18 DEC 2017: The further North you go, the further South you go. It's a contradiction that's only true in Florida. Head north from Fort Lauderdale, Naples, Fort Myers and you end up in the Southern States, the Southern mindset, Southern cooking. North of Orlando and you're in chaw-spitting distance of hush puppies.  

Jacksonville and the I-10 corridor? You may see Florida plates on the pickup trucks but you might as well be in Georgia.

Seven years ago when the US housing market collapsed and you could buy a condo for the price of a compact car - we did just that.

We bought a snowbirding roost In Jacksonville. Well, halfway between Jacksonville and the beach.

Our friends were aghast.

"JACKsonville???????"

("Why in heavens' name would you buy in pickup-driving-gun-toting-camo-wearing-weak-beer-drinking-redneck-JACKsonville???"…. It was never openly said, but it was clearly implied)

Truth is North-East Florida is an area we have come to love. Canadians whiz overhead in planes, they drive through the middle of the city down the I-95. And they miss this unexpectedly wonderful corner of Florida

It started with our birthday trips - our birthdays are two days apart (and we share a wedding anniversary). We started to explore the Atlantic seaboard. We were drawn to the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia, to the Atlantic beaches of the Outer Banks.

We would walk down the street in some little beach front town and my Everloving Kim would say "oh look - there's a real estate office - I wonder what property costs here", and the hint would just whoosh over my head.

And then we discovered Amelia Island. If you're not familiar with Amelia Island, it's the last piece of dry land on the Atlantic coast before you cross over from Florida into Georgia.

Few Canadians are aware of Amelia, and that's a pity, because it's worth knowing about.

True, Amelia doesn't have the fine-sand beaches of the Gulf Coast, but on the busiest weekend of the summer, when the Gulf beaches are packed, you can walk out onto the beaches of Amelia, unroll your towel or unfold your chair, and have space to spare

True, Amelia doesn't have the turquoise waters of the Gulf, but it has the Atlantic, with real waves for body surfing and kite-boarding.

And when you're sitting on the beach there's no line of condo blocks and hotels and apartment blocks lining the beach. Instead there are low-rise homes behind the dunes and sea oats and wooden walkways leading from the beach-access parking spaces. Yes - beach-access parking.

We couldn't find a place that worked for us on Amelia Island, so we found it in Jacksonville Beach area.

It's close to Amelia. Drive north up the A1A to Mayport, take the 10 minute ferry across the St John's river, and you're in a landscape of marshes and creeks, of bridges across inlets and bays, of bike paths and kayak put-ins, of wide-open beaches and fishing bridges.

Ritz Carlton has a property on Amelia Island, with a golf course right outside its front door and the beach on the back. Omni has a property on Amelia too - the Plantation Resort. The Star hotel review service (the only review service that I really trust) says that the Omni rivals Ritz Carlton in quality.

My personal favourite amongst Amelia Island's accommodation options, though, is the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge. Imagine a New England inn plunked down on a wide open, walkable beach, just 20 rooms, and service that goes beyond anything you could ask for.

Book a room facing the ocean, and leave the windows open at night so you can drift off to the sounds of the ocean. You'll understand why Elizabeth Pointe was voted the best hotel in the USA a couple of years ago

During the day walk the historic streets of Fernandina Beach village, or head down to Little Talbot Island's Paddle Amelia and rent a kayak to explore the marshes (look out for their sign - it announces that "Everyone deserves a good paddle!")

It's easy to get to Amelia - Jacksonville Airport is perhaps 20 minutes away. (Air Canada flies nonstop every Saturday and Sunday).

And yes, some of the locals are rednecks, they drink weak beer, and some, I'm sure, even carry concealed weapons. But they're welcoming, outgoing and courteous. They'll happily show you how best to fillet a whiting and where to catch sheepshead, or direct you to the best seafood dive for grilled fresh shrimp straight out of the ocean (served with hush-puppies, of course)

So why "JACKsonville"? Because it's not a tourist destination, not a retirement destination, because we've been welcomed, because there's good southern cooking.

And because it's just 20 miles to Amelia Island.

 

 

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Derrick Bloch

A regular contributer to Travel Industry Today, Derrick has been recognized by National Geographic Traveler as one of the top 80 travel agents in North America. 

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