Story and photos by Andrew Der
Let’s be honest – most of us totally ignore north Florida on our way southward to its lavish and sometimes overwhelmed tropical beaches. If so, we are doing ourselves a great disservice especially if the goal is a low-maintenance family getaway in a natural but pampered setting. Just past the Georgia State line and easily accessible via Jacksonville’s user-friendly airport, the environmentally serene and amenity-rich resort of Amelia Island Plantation lies modestly in wait for the creative as well as the nature-appreciating traveler.
This 1,350-acre self contained subtropical Shangri-La of premium recreation and leisure is not immediately visible to the casual observer – the entire layout of roadways and buildings is meticulously and surgically inserted between, and designed around, a completely intact forest canopy strewn with Spanish Moss, sensitive tree stands, fragile dunes and rare wetlands. The resulting total absence of sprawl will make anyone think twice about expending the additional time and effort to continue on to the vast overly engineered and landscaped destinations in South Florida they have been conditioned to seek out.
At Amelia Island Plantation, families will feel just as home as couples. In addition to world-class golfing and nature programs and trails, visitors enjoy three and half miles of Atlantic beach, 23 swimming pools, 23 tennis courts (The Plantation’s Racquet Park has hosted some of the most famous tennis championship players), a full service spa (do not leave without a massage), health and fitness center, fine dining, business/conference center, shopping, fishing, sailing, kayaking, horseback riding, and youth programs. Complementary shuttles run continuously throughout the resort and Island Hoppers (commuter golf carts) are available for self guided transportation.
Even the 54 holes of golf courses are uniquely designed and landscaped around natural areas of forests, dunes and lagoons providing some of the most impressive scenery and harmonious design a golfer might ever witness. Winner of the most prestigious golfing magazine awards, the environmentally sensitive landscaping retains the challenging and treacherous designs by the world’s prominent golf architects. Ocean Links provides ocean-side undulating and open greens mixed with dunes and salty breezes. The Oak Marsh course emphasizes accuracy and precision with numerous water hazards and bunkers. Long Point is exemplary of meticulous emplacement of fairways and greens throughout forest wilderness and marshes – hazards include tree-lined waterways and marshes.
The result is a state of the art example of a premium ocean-side development that is absolutely compatible with environmental stewardship and natural resource conservation goals. In fact, the Plantation is a member of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System and recipient of a gazillion other awards for golfing (five holes are directly next to the ocean), conservation, corporate travel, tennis, sports and recreation. Make no mistake – living at one with nature does not mean you have to rough it or go without the family-friendly and premium relaxation experience many search for in a vacation. Here, nature is to be enjoyed – not avoided.
Accommodations are numerous as the recreational opportunities. The Amelia Inn & Beach Club offers deluxe hotel rooms with breathtaking ocean views – families may want to take advantage of multi-roomed villas and penthouses. Living areas are subdivided into enclaves of their own architectural style and decor. True to its self contained community, guests are also served by a business and conference center as well as nine exemplary eating establishments ranging from a beach front grill to quality restaurants rivaling the most premium of culinary experiences (try the shrimp and fish dishes). The Plantation even has its own shopping facilities and Falcon’s Nest – a locally popular and lively bar for dancing and cocktails. Apparently, many visitors have found they cannot leave and a residentially developed tract of the Plantation with 600 single-family homes and 400 remaining undeveloped sites beckons those who are considering permanent relocation.
The best way to experience the serene and serpentine nature trails strewn throughout the resort is to take advantage of the competitively priced popular spa or golf packages – depending on the season, these can be excellent values. Families can combine this with the resort’s Kids Camp Amelia youth program and find they need not think at all. These programs can provide active schedules for the toddlers to teens and include nature tours, tennis/golf clinics, story time, scavenger hunts, babysitting, crabbing, sports instruction, volleyball, jet ski excursions and DJ-hosted teen socials. Finish a day with the Just for Kids evening dinner activities.
To truly revel in the Plantation’s pampering is to enjoy the juxtaposition of the extensive amenities against the backdrop of the most notable of its qualities – the incredible abundance of unique natural resources. The ecologically literate will quickly realize that this resort is not only at the southern most reach of the east coast’s Atlantic barrier island ecosystem but is also in the Florida subtropical zone. This unique blend of habitats provides a very rare and unique ecosystem of its own with plant and animal communities rarely seen elsewhere – 50′ live oak forest stands mingle with Pine, Magnolia, Palmettos, Wisteria, Spanish Moss, Cedar and Cypress as well as marshlands and sea oat covered dunes.
Birding enthusiasts will delight in the rich populations of Terns, Sandpipers, Pelicans, Buntings, Wrens, Hawks, Owls, Egrets, Herons, Ospreys, Storks and even the occasional Bald Eagle. Opportunities for guided and self-guided nature tours abound – popular spots are Drummond Point Park and Walker’s Landing. Visit the nature center next to the shops with the kids and sign up any budding marine biologists for one of the center’s many creature appreciation activities. The same rare co-mingling of temperate forest and southern coastal fauna is also evident in wildflowers; reptiles, fish and mammals so don’t forget your Peterson or Audubon nature guides for this trip. Include some intense beach combing – this is also the opportunity to expand a serious shell collection.
The passively challenged can actively appreciate the outdoors through family fishing, deep sea charters, back water and bass fishing charters, sailing and quail hunting with all necessary rentals available at the Amelia Angler store. An Island favorite is kayaking and for everyone else, the Plantation offers one of the best opportunities for bicycle touring in the region. If you do not have your own rent some. For a truly different experience, try the guided horseback riding tours to observe nature in a more remote setting. Finish off your day with a dinner cruise and bring your camera.
If vacations are more of an opportunity to catch up on vigorous activities and exercise rather than vegetating, knock yourself out at Racquet Park. Play endless tennis with a partner on one of the 23 precision clay courts day or night. Practice with the backboard or ball machine or sign up for a premium tennis clinic by one of the many certified pros. The game arranging service can find you a partner and is great way to meet people. For the exercise purist, immerse yourself in Racquet Park’s Health and Fitness Center for the ultimate work out. Weight training opportunities abound with a circuit of new Cybex machines and personal training assistance. Aerobic classes of all types are available including Win Chung (a manner of Tai Chi). Premium low impact opportunities include the indoor lap pool and yoga classes. Not sure how you are faring over the years in your fitness endeavors? Get a professional fitness evaluation from flexibility to endurance and body composition.
Those of us who travel as a family have learned very clearly that in the end what really sets a memorable family vacation experience apart from others is simply the absence of things that go wrong. The most outstanding quality of the Plantation is the ability for visitors to abandon all anxiety and apprehension about mishaps, what to do and how to do it. From room comfort, dining, recreation to shuttle transportation and providing advice, the staff is entirely devoted to your pleasure.
This is most noticeable when experiencing the ultimate of all pampering – the Spa. This 13,000 square-foot haven of relaxation will whisk you even farther from stress and features five kinds of massage, seven kinds of hydrotherapy, twelve types of facials and six types of body treatments. A very special experience awaits those who try the Watsu massage – a weightless massage in a body-temperature pool of water. For those so inclined, finish off the experience with a makeover at their salon, which offers all manner of hair/skin care, manicures/pedicures and waxing.
Do not underestimate the purity of relaxing in a beach chair at sunset after a dinner of Grouper or Red Snapper. As the day fades to moonlight, denizens of urban areas will not only appreciate the salt air, the sounds of rolling surf and the stirrings of nocturnal nature but also the absence of artificial light (so as to not disorient hatching sea turtles), noise and any need to plan. Don’t feel guilty – you earned it.
Amelia Island Plantation
P.O. Box 3000, Amelia Island, FL 32035-3000
www.ameliaislandplantation.com or www.aipfl.com/
The Spa: www.spaamelia.com
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