It’s all too easy to take island life for granted. It’s all too easy to float through its intricate waterways, overlooking the white sandy beaches where pirates once receded for a rest, zipping past settlements brimming with history, missing the intricate details of luxury, towering sand dunes, nuances of exceptional service, and whispers. An adventure waiting to happen along the way. Long before it was a holiday destination or caught up in colonial colonization by pirates and snoozers, the indigenous Temucoa people settled on what is now Amelia Island around 1000 BC and named it the Napoeca region.
It is very far in the north. Practically it is Georgia but clearly Florida in a subtle way.
Steeped in history and elegant modernity, trips to Amelia Island are the perfect weekend trip. The island has a history full of drama, secrets and suspicious discoveries. The luxury The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island Resort and the surrounding beach towns remain a hidden gem.
Perched on the edge of the southern tip of the majestic Sea Islands and the northernmost barrier islands on the Atlantic coast of Florida, 2.5 hours away is like stepping into another dimension and transporting to a special place and time.
Driving on the A1A, which takes you to the island, right in the heart of Fernandina Beach, you’ll meet small-town charm with boutique shops, independently owned restaurants, and peach-colored cityscapes overlooking the marina, against a backdrop of clear blue skies, with rain clouds in the distance.
I was excited to enjoy the latest travel-worthy epicurean experiences at The Ritz-Carlton for one reason only: network with award-winning chefs and mingling experts and participate in a one-of-a-kind dining adventure. I was pleasantly surprised to see the spotlight on prominent American and Mexican chefs with an emphasis on advanced seafood. Each meal brought high energy, with Broadway quality without the show’s memorable tunes and obstructed seating views.
The star of the show is the AAA 5-star salt restaurant. With Chef Okan Kizilbayir at the helm of the kitchen, his impressive resume follows him like a chest full of treasures. Before landing in Florida, he worked as an assistant chef at Le Bernardin, a 3-Michelin-star seafood restaurant led by Eric Ripert in Manhattan. Prior to that, he was Head Chef at Blue by Eric Ripert at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. One of the latest additions to Chef Kizilbayir’s culinary offerings invites guests to interact with renowned in-house talent through intimate dinners, cooking classes and a private tasting that honors local suppliers, seasonal produce, and perfection in culinary techniques.
A “Chef Theater” experience with chefs from five other resort restaurants and Okan is a highlight. This culinary experience is available as a midday/lunch experience. The monthly cooking show showcases different techniques, dishes and experiences to guests.
We enjoyed Chef Okan’s “Poem of Spring”, and help pastry chef, Heidi Cpath, serve up Salt’s signature dessert, the chocolate souffle. The only thing missing was a few strings from the famous Vivaldi concerto. Like the stage production with lighting, the entrances and exits of the tech support team paired with wine, cocktails, and the beach as a backdrop are immersive. Boiled spring artichoke hearts with citrus fruits, fresh beans, fennel fronds, and black summer truffles are primed right before our eyes.
The next thing I knew, a shimmering, silver-streaked fish with flashes of aquamarine was carried to the dining room of the theater: a whole fresh halibut. Armed with bone-cutting knives and knives, the Chef’s quick work of fresh batches, filet medallions made their way to a hot skillet with melted butter, slopes, morel, white asparagus, and cream sauce. The Executive Chef and his Chef were standing by to take every ingredient to the kitchen to finalize our dishes. A milk-chocolate disk sat quietly on the side of a chocolate tower as we poured vanilla-bean ramekins sprinkled with creme angeles over the hot fudge. The result is a creamy, moist concentrate with a sweet sweetness in every bite. Decadent and symphonic, I couldn’t help but commend this meal.
Although it’s only three miles from downtown Fernandina Beach, there’s no need to venture beyond the confines of resort property to get a dose of sea vitamin, enjoy al fresco pursuits, or get five-star service. Take one of the property’s daily tours with a resort naturalist to get an up close and personal look at the flora and fauna, both local and invasive, around the island. Biking, hiking and turtle watching combine the landscape with the signature refined aesthetic of the Ritz-Carlton.
More than 40 miles of bike trails are easily accessible from the resort. Cycling under the shaded canopy of Spanish oak and moss with the sea breeze whistling in your ear and waving through your hair as you ride to the historic American beach and see NaNa, the tallest sand dune in Florida, or along with the coast, is pure poetry.
Walk around the area and explore this stop on Florida’s Black Heritage Trail, which black Americans visited to escape the state’s segregation laws. Founded in 1935 by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first black millionaire and president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, they listed it on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. It served as the perfect getaway for famous sunbathers like Ray Charles, Zora Neal Hurston, Hank Aaron and James Brown And I. I used The Ritz-Carlton’s partnership with Mercedes-Benz and reserved use of the car to explore the nearby American Beach.
After a day of exploring, all that was left was to eat and relax.
Each room and suite has a private balcony and ocean view. Waking up to the faint lapping of the waves on the beach and swaying with the breeze moving through the leaves of the local palm trees is idyllic and soothing. A trip to the hotel spa extends this relaxation. An indoor oasis with a heated outdoor pool and waterfall is the perfect place to immerse yourself in pure bliss. Spa treatment options include ocean salt scrubs, hot stone massages, CBD oil treatments, and Chakra alignment crystal work. Finish your time in one of the relaxation rooms or head to one of the resort’s heated pools for poolside snacks.
Seafood is the star of the show at The Ritz-Carlton restaurants, each serving their own unique style.
- The coast is the most inspiring in terms of season, serving locally sourced fish and seafood.
- Coquina takes a Latin approach, with the freshest ceviche of the day, guacamole made tableside, and whole grilled fish wrapped in banana leaves.
- Tidewater Grille is an upscale sports bar with sliders and grilled classics, with a Lowcountry feel.
- The lobby bar starts happy hour with the bell ringing for “First Call,” which heralds a saturated new whiskey each day along with loads of fresh sushi made at the open bar.
The depth and breadth of everything this fast-paced island getaway has to offer knows no bounds. Be prepared to get lost while you find yourself in the middle of a vacation full of luxury and beauty.