A Saturday on A1A: Jacksonville to Fernandina Beach

It’s the last weekend in February 2021, and the weather report from Alexa on Friday announced that temperatures would get into the 80’s in Jacksonville.

We could not let this go by without day tripping A1A.

A perk of living in Jacksonville, the LARGEST city in area in the Lower 48, is its proximity to A1A—more so, St. Augustine, the OLDEST city in America, is just south, and Fernandina Beach just north. Both are major A1A destinations that travelers would want to devote at least a couple of days for exploration and recreation.

For us (us being me, and my love and super-duper travel partner, Larcy), we have the geographical advantage to day trip to both, and we do it regularly.

Our itinerary was this: chase a 6:55 a.m. sunrise at Jacksonville’s Huguenot Memorial Park, then drive to Fernandina Beach and enjoy breakfast at Aloha Bagel and Deli, take an Amelia River Cruises boat ride to Georgia’s Cumberland Island, explore Centre Street, and do lunch at Tasty’s Fresh Burgers.

For our drive, which began just after 6 a.m., we hurried on I-295 to Heckscher Drive, then headed north to Fort George Island to join A1A. Traveling south, this is where the St. Johns River Ferry, the lone ferry service on A1A, is located. After an almost mile crossing on the St. Johns River to the fishing village of Mayport, A1A continues through the Jacksonville beaches (Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach, and Jacksonville Beach).

Unfortunately, ferry service is suspended until March 15 for repairs and upgrades. A lengthy detour via Jacksonville’s Dames Point Bridge eventually gets you back onto A1A.

But on this day, we headed north, so no problem.

Fort George Island, part of the U.S. National Park Service’s Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve, is itself worthy of a day trip. It is here that we arrive at Huguenot Memorial Park (operated by the City of Jacksonville) at 6:49 a.m., pay our admission fee of $5.02, and drive past the numerous camp sites, many occupied by tent campers. We see them setting up for breakfast, walking their dogs, jogging, and fishing, until we get to the beach side of the park, just next to the north jetties of the St. Johns River, at 6:53 a.m.

Two minutes later, we witnessed a spectacular sunrise.

Back on A1A, we drove past five state park sites before entering Amelia Island, all located within the preserve. Along the Amelia Island stretch of A1A, you pass in order the Omni Amelia Island Resort and its golf courses, American Beach—a historic district and community recognized for its African American heritage during the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws, and the Ritz Carlton resort area. Beyond is a stretch of beach houses, condominiums, and several restaurants before arriving at Main Beach Park to the right, and the A1A left turn onto Atlantic Avenue. The entrance to Fort Clinch State Park is immediately to the right on Atlantic Avenue, followed by salt marshes and Egans Creek (the Amelia Island Lighthouse is visible here). For a couple of miles, Atlantic Avenue with its odd signage of A1A West passes through a residential area of Fernandina Beach until arriving at the tourist and shopping area of Centre Street, which continues for seven walkable blocks to Front Street and the Amelia River waterfront.

But first, we make a left turn on A1A, now 8th street, and arrive at Aloha Bagel and Deli. Though Hawaiian in its décor, Aloha does give off a vibe consistent with island life in Florida. There, I consumed an everything bagel with salmon, capers, and onion, while Larcy enjoyed her everything bagel with a spread of bacon cheddar ranch cream cheese. The constant flow of locals coming to pick up their takeout orders confirmed the popularity of Aloha. We could not leave without bringing home a six-pack of bagels.

Next door to Aloha—and divided by an impressive live oak tree—is Amelia Adventures and Kayak, which offers a wide range of tours including kayak, nature, haunted ghost, and shark tooth hunting, as well as horseback riding. Though not open, I was able to get a brochure for future planning. As for kayaking, Amelia Adventures Kayak and Amelia Island Kayak Excursions both provide services on the island.

For our morning on the water, we booked the Cumberland Island Tour (10 a.m.) with Amelia River Cruises. Their ticket kiosk is located on the waterfront, where early morning parking was plentiful (not so when we completed the tour). With an hour to explore before checking in for our boat tour, we walked along Centre Street and came upon the Fernandina Beach Arts Market. Open on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month, this market features several dozen vendors selling various local arts, produce, breads, and meats. What caught our attention was the friendly nature of Fernandina Beach, and the pleasure they projected at having such a beautiful morning at the market. Vendors were welcoming, offering greetings without pressure-pushing their wares, except for one bread seller, who was quite pushy.

A loaf of cheddar garlic bread joined our pack of bagels back home.

Walking back to Front Street, Centre Street was still quiet, except for Amelia Island Coffee, which had a line well out the door, along with locals, most with their dogs, in the adjacent courtyard, hanging out, each with a Cup of Joe in hand. If traveling with your canine companion, you will easily notice that Centre Street is extremely dog friendly—we noticed water bowls outside many of the stores that were not yet open; quite a few of these establishments welcome dogs during business hours.

