SMITH COLUMN: Taking a visit to Fernandina Beach

Published 9:57 pm Saturday, April 30, 2022

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FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla – If you are an infrequent visitor to these parts, sometimes, there is uncertainty when you try to distinguish the town of Fernandina Beach from Amelia Island Plantation.

It is simple when you realize that nestled quietly and quaintly on the northern shores of Amelia Island, named by General James Oglethorpe (you remember him and his Savannah initiative) in honor of Princess Amelia, the daughter of King George II, is the town of Fernandina Beach which is named for King Ferdinand VII of Spain — a reminder that nothing is named for the first settlers here, the Timucua Indians.

Fernandina looks old because it IS old, dating back to 1565 when the Spanish ran the French, the first European inhabitants, off the island. Then the English ran the Spanish off, but the Spaniards made a comeback and regained possession of the island, which is about the size of Manhattan, until the United States took possession of the area as a result of being victorious in the Spanish-American war.

According to local tourist information, eight flags — from the French tricolor to the Confederate stars and bars — have flown over the island.  You still note the Spanish influence in street names and architecture for this town where the modern shrimping industry was founded.

The history of this barrier island brings about overt fascination and the charm of Fernandina Beach leaves you uplifted as you take in the beauty of the fronds of the ever-present Palm trees jitterbugging with the wind and the majesty of the oaks which sit immovable in the middle of the streets.  These sturdy staples of nature’s refreshing design have stood the test of time and bring about a reverential pause and reflection.

There are wide open spaces on Amelia, also arbors whose canopies hover over certain streets, allowing for nature’s handiwork to make you conclude, without retreat, that you are experiencing a blessed day.

There are docks and an active railroad, a comingling of commerce which reflects a “live and let live” environment that keeps Fernandina abuzz but not interfering with its laidback lifestyle. As you observe the upper reaches of the mast of a sailboat, you hear the train’s whistle sounding forth as busy shoppers and curious visitors dominate the scene.

“A lot of young people are moving to Fernandina,” says Wilson Tennille, who owns the Plantation Shop, a haven for antique shoppers on First Coast Highway. “They are building some very nice homes and upgrading the neighborhoods.”

There is an assortment of gift shops, bars, restaurants and places of interest. One which caught the eye was “Celtic Charm,” where you find “unique & original gifts from the Celtic lands.” Linda Duffey, anchored behind the cash register, smiled when a visitor asked for change to buy a copy of the News-Leader, the oldest continually published weekly newspaper in the state of Florida.   

A towel on the wall drew frequent attention from shoppers, a blatant message for teenagers: “Fed up with your parents? Simply leave home, get a job, pay all your expenses and do it now while you still know everything.”

Foot traffic abounds in Fernandina which is why there are abundant rest areas where you can choose a bench which was funded mostly in memory of someone’s relative: “In loving memory of Meredith W. Ruark,” read one weather beaten bench. Another cogently opined, “The Hubens and Walt Disney agree our greatest natural resource is in the minds of our children.”

A guy wearing an Oregon cap aroused my curiosity as we both cocked an ear to the singing and guitar strumming of Andria Shinn whose soft and mellow voice was relaxing and comforting. For me, it was plain old curiosity, but for him, attention ran deeper.

Andria is his wife, and they moved cross country because of his military connection. They are happy with their decision.

And, I am happy with my decision to spend a morning in downtown Fernandina where history, ancient oaks and the Atlantic Ocean are but a reminder that life is often as good as you choose to manage. You can accomplish that objective by spending time in Fernandina Beach.