Northeast Florida's Amelia Island, an Atlantic Ocean barrier island, is like a family-friendly Key West minus the wild street parties and torrid heat -- and with better beaches.
The town on the island, Fernandina Beach, a laid-back old shrimping village, boasts a charming historic district with a scenic harbor and marina that may tempt you away from its 13 miles of dunes and sand. Amelia's broad beaches have areas where you can drive the family van and even ride horseback. Where else can you can take a riverboat cruise and in one sweeping view see wild horses, a 19th-century fort and a U.S. nuclear submarine?
*Bargain lodging and dining: There are two Hampton Inns on Amelia Island, one near the beach and the other in the historic district near the marina (hamptoninn.com). The Best Western Inn at Amelia Island is within a block of the surf (book.bestwestern.com). The locally owned Amelia Hotel at the Beach has a family-of-four summer package that includes dinner at The Crab Trap (ameliahotel.us).
The Crab Trap is a fun family restaurant in the historic district while Sliders Seaside Grill sits on the beach and has service on the sands. The grand Elizabeth Pointe Lodge Bed & Breakfast welcomes nonguests to sit on the porch and eat breakfast or "all-day" lunch while enjoying the ocean views (elizabethpointelodge.com).
*Inside track: Native boat captain Cecilia McCarthy, descendant of lighthouse keepers and shrimpers, says a favorite for eating and gassing up is T-Ray's Burger Station at 202 S. Eighth St. Breakfast and lunch are served in two former service bays of the Mullins family gas station. Son T-Ray serves breakfast and lunch (go early on Friday for the shrimp special) while dad Big Ray pumps gas. "It's not fancy, but it's where locals love to go," she says.
Nature-loving families will find relief from carnival clutter here. Yet there are plentiful adventures by land and by sea.
*TOO MUCH FUN
This boot-shaped island offers fishing, surfing, hiking, biking and boating -- along with tennis and golf. Nearby Jacksonville and St. Augustine have amusements, water parks and go-kart tracks.
Kelly Seahorse Ranch sits along 200-acre Amelia Island State Park where Nassau Sound meets the Atlantic Ocean. Grand views of beaches, salt marshes and coastal forests can be had on the 45-minute horseback ride ($60). For those 13 years old and older. (kellyranchinc.com)
*KEEP 'EM HAPPY
Kayak Amelia gives "a good paddlin' " in the salt marshes of Talbot Islands state parks and the Timucuan Preserve. Dolphin, manatee and sea turtle sightings are bonuses. Beginners are welcome; swimmers only (kayakamelia.com).
*TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Amelia Island sits at the northeastern tip of Florida, so it will be cooler than more southern destinations.
*AVOID THE CROWDS
Local moms take their kids to the beach at Fort Clinch State Park at the north end of Amelia Island, where they can romp on the sand in search of shark's teeth, throw a line from the pier or play soldier in a 19th-century fort. There is a six-mile trail for hiking and biking, and a campground with restrooms, changing facilities and shallow areas for kiddies (floridastateparks.org/fortclinch/).
Wes Smith can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5672.
Florida Beach Guide: Amelia Island