We arrived in line for our Cumberland Island boat tour at 9:30 a.m. (Amelia River Cruises also allows pets). Lesson learned—to get preferred seating, get in line earlier. This narrated tour gives a comprehensive look at the industries located on Amelia Island, including the history of shrimping, as Fernandina Beach is the birthplace of the modern shrimping history. Further on the tour, much detail was provided about the rich history of the Cumberland Island, including the lives of the rich and famous that resorted there. An excellent narrative is given on the life of Lucy Carnegie Ferguson, granddaughter of Thomas Carnegie who with his brother Andrew, became the wealthiest Americans during their time; Lucy lived on the island for most of her life.

Our motivation for taking the boat tour was to experience the wildlife, including the wild horses of Cumberland Island. While we did see plenty of cormorants and brown pelicans, we saw only from a great distance, one horse. Also, from a distance, we saw one bottlenose dolphin; closer to the boat, we clearly sighted two cannonball jellyfish, which Captain Kurt, our boat operator and tour guide, said you could grab and play catch without the risk of being stung (I will never test this theory out).

Captain Kurt mentioned that spring is the best time of year for sighting wildlife, including manatees, alligators, dolphins, sharks, ospreys, bald eagles, and wild hogs, especially those swimming across the Amelia River to nearby Little Tiger Island to feast on rattlesnakes residing in large numbers there. Props must be given to Captain Kurt; he is a fascinating storyteller who clearly enjoys sharing his wealth of knowledge and first-hand experiences of the area.

Amelia River Cruises also offers a beach creek tour of Cumberland island, adult BYOB cruises with live music, and sunset tours. From June to September, they offer a unique experience—a catch and release shrimping eco-tour.

Following our boat tour, we again walked up Centre Street, this time to enjoy a burger and tater tots at Tasty’s. Located at the intersection of Centre Street and A1A, this burger joint, once a Gulf service station, is a popular spot. We arrived just in time; as we sat and awaited our order, a line out the door developed. Outdoor seating is available, providing another chance to see how the locals love their dogs. When we walked into Tasty’s we saw a woman with her Golden Retriever sitting at the table next to the entrance door; when we left, we saw another woman at the same table with her Dachshund.

Our day concluded with a bit of exploration along Centre Street, now alive with people enjoying the springlike weather concluding the month of February. On 7th Street, just off Centre Street, is the Florida House Inn, the OLDEST surviving hotel in Florida, known to have among their past guests “Ulysses S. Grant, Jose Marti, Henry Ford, Laurel and Hardy, and Mary Pickford.” I was contemplating having a drink known as the “Mermaid Slap” at the Inn’s Mermaid Bar, a concoction consisting of light rum, dark rum, coconut rum, triple sec, blue curacao, and some pineapple and orange juices. But as we still needed to walk a few more blocks, I forwent ordering the beverage. Next to the Inn is the Green Turtle Tavern, a local spot that offers a vibe that is obviously Key West-like. On their Taco Tuesday and Vinyl Record nights, the tavern offers $2 Mexican beers.

The bar that Centre Street is best known for, however, is the Palace Saloon, the OLDEST bar in Florida. Other superlatives- it was the LAST saloon to close in Florida before prohibition, and it was the FIRST hard liquor bar to serve Coke-Cola products, which gives the original Coke-Cola painting on the building’s backside extra significance. Several movies have been filmed in Fernandina Beach, including The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking and Sunshine State; the Palace Saloon served as a backdrop for both.

An excellent write-up on the Palace Saloon is offered on Spoon University’s website by Josh Hodges. His article, “Florida’s Oldest Bar is Perfect for Tourists and Locals Alike,” provides a look at their signature drink:

 “Pirate Punch, according to the bartender/mayor, is a secret recipe dating back to the early 1950s. Served in a neon green souvenir cup filled with ice and a cherry for garnish, Pirate Punch is a smooth, sweet, tropical, and altogether refreshing drink. When pressured for some kind of recipe, the bartender/mayor would only tell me a few interesting details. It’s a mixture of about eight or nine liquors and liqueurs, prepared in 55-gallon batches at about 7 a.m. every morning. That’s how they did it back in the day, and that’s how they still do it.” 

Yes, you read that right—this bartender, Johnny Miller, was recently the mayor of Fernandina Beach.

This takes us to our last site of the day—the statue of Peg Leg Pete. Restored and unveiled in February 2020 by the Fernandina Pirates Club Inc., Peg Leg Pete is considered the MOST photographed icon in Fernandina Beach. Peg Leg Pete was carved out of live oak over 40 years ago by Wayne Ervin.

Fernandina takes pride in its pirate culture, and it is hard to escape the numerous reminders of this, from the various businesses (such as the Palace Saloon) with pirate statues at their front door entrances, to the water tower with the Fernandina Beach High School Pirates mascot painted on it in clear view along Atlantic Avenue.

Thus, we ended our A1A daytrip to Fernandina Beach, but not before picking up a copy of the Fernandina Beach Newsleader, the OLDEST weekly newspaper in Florida and heading south on A1A.

Happy reading y’all!

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