Photos by Dori Arrington
Hiding in Plain Sight
Past meets present on the shores of Amelia Island thanks to the addition of a new deep-water marina.
Boaters cruising the Southeast have myriad world-class destinations to visit, with stops like Ft. Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Charleston and Beaufort jockeying for the top spot. All of these locations have safe navigable inlets with deep-water marinas and plenty of land-side activities nearby.
Joining the list of popular Southeast harbors is an up-and-coming destination on equal footing with these perennial favorites. With a peerless new facility named Oasis Marina, Fernandina Beach, Florida, has rolled out the welcome mat to visiting boaters.
Fernandina Beach is the largest city on Amelia Island, a well-known barrier island in northern Florida near Jacksonville. Blessed with abundant natural beauty and rich history, Amelia Island draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to its golf courses and white-sand beaches. A fun fact and source of local pride: Amelia Island is known as the Isle of Eight Flags, having been occupied since its settlement by more nations than any other place in North America.
Amelia Island, Florida
While Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach have been popular tourist destinations, the city’s harbor on the Amelia River was mostly used by local boaters and seasonal cruisers migrating along the ICW each spring and fall. With a small municipal marina and one of the Southeast’s few mooring fields, its location on the ICW made it an easy stop for cruisers passing through.
What many skippers had not appreciated, but are quickly realizing, is Fernandina Beach is also easily accessed by one of the best inlets on the Eastern Seaboard. The St. Mary’s River inlet separating Florida and Georgia carries 45 feet through its entrance at mean low water, and a minimum of 20 feet to Fernandina Beach, just a short 5 mile run from the ocean. The inlet is so good, in fact, the U.S. Navy found it ideal to locate the Kings Bay submarine base in nearby St. Marys, Georgia. Kings Bay is the largest submarine base in the world, and let me tell you, it’s an awe-inspiring experience to give way to a Trident Class Nuclear submarine navigating the inlet alongside you.
Oasis Marina welcomes boaters with almost 5,000 lineal feet of face dock, making approaches and departures easy, even for large yachts. Once tied up, a beautifully preserved Victorian downtown is only steps away. Centre Street and the adjacent blocks are the lifeline of this vibrant downtown. Fernandina Beach managed to escape the boom and bust cycles of many occupying working waterfront communities, thanks to a diversity of industries and commercial fishing. A testimony to its enduring spirit, Fernandina Beach has the oldest continuously operating watering hole in Florida; the Palace Saloon is a pre-Prohibition establishment with original mosaic floors and stamped-tin ceilings. It’s a popular spot to enjoy a pint and travel back in time while listening to live music.
Fernandina Beach has maintained its architectural treasures better then most small cities its size. Much of the city was built when northerners traveled down on the Mallory Steamship Line from New York. Fernandina Beach was considered “The Queen of Summer Resorts,” when the Golden Age attracted guests such as the Vanderbilts, DuPonts and Carnegies. The Florida House Inn, built in 1857, still hosts guests today in its original location just blocks from the waterfront.
The St. Marys River and its tributaries have been the hub of the Eastern Seaboard’s commercial shrimp industry for more than a century. Trawl net and fishing boat designs conceived in this area in the early 1900s are still used around the world to this day. Fernandina Beach celebrates the local shrimping industry and its history with the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival at the end of April each year. The festival is a three-day romp of food, music and fun. If you like shrimp, you will find it prepared every way imaginable, from chilled and boiled to fried and fricasseed and everything in between.
If connecting with nature is the form of entertainment that interests you most, Fernandina Beach has that in spades as well. A short bike ride from the marina gives you access to Amelia Island’s 13 miles of Atlantic beaches and Fort Clinch State Park. The 1,400-acre park protects large sections of maritime hammocks with old-growth live oaks that provide the ideal canopy for hiking and biking on the park’s many trails. Within the park, visitors can see a wild range of unique animals from the gopher tortoise to painted buntings. Fishing, shelling and shark-tooth hunting are all popular activities within the park, which should keep children and seasoned boaters busy for hours.
Fernandina Beach has always had most of the ingredients to become a world-class boating destination. Now with the final piece of the puzzle in place—Oasis Marina—this best-kept secret won’t be a secret for long.