Amelia Island, Florida and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina – April 2019

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Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

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A long weekend up north in the Deep South!

What a surprise – I was fully expecting to love Amelia Island and feel rather more non-committal about Hilton Head but, in the end, it was quite the reverse.

The (occasionally) “romantic me” had a visual picture of the historic district of Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island as somewhat of an undiscovered gem: wrap-around porches, lazy afternoons kicking back on a porch swing, courtyard gardens with fountains and lilies, dignified old Victorian houses, gnarled live oaks dripping in Spanish moss and a bustling waterfront harbor. It is all of that – the historic district is highly walkable and has some lovely architecture – but I’m a little relieved that we only