6. Nassau County: Main Beach to American Beach

Because breakfast is “the most important meal of the day” (check out this link on how this phrase came to be—it really has nothing to do about A1A, but I love to share trivia, so….), I open up this blog by sharing my meal at Tortuga Jacks.

Located on the upper floor of Slider’s Seafood Grill, the FIRST oceanfront tiki bar on A1A, Tortuga Jacks offers “Balcony Breakfast on the Beach,” allowing early risers to watch a sunrise. It is a beautiful spot, the food is good (don’t let some of the Trip Advisor reviews scare you away), and the service staff is, at least during my visit, uber-friendly. The menu is a fun read, and they have some pretty cool t-shirts for sale.

Tortuga Jacks is a pretty cool name, don’t you think?

The only weird occurrence I had at Tortuga Jacks was reading the placard above the urinals in the men’s bathroom, which suggested that drinking too much water increased the chances of getting ill from E. coli and that drinking alcoholic beverages was a better option.

Talk about a marketing ploy. I did, nevertheless, refrain from ordering a Slider’s Slammer.

Welcome to A1A, southbound!

In the fifth entry of my Complete A1A journey, I focus on the short stretch of A1A from Centre Street and the Amelia River to Fort Clinch State Park and the Atlantic Ocean. Mainly, A1A has been a west to east journey starting in Callahan, going through Yulee, and arriving in Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach.

Fort Clinch State Park to the turn south on A1A

Now, we begin to head south for the first time on A1A and enjoy the barrier island from top to bottom (13 miles), with Fort Clinch at the northern tip and Amelia Island State Park at the south end.

It’s time to go coastal.

Before turning south, you come to Main Beach Park, probably the most popular beach access area on the island.

The FIRST surf shop along A1A , Driftwood Surf Shop offers an array of beach rentals along with the usual beachwear selections; surfing lessons are also provided.

Along with the usual beachside activities, Main Beach offers a park for skateboarders, a Putt-Putt Golf Course (the LONGEST continuously operating Putt Putt course in the nation) with a concession stand serving ice cream and other refreshments, and a picnic area.

During the summer season, lifeguards are stationed at Main Beach as well as North and Seaside beaches during the weekends. Convenient beach access allows ease for bringing needed comforts for a day at the beach.

The City of Fernandina Beach has a Mobi-Mat semi-permanently installed at the Main Beach boardwalk access ramp.  This environmentally-friendly ADA-compliant matting provides safe and easy access for wheelchairs, strollers, and walkers to maneuver on the beach sand.  The matting is made completely from recycled plastic bottles.

Seaside Amelia Inn is a well-maintained, three-star hotel located at Main Beach, as are two restaurants: The Sandbar & Kitchen and its Whiskey Library, and Salt Life Food Shack.

Salt Life’s Fernandina Beach location is one of three; the other two are in Jacksonville Beach and St. Augustine Beach—all three situated on A1A. While their restaurant locations are found only in Northeast Florida, Salt Life has 12 retail stores located in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and California. Near A1A are stores in Jacksonville Beach, Daytona Beach, Palm Beach Gardens, and Key West.

From the wheretraveler.com. article by Shelley Preston. “Florida’s First Coast Lives for the Salt Life” (August 23, 2017):

“What is Salt Life? It began with two friends from Jacksonville, Troy Hutto, a former landscape irrigation contractor, and Mike Moore, a framing contractor. Clearly not defined by their day jobs, which were only a means to an end, Hutto and Moore instead distinguished themselves by their mutual obsession for surfing, fishing and all-things beach. They coined a phrase about their lifestyle and had it permanently etched with tattoos across their backs: Salt Life.”

The beach vibe from the Fernandina Beach location is authentic; the food and drinks are reminiscent of what you get from a Margaritaville restaurant.

It should be noted that Hutto was arrested in November 2020 for manslaughter resulting from an accidental shooting of his 18-year-old girlfriend; Hutto, Moore, and other partners sold Salt Life in 2013 for close to $40 million.

