to have been under eight flags — French, Spanish, British, Patriots, Green Cross of Florida, Mexican, Confederate and U.S. — and serves as the international port for Bermuda. No doubt, globe-trekkers enjoy the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort and the neighboring Ritz-Carlton, which Jana and Gina checked out.

I, the oldest and most formal of the three sisters, savored the historic district in downtown Fernandina Beach — consisting of 50 blocks of boutiques, eateries and Victorians with double-decker porches and gingerbread trim and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. At Fantastic Fudge, I indulged in the just-right chocolate walnut variety; at Out of Hand, a pair of thong wedge sandals with blue stones the color of a moody sea. And we all enjoyed an outing at The Crab Trap — where the Bloody Marys were outrageous; the king crab, sweet and succulent; the hush puppies, irresistible; and the key lime pie, creamy in its density.

But there was still the issue of Jana and Ray’s oldest, Matt, toiling away in Tallahassee at his schoolwork. So we decided if Matt couldn’t come to the Beach Bunch, the Beach Bunch would go to Matt, because if there’s anything we love as much as the sea, it’s a road trip (in this case, all six hours of it). Tallahassee is not only the state capital with imposing white buildings decked out in red and white awnings but a college town in which the Florida State University campus appears large enough to contain the city of White Plains. Over burgers, salads and fish and chips at a sports bar where James counted like a million TVs, we caught up with Matt.

Our afternoon with him, though, was all too brief and with a certain wistfulness we headed back to our beach house, stopping for dinner in Jacksonville, a city that delighted, particularly where food was concerned. At sleek, modern Sbraga & Company, overlooking a water display and the downtown, we relished black bean falafel, risotto with pulled pork and collard greens and a bread basket of pretzel balls and not-too-sweet cornbread. Jacksonville can do savory like nobody’s business as Gina and I again discovered the next day, getaway day, at brunch at bb’s restaurant and bar, not far from the city’s charming, Spanish-flavored San Marco District — although it might be worth flying to Jacksonville just for bb’s peanut butter mousse pie.

But here’s the thing about our spring fling:   We were so busy to-ing and fro-ing that we didn’t spend as much time as we wanted on the beach. Yet when all you have is a moment, you must, like William Blake, hold “eternity in an hour.”

What I’ll remember is Jana making bacon, eggs and coffee in the morning. (Is there a better aroma by the sea?) Taking long walks with Gina and James, the sand coating our toes. Matt waving goodbye, a smile wreathing his face. A longtime resident with his beautiful old German Shepherd, Max, presenting James with some fossilized shark teeth. And the blond woman in pedal pushers who was so grateful to get the modest beach chairs we bought and reluctantly relinquished.

“We’ve left nothing on the beach,” Gina said ruefully.

Except our hearts.

For more, visit ameliaisland.com.

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