A mom and daughter explore the beauty of Florida's Amelia Island on an outing designed just for the girls.A mom and daughter explore the beauty of Florida's Amelia Island on an outing designed just for the girls.
As a travel writer, I've traveled extensively alone, with my entire family, and with one or both of my older daughters. In June, I had an opportunity to visit Amelia Island off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida, but both of my older girls refused to come. School was ending, parties and celebrations were scheduled, and five days at the beach with Mom held surprisingly little appeal, so I took my 2½-year-old, Nora.
Baby on Board
I've grown accustomed to my kids entertaining each other – even when they're fighting, they are engaged, so this trip required special planning. I couldn't bring the car seat on the plane, because holding it and pushing a stroller laden with carry-on items was beyond my ability to cope. I lugged double the number of books, snacks and other diversions onto the plane, as her attention span is noted only for its brevity.
Our flight to Jacksonville required a change of planes in Atlanta, violating my non-stop rule with kids under 5, but it seemed like good preparation for our upcoming West Coast trip, with a six-hour flight looming. Each leg of our trip was short, and the Atlanta airport had an unexpected bonus. We came upon a huge Disney store where Nora watched a video and got her first traveling hair brush, a snappy Snow White number. The Jacksonville airport is a ½-hour drive from Amelia Island, a 13-mile-long barrier island just south of the Georgia border. This means that southern cooking reigns, and the peaches are excellent. Amelia is also home to roadside 'boiled peanut' stands, where peanuts are boiled in the shell and served warm. They are soft and delicious and Nora, a peanut butter addict, was hooked.
Summers are very hot and humid on Amelia Island and winters are too cold for outdoor swimming, but spring and fall are perfect times to visit to take full advantage of the island's offerings. Amelia Island is on migratory bird paths, so birding opportunities abound. You may see plovers, sandpipers and woodpeckers, and in the salt marshes, we saw herons and pelicans. We visited Beaks, the Bird Emergency Aid & Kare Sanctuary (904/251-BIRD) on nearby Little Talbot Island, where we saw eagles, wrens and blue jays.
The historic town of Fernandina Beach is home to numerous exquisite B&B's and much of the downtown area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The unusual Amelia Island Museum of History (904/261-7378) offers an oral history of the island, with walking tours that are geared towards the age and interests of the participants. From here, we took a Hot Ticket Charters (904/321-1668) boat tour of the Intracoastal Waterway, passing close enough to Cumberland Island, Georgia to see the wild horses that roam here; some boat tours take you ashore. Our quest was dolphins, and we were rewarded with plenty of sightings! Fort Clinch State Park (904/277-7274) offers tours that recreate a soldier's life in 1864 and there are Civil War reenactments on the first weekend of every month. The park has coastal trails for easy hiking and camping facilities for those who prefer to rough it.
The Down Under Restaurant (904//261-1001) on the Intracoastal Waterway is under the Thomas J. Shave Bridge, literally on the water, and kids can stand outside on the dock and watch boats go by while eating. The restaurant features fresh seafood, but beware if your child has particular tastes. Perhaps our New York City expectations betrayed us as even strictly seafood restaurants up North have a pasta option, or bread and butter, the other 'fussy-eater's' choice. But this place, while serving impeccable fresh shrimp and crabs, had few options for picky vegetarian children. Since I always have my stash of Cheerios, cheese sticks and a banana, we were fine, but plan accordingly.
A Choice of Resorts
We divided our time between two resorts, the Amelia Island Plantation (888/261-6161, 904/261-6161) and the Ritz-Carlton (800/241-3333, 904/277-1100). The Ritz offered exquisite pampering for both parents and children. Rooms are outfitted with marble baths, down pillows and maid service twice a day. Even the crib sheets and blankets are luxuriously soft. There is a spa and fitness center, and the evening turndown comes with chocolate. There are three restaurants, and at the casual family-friendly cafe, kids are presented with a plastic cup with straw, crayons with a menu coloring book, and a package of Wikki-stix to keep them occupied. Ironically, I'd packed some of these clever twistable, buildable sticks in my own bag of tricks! If you want to enjoy an adult-only dinner, The Ritz offers "Kids Night Out" with dinner and games on Friday and Saturday evenings.
The Ritz Kids program, is for ages 5-12. The space was well-stocked with arts 'n' crafts supplies and toys. The staff was energetic and there was plenty of outdoor fun scheduled, including volleyball, swimming, beach walks and play. I wanted to hire a sitter for Nora so I could check out the fitness center and whirlpool but I was disappointed that a mix-up with the sitter caused me to give up on my trip to the gym, so I took Nora back to the beach. This, of course, is the major attraction, though golf and tennis fans may beg to differ as there is an 18-hole course along with hard and clay tennis courts on site.
When we visited, there was a huge sand bar creating a large, shallow salt-water pond where kids were swimming and splashing in the gentle waves. There is also a large kiddie pool, with lots of sprays. The spouting water terrified Nora, so we stuck to the regular pool, where I held her and she kicked and squealed. If you forget swim diapers, disposable ones are provided, free of charge.
The Amelia Island Plantation is not as luxurious, but it has its own charms. It recreates the feel of the deep south, with lush natural vegetation and landscaping. In fact, the tremendous resort, which includes condos and time shares, professes a dedication to the environment. While golf courses are, of course, the antithesis of environmental sensitivity, the Plantation does boast a number of mature trees, a Nature Center with a children's discovery area and abundant wildlife.
The Plantation's program, Kids Camp Amelia, is for 3-10-year-olds. Sessions include full day (8:30am to 4pm), mornings only (8:30am-1pm, including lunch) and afternoons only (12:45-4pm). There are also preteen/teen programs. Every day, there are free family activities such as contests and water balloon tossing at the Beach Club pool at 2pm. The Plantation has a well-regarded tennis program, with junior clinics (ages 6-8 and 9-12) at 3pm and (ages 13-19) at 10:30 am. Private lessons are also offered. If you want to eat without the kids, the Just for Kids program for ages 3-10 is available every Thursday through Saturday from 6-9:30pm. These theme nights include Way Out Water Night, Crime in the Night, and hay rides, and the kid's dinner is included. If you eat at one of the Plantation restaurants, the kids eat their meal at a discount.
Indeed, Amelia Island Plantation offers a wonderful learn to ride program for beginners. The resort has seven miles of flat bike trails, and a bike rental service on-site, providing children's bicycles (some with training wheels), baby seats and trailers. There are the Segway tours of the plantations daily at 10 am, 2 pm and a Jr. Clinic at 4:30 PM. Riders under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a parent or legal gaurdian. I love to ride, but am reluctant to tool around New York City with Nora on the back, so the Plantation provided the perfect setting to try out a baby seat. She loved the ride, even though it was cut short by a sudden, fierce thunderstorm.
About Teens Activities
This program includes many activities for teens such as putt-putt bowling, games on the beach, movies, swimming (including aqua aerobics classes), fishing, off property excursions and more. Indeed, we can play basketball, golf and tennis (private lessons are lessons available for every level). We have the possibility to ride a horse on the beach and to visit shops, plantation for souvenirs and so much more. In addition, there is a Game Room includes: Six TVs, two XBOX, two Gamecube, two Playstation and many games.
Amelia Island's highpoint is its beautiful environment. The Plantation Nature Center has turtles, lizards and fish and staff naturalists are happy to chat up the region. There is an extensive array of tours, including birding, kayaking, and stargazing. Kayaking is recommended for ages 8 and up with parent (but it all depends on their ability to sit still!) and children are required to be 14 or older to go without a parent. While some programs are free, others have a modest fee (though kids 3 and under are always free).For families, I advice night walks and nature crafts. A highlight of our trip together was on a "Shell & Shark Tooth Hunt." This outing was perfect for my little collector who followed the naturalist's descriptions of different shells and searched for some. When we looked for sharks' teeth, Nora nonchalantly plucked a tremendous shark tooth out of the detritus and proudly showed it off!
TOURING THE OKEFENOKEE BY KAYAK
Take a ride on the wild side with Kayak Amelia, an adventure tour operator offering two new half-day eco-trips: one combines the salt marsh of northeast Florida and the fresh water Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia so you can discover what ties these two distinct eco-systems and their inhabitants together. As an alternative, paddle on the Fort George River and take a break at historic Kingsley Plantation. Kayak Amelia trains beginners and welcomes kids, but because these in-depth tours cost $55/person, we recommend them for kids 10 years and up who know what they're getting into. Novice family kayakers and those with little ones may prefer K.A.'s bird-watching tour in a shared double kayak. Call 888/30-KAYAK, 904/ 321-0016 for more information and reservations.
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