While Main Beach might have that see and be seen atmosphere (though laid back), North Beach Park, a short drive on North Fletcher Avenue past homes and rental cottages, provides a more secluded beach experience.

Beach access to Amelia Island’s North Beach Park

Interesting signage at Main and North beaches address provide information on the North Atlantic Right Whale, which between the months of November and April migrate to the coastal areas of Georgia and Northeast Florida.

At Main Beach, the Right Whale Festival is held in November to celebrate and bring awareness to this endangered species.

The beginning stretch of A1A south is lined with homes and vacation rentals, and plenty of beach access points for locals and vacationers. Somewhere along this stretch is a vacation home belonging to famed author John Grisham.

Grisham wrote a piece for Garden & Gun magazine, “John Grisham’s Ode to Amelia Island” (June/July 2019) in which he shares about his discovery and embrace of the island.

There are several roundabouts, each dotted with local businesses. The first, close to two and half miles from Main Beach, is where I enjoyed my breakfast at Tortuga Jacks. It is also where you will find Seaside Park and the first beach access point allowing vehicles on the beach (four-wheel drive only).

Across the street is Hammerhead Beach Bar. Based on the website, this is could be party central along the Nassau County section of A1A.

At this point of writing this blog, I had to stop and listen to Jimmy Buffett’s song, “Fins”:

But now she lives down by the ocean
She’s taking care to look for sharks
They hang out in the local bars
And they feed right after dark

Next door is The Beach Store and More, providing beach rentals, beachwear, and other conveniences. Your second surf shop along A1A is Amelia Surf Company, located behind The Beach Store. The shop is small, but well-stocked. During the summer months, Amelia Surf offers five day surfing camps for ages 7-17.

Thete are several lodging options close to this roundabout, including Amelia Hotel at the Beach, located at the northwest corner. The most unique option is the newly-opened Sea Cottages of Amelia, a collection of studio and one bedroom cottages all situated under a canopy of oak trees. Among its modern features is contactless check-in. Located just a few blocks off the beach, this property is reasonably priced, but a spot check on summer availability shows that advanced booking is highly recommended.

In contrast, a mile and a half down A1A is the Surf Beach Motel, accompanied by the Surf Restaurant and Bar. First opened in 1957, this classic establishment has recently been renovated; its offers basic but clean rooms, a popular place to eat and drink, and beach access across the street. Monday is Karaoke Night, and live music is presented Thursday through Saturday evenings.

And yes, they also have cool t-shirts for sale.

Across the street is the only beachfront motel on the island—Beachside.

Without doubt, Northeast Florida is a mecca for golfers. And it all begins on Amelia Island. Links magazine, in its article “The Top 25 Golf Islands in the World” has Amelia Island at #13 on the list. The golf guide at ameliaisland.com mentions seven courses on the island, including two at the Omni Amelia Island Resort, situated along A1A.

Also within striking distance of A1A are the Fernandina Beach Municipal Golf Club and the Amelia River Golf Club.

There are 39 Ritz-Carlton locations in the United States; one is just two miles south of the Surf. You will spend a few thousand dollars for a weekend stay at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island; close by is Peter’s Point Beachfront Park, where Nassau County residents can drive and park on the beach. Until November of 2020, beach camping was available, with only a $5 permit required as payment, providing a stark contrast to Peter’s Point’s ritzy neighbors.

Peter’s Point has a large parking lot, a convenient beach walkover (also with a Mobi-Mat), and indoor/outdoor showers to rinse off after frolicking on the beach.

Within the Fernandina Beach city limits, 41 beach access points (not all providing parking) are made available.

From Main Beach Park, A1A shares signage with South Fletcher Avenue until it arrives at its second roundabout; here, A1A veers to the left to continue its southerly direction. At the roundabout on the driver’s side is the Shops at Amelia Market, which includes a Harris Teeter. Several restaurants surround this section of A1A, as well as boutique shopping, including Palmetto Walk Shopping Village.

