Southern Wind Inn, St. Augustine. Southern Wind Inn
The northeast coast of Florida is one of those special destinations where historic inns and homes hold a prominent place in a European heritage that goes back 400 years through Spanish, French, British and finally American occupation. In particular, Amelia Island and St. Augustine have gone far beyond the admirable calling of preserving forts, lighthouses, and public buildings with museum collections to enjoy by day.
Indeed, year round hospitality extends to inviting home a steady stream of appreciative visitors to share the local lifestyle of days gone by while sacrificing none of the modern-day pampering and amenities that are part of a memorable holiday.
Whether you stay a night or a week, multi-course gourmet breakfasts greet each morning with signature dishes that leave guests begging for recipes. Food is often served on collectable china of the historic period, sometimes handed down from the original owners. Hosts may even go the extra mile with a decanter of sherry and crystal glasses on the antique dresser in your room, a complimentary cocktail hour in the drawing room or fresh-baked cookies and lemonade served in the garden each afternoon.
Casa de Sueños, St. Augustine. Casa de Sueños
In northeastern Florida, it is rare to find an historic property that is not directly managed by its owner. In fact, most owners live under the same roof in a discreetly camouflaged self-contained suite, so they may truly be called your personal hosts. These distinctions alone create a very different atmosphere from conventional hotel accommodation. Conversations flow, advice is based on experience not promotional literature, and the line between host and guest quickly blurs. Repeat clients are as predictable as the sunrise.
Easily accessible from the hub city of Jacksonville, Amelia Island is basically a bridge away from the Florida Mainland. It is nestled up against the Georgia state border, squarely facing the Atlantic Ocean. On the back side of the island, a picturesque natural intracoastal channel teams with marine wildlife and birds while providing sheltered harbors for commercial ships and yachts.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the island and its small jewel of a seaport, Fernandina Beach, made an admirable transition from notorious haven for pirates and smugglers before and during the American Civil War into Florida’s first resort for America’s wealthy and famous.
Ash Street Inn, Amelia Island. Ash Street Inn
As a result, this picture-postcard town of under 9,000 residents has an abundance of gracious homes and gardens, public buildings, fine dining restaurants, and well designed streets lined with granddaddy-size pecan and oak trees. Now offering luxurious bed and breakfast accommodation, most of these homes, ranging from mansion-size to intimately gracious, are clustered in Fernandina Beach’s historic district within easy walking distance of the town center and harbor.
Amelia House Bed, Breakfast and Sail, Amelia Island. Alison Gardner
Bailey House Bed and Breakfast, Amelia Island. Bailey House
For example, the Bailey House Bed and Breakfast is an elegant 1885 Queen Anne-style home with a sweeping grand staircase, stained glass windows, ten fireplaces and large guest rooms filled with exquisite antiques. A stone’s throw away, the Ash Street Inn was clearly a more modest residence in its heyday, but it too has been renovated into a luxurious taste of the past with sumptuous breakfasts on a wrap-around porch, and stylishly decorated guestrooms and bathrooms reflecting the designer flare of their latest resident owners.
A few strollable streets away is the state’s oldest surviving hotel, Florida House Inn Bed and Breakfast, opened in 1857 by the Florida Railroad Company. Its genteel hospitality and gracious dining room passed inspection with General Ulysses S. Grant, the Rockefellers and the Carnegies. Be sure to ask to stay in the original part, not the new addition.
Established by the Spanish in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European town in the U.S. With a strong dedication to the preservation of its early Spanish heritage, the city of 12,000 is home to the legendary Fountain of Youth and justifiably famous for outstanding Ghost Walking Tours that truly bring the colorful past of the old quarter to life. You may even discover that your own historic bed and breakfast has a ghost story of its own! After a hot day, a stroll around St. Augustine’s substantial historic, tree-lined neighborhood is a treat. The soft velvet evening air triggers images of old fashioned comfort, hospitality and a tranquility that is hard to duplicate in a fast-paced contemporary environment. Speaking in a hushed voice and acknowledging passersby with a dignified tilt of the head just come naturally!
If you choose to stop at the Alexander Homestead, you will be surrounded by Bonnie Alexander’s family heirlooms and treasured collection of St. Augustine antique furnishings. With a licensed Justice of the Peace on the premises (Bonnie), many a couple has featured the Homestead’s vintage opulence among its own wedding and honeymoon memories.
Sit awhile on the Alexander Homestead’s inviting porch. Alexander Homestead
Or a typical leisurely breakfast at the Southern Wind Inn may include homemade granola, fresh pineapple and macadamia nut-stuffed French toast, a creamy yogurt parfait and special roast coffees. On the other hand you may find the sweetest dreams of times past at the Casa de Sueños where each of its five uniquely furnished luxurious guest rooms captures a charming element of this 100 year old house. In vacationing style, Northeast Florida is about as far removed from its southern neighbors, Miami and Fort Lauderdale, as chalk is from cheese. They do have in common some truly spectacular stretches of fine creamy sand, though the northern beaches are virtually deserted by comparison. In the historic northeast, visitors naturally stroll rather than walk, and they rarely search out a fast food restaurant.
Both St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach have an illusive elegance, a tasteful sense of gracious living, an intriguing tranquility. By choosing to sleep with history and not just explore the area’s past by day, visitors enter a delightful time warp from which they may find themselves reluctant to exit. Sleep tight!
Florida House Inn, Amelia Island. Alison Gardner
Amelia Island Bed & Breakfast Association: This resource not only lists accommodation and timely specials for each inn but also features upcoming events and information about island interests. www.ameliaislandinns.com.
St. Augustine Historic Inns: Showcases all 26 of the city’s historic properties. Check out the annual September Women’s Escape to the Inns and Arts of St. Augustine, and the January and June Senior Sweethearts specials. www.staugustineinns.com.
Amelia Island Tourism: www.ameliaisland.com.
St. Augustine Visitors & Convention Bureau: www.visitoldcity.com.
Jacksonville is Northern Florida’s hub flight city: www.visitjacksonville.com.
For Ghost Tours of St. Augustine’s old quarter: www.ghosttoursofstaugustine.com.
St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum is a highly recommended new attraction, with authentic antique artifacts and informative displays, many of which are hands-on fun for both kids and adults: http://piratesoul.com.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine.