Food Feature: Victorian Florida

Fernandina Beach missed the train and kept its charm

At the end of the 19th century, when hardly any of Florida's Atlantic edge was settled, Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway pushed south to open the wilderness. For that, he has been called the father of modern Florida.

Flagler deserves indirect credit for preserving a piece of the state's past, too. His route bypassed Fernandina Beach, a Victorian-era port city on Amelia Island at Florida's northeast corner. This spelled decline for the town. It became a backwater, as population and economic growth shifted southward.

The upside of this sad tale is that nobody ever felt compelled to knock down Fernandina's exuberant old buildings, and now they are mostly restored to life. Amelia Island has some of Florida's better beaches — worth a visit in their own right. To this, Fernandina Beach adds the sort of sleepy historic charm not normally associated with the Sunshine State.

Blessed with a natural deepwater harbor, and chosen as the terminus of the first cross-state railroad, Fernandina had thrived in the years after the Civil War. It was not only a port but a tourist destination, with regular steamer service to Charleston and New York, and several grand hotels. Those are gone, but dozens of lacily fretted frame houses and brick commercial buildings remain in a 50-block historic district.

Center Street, the old commercial thoroughfare, is lined with marvelous multicolor brick buildings dating from 1873-1900. The street has been redesigned to favor pedestrians over vehicles, with broad, landscaped brick walkways. At its end is a marina where local shrimp boats moor among the holidaymakers' yachts.

In the residential blocks to either side sit the town's glittering gems — enormous houses incorporating elements of the Queen Anne, Italianate, Gothic Revival and Stick styles. Tucked among those are modest vernacular shotgun houses, and even these show some ornate flourishes.

Among them are a number of places you can lodge. Unlike those that were originally homes, the Florida House Inn was actually built as a hotel in 1857. It's said to be the oldest surviving hotel in the state. Those who find that typical bed-and-breakfasts lack space and anonymity might be happy here. There are ample common areas including a big terrace under the live oaks, a pub and a restaurant serving classic Southern fare in boardinghouse style. Among the early guests who strolled the Florida House's verandahs were Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti and General-turned-President Ulysses S. Grant.

A different president — Jefferson Davis, of the Confederate States of America — stayed in the house which is now a bed-and-breakfast called the Amelia Island Williams House. It is unclear whether he knew that the house had also been a stop on the Underground Railroad, by which escaped slaves were helped to freedom in the North. There's still a secret room where they hid. Originally built in 1856 — and said to be the oldest house in town — the structure was gussied up in the 1880s with a fabulous spindlework porch frieze.

If you must combine the beach with your sojourn in history, there is the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge, a century-old, shingle-style "cottage" on the dune. That's "cottage" in the New England sense — a huge, rambling summer house built for the Gilded Age rich. Indeed, it looks as if it were dropped in from Cape Cod.

Just about the only thing built in Fernandina Beach after Flagler's railroad passed it by was an Art-Deco county jailhouse. Now it is the Amelia Island Museum of History, a place with that quirky appeal of so many small-town museums, which must rely on miscellaneous donations for their collections and on volunteers for staff.

At some point you will need to wet your whistle. The Palace Saloon on Center Street is the oldest bar in the state of Florida. Its hand-painted murals, hand-carved 40-foot mahogany bar and pressed tin ceiling date from 1878.

Once you exhaust historic Fernandina, head for Fort Clinch State Park, which overlooks the entrance to the town's harbor. You approach the fort, started in 1850, down a long shadowy drive through a maritime forest of windbent, mossy live oaks. Union soldiers from frigid Maine occupied Fort Clinch during the Civil War. Some so loved the climate that they returned to settle after the war.

The fort is another enchanting place for the architecture lover, with its vaulted and arched brick ceilings, slate-floored tunnels and serpentine stairways of granite block. It encloses a vast, grassy pentagonal courtyard open to the sky. Not many people visit on most days. This leaves you free to climb the rampart for a wide, solitary view over ocean and harbor.

Little coves just below the fort, fronting Cumberland Sound, are picturesque and surf-free — good places to do the beach thing, if you have small kids in tow. On the Atlantic side, a boardwalk leads across rolling dunes to a broad beach and fishing pier.

There are also naturalist-led walking tours, (a popular Victorian pastime), at nearby Amelia Island Plantation (904-321-5082).

You could also stay at Amelia Island Plantation, or at a Ritz-Carlton Resort. But those choices would lodge you firmly in the 21st century. And Fernandina Beach is really all about the 19th.


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