From the roundabout, A1A is a bit more inland, slicing through a shaded stretch of live oaks. In a couple of miles, you come to a Circle K convenient store and Lewis Street—and to an area rich in history:

American Beach.

Lewis Street is named after the founder of American Beach, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, who became Florida’s FIRST black millionaire after helping establish and serving as president of Afro-American Life Insurance Company. In 1935, Lewis purchased over 200 acres to create a beach resort for African Americans during the era of Jim Crow. The slogan “Recreation and Relaxation Without Humiliation” was advertised; during the days prior to desegregation and the destruction caused by Hurricane Dora in 1964, American Beach would attract thousands of visitors on the weekends to enjoy the restaurants, night clubs, and beaches.

In the years that followed, the allure of American Beach as a major travel destination for African Americans faded; in recent years, much effort has gone into preservation—historically, culturally, and environmentally. Some of the original structures from the past still exist, but newer homes and nearby development have made its presence known at American Beach.

Some have not gone away—yet. Evan’s Ocean Rendezvous was a legendary hot spot; famed entertainers such as Louie Armstrong and Cab Calloway played here; there is a story that refers to a young James Brown planning to perform outside Evan’s Rendezvous but was turned away due to his musical style.

For years, preservationists have worked to restore it.

Duck’s Hotel and Restaurant, another well-known establishment of the past, suffered a different fate. I took the above photo just weeks before the structure was torn down and removed completely.

Preserved for generations to come, however, is the Nana Sand Dune, the TALLEST in Florida. The dune, now part of the National Park Service’s Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve, was named for Lewis’s great-granddaughter, MaVynne Betsch. Known as the “Beach Lady,” Betsch, a talented opera singer who performed in Europe for a decade, spent the last 25 years of her life working to educate others about the historical prominence of American Beach, as well as serving as an environmental activist.

The History Makers website, “The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection, features Betsch in a September 20, 2004 interview. Betsch passed away nearly a year later.

From a fictional perspective, American Beach plays the role of Lincoln Beach in the movie Sunshine State. Several significant sites in American Beach appear in the movie, including Evan’s Ocean Rendezvous. Another site is Ervin’s Rest, the second house built on American Beach (1938). Ervin’s Rest was the locale for the home of Mrs. Eunice Stokes (Mary Alice) and Desiree Stokes Perry (Angela Bassett). The movie, though fiction, shows much of Amelia Island while tackling the island’s real-life concerns, including race relations and over-development of land.

Next to Ervin’s Rest is a walkover to the beach. The dunes at American Beach are spectacular, and so is the wildlife.

A popular draw at American Beach is Burney Beachfront Park, which has plenty of parking, restrooms, indoor/outdoor showers, and beach access providing a wonderful view of the dunes.

Betsch’s dream of preserving the history of American Beach came to fruition exactly ten years after her passing:

“American Beach Museum finally found a permanent home, and opened its doors on September 5, 2014, bringing MaVynee’s lifelong inspirational dream to life.”

The American Beach Museum has yet to reopen due to Covid-19. The significance of American Beach and its location along A1A deserves further attention; I plan to do a blog entry on American Beach once the museum re-opens.

The remainder of A1A south on Amelia Island takes you past Omni Amelia Island Resort and other vacation villas, until you arrive at the southern tip of this wonderful barrier island and the two state parks divided only by the two-lane A1A: Amelia island State Park and George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier State Park (more on these two parks with the seventh entry of the Complete A1A journey).

For hikers and bicyclists, the stretch from A1A from Peter’s Point to Amelia Island State Park (6.3 miles) is accompanied by the Amelia Island Trail, a paved pathway.

FYI—for those traveling with their pets, Amelia Island residents are known for their affinity for their K-9 companions: the Amelia Island-operated beaches are no exception—on a leash of course. Just thought you would want to know.

Amelia Island beaches are dog friendly—but keep them on a leash.

Nassau County, it has been awesome. Next stop?

Duuuval!

Happy traveling!

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