Finding Paradise on Florida’s ‘Other’ CoastSavor the sea, spa, shopping — and sleep — at a girlfriends getaway on Amelia Island By Kimberly Howes
I’m not sure of the exact moment in our short but rewarding Girlfriends Getaway to Amelia Island when I realized I was truly relaxed: On the beach sipping umbrella drinks? In the spa, as the pressures of day-to-day life were rubbed away? At some of the most delectable dinners of my life where the wine flowed as freely as the conversation? Or, when we collapsed to head to dreamland — one of the most-desired destinations for mothers of young children (although, like any good sleepover, we usually just couldn’t stop talking … or laughing)!
Paula, Kelly and I have known each other for a decade — meeting while working in the cubicle farm at VISIT FLORIDA. It is a deep friendship that has held strong despite Paula and Kelly’s moves to Miami and Tampa, and the six kids we’ve had in the meantime.
Late last summer, after round-robin e-mails back and forth, drawing on our Florida travel expertise, we finally decided to escape to charming Amelia Island, a barrier island just north of Jacksonville.
Amelia Island, just 13 miles long and two miles wide and known for its natural beauty, was named among the Top 10 North American islands by Conde Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards in 2007, based on activities, atmosphere/ambience, beaches, friendliness, lodging, restaurants and scenery.
We chose as home base Amelia Island Plantation, a flagship property of the island and 28-year AAA Four Diamond-award-winner. The resort was everything I remembered from previous trips and more — pure peace and tranquility surrounded by shady oak trees, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Intracoastal Waterway on the other. From recreation and entertainment to shopping and dining to the golf courses and spa, you could go days without leaving its 1,350 acres — and with on-property transportation, without even getting back in your car.
After a giddy reunion at the quaint inn where we were staying for the first time (previous stays had been in villas/condos, another great choice among the varied accommodation options available), we took a stroll around the cute shopping village that featured boutiques for clothing and gifts.
Eventually, we decided to venture out to the charming downtown historic district of Fernandina Beach, the island’s seaport town located about 15 minutes away, to do some shopping on Centre Street, which features an eclectic variety of stores selling everything from clothing and jewelry to books and gifts. Once it came time to choose from more than 40 restaurants, our wish for fine dining (rather than our usual kid-friendly spots) was granted at the charming Beech Street Grill. Set in a Victorian-style home in a quaint neighborhood, we learned why this restaurant has garnered top honors from publications, including Wine Spectator and Florida Trend, and locals alike. Since being together seems to elicit indecisiveness among this decisive bunch, we went with our server’s suggestion of a sampling of appetizers, entrees, desserts and, of course, wines. Starting with the House Signature Crab Cakes and then moving on to the Creole Spiced Shrimp and Falls Mills Creamy Grits, we knew we had come to just the right place. I took the server’s suggestion for my entrée, Seared U-10 (translation: jumbo-sized) Sea Scallops with Sherry Vinegar Cream over Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes with White Truffle Oil, Fresh Arugula and Fried Leeks. Other delightful dishes included Macadamia Crusted Grouper and Lobster Savannah. While we should have stopped there, we pressed forward with dessert, which included white chocolate cheesecake, puffed pastries and Granny Smith Apple Bread Pudding.
When we finally came out of our too-much-food-but-too-little-sleep-induced comas in the morning, we were finally decisive about what to do before our spa appointments: beach time! One of the great things about visiting in the fall (when temperatures still average around 80 degrees) is having much of the Plantation’s three-and-a-half miles of dune-lined beaches to yourself.
While there is a great, convenient spa at the Plantation, we decided to try something new and headed for rejuvenation at the luxurious Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, about 10 minutes away. There’s no mistaking your arrival at a Ritz, with its characteristic impeccable service and sophistication. The Amelia Island location has been a AAA Five Diamond resort for 14 years running, a rating achieved by only 100 resorts. What we found at the still-sparkling, two-year-young spa was pure heaven, fully reflective of its Southern-hospitality-at-the-beach environment. A few of the 26 treatment rooms feature a hammock, which allows for an even distribution of weight and better access for the therapist to deliver the unique, full body “Heaven in a Hammock” massage.
We chose “Surrender” treatments, tailored to what we each wanted out of the experience, with the unique approach of short transitional opening and closing treatments around the main one. Paula and I headed for massages, while Kelly chose a facial. Fully relaxed now, we stumbled into the relaxation lounge. What could possibly tear us away from the spa pools with underwater music and hammocks and attended by spa butlers as well as a cascade whirlpool, saunas and steam rooms?
We headed across the hotel to Salt, The Ritz’s elegant contemporary restaurant positioned just perfectly by the ocean. Salt has an impressive allure as one of only 60 restaurants that achieved the AAA Five Diamond status in 2007 — and, true to its name, offers 42 variations of salt, harvested from every corner of the world. Not only should you eat at Salt (its seasonally driven menu changes often) but for at least one special occasion, you must indulge in the “The Seat in the Kitchen” experience. From the customized 10-course meal and the sampling of paired wines selected from a list of more than 500 to the fabulous chef and fun kitchen staff, this “ultimate dining experience” far exceeded our wildest culinary dreams.
“The Seat in the Kitchen” is just that, a private dining area for two to four persons actually in the kitchen, with only a “window on the (chef’s) world” to offer a little privacy as you watch the action unfold from the best seat in the house. Chef Richard Laughlin greeted us and explained the experience, strongly encouraging us to follow a customized “Chef’s Adventure” and trust him to bring the courses that didn’t seem to ever end, but also giving us the choice to order from the menu.
Over the course of the next five hours, we ate and drank ourselves senseless — even though we had them slow things down about six courses in! There was crab dip, a succulent soup, prawns, lobster, scallops, salmon, filet — served with Logan Mill grits, squash, asparagus and more — each course perfectly paired with a wide variety of top wines. They will allow you to get as involved (or not) as you’d like in the kitchen, which for us included cooking and serving our culinary creations to other guests (during which we had fun with a newly married bride decked out in her gown, who we invited into the kitchen to join us for some pictures and fun!). Only a dinner like that could curb our sweet tooth, although we did manage to top it off with a bite (OK, a few) of chocolate soufflé.
When we finally came to the next day, sad that our long-awaited trip together was coming to an end, our final action was … well, to focus on our next girlfriends getaway! We had been curious about the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge, having seen its “Nantucket style” main house with wraparound porches by the sea on past trips. So we made a stop there on the way out of town. Innkeeper Susan Caples was gracious enough to give us a quick tour of the inn’s 25 unique rooms. We had a feeling that, when we weren’t on the beach, you would find us relaxing in the oversized tubs stocked with bubble bath, visiting the main floor library stocked with books and games … or taking a glass of wine from the evening wine-and-hors d’oeuvres reception to admire the views from rocking chairs on the porch (and maybe the full oceanfront breakfast, if we woke up in time). New packages are constantly being developed, with some of the latest focusing on wellness, such as the three-day/two-night Immersion Retreat with a focus on fitness and relaxation. But after hearing all of Susan’s ideas, we think we’ll take her up on her standing offer to help customize trips to our desires.
On the harried days we’ve returned to since our girlfriends getaway, when we finally get a few coveted moments to squeeze in those phone calls or e-mails to each other, we escape for just a moment with two small words that evoke memories and help us think ahead: Wait ’til next year!
GO: Amelia Island
Distance: Approx. 350 miles
Travel time: About 5.5 hours
To get there: From Destin, take U.S. Hwy 331 north and merge onto I-10 East (toward Tallahassee) to the Jacksonville bypass. Take Exit 356, I-295 North toward the international airport/Savannah. Take Exit 35B (on the left), I-95 North toward the international airport/Savannah. Take Exit 373, SR 200/SR A1A east toward Callahan/Fernandina Beach. (If you’re up for a shortcut on the back roads, take I-10 East to Exit 324 and merge onto U.S. 90 East toward Sanderson. Follow about 20 miles and turn left on U.S. 301 North/FL-200 North.) This road will take you directly onto Amelia Island. Be sure to visit the welcome center at 102 Centre Street in Fernandina Beach.
For reservations or more information:
Amelia Island Convention & Visitors Bureau
Amelia Island Plantation
(888) 261-6161 or (904) 261-6161
Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
Salt Restaurant: (904) 277-1028
(“Seat in the Kitchen” experience is $175 per person, $275 per person with wine, and must be reserved at least 24 hours in advance)
Elizabeth Pointe Lodge
(800) 772-3359 or (904) 277-4851
Beech Street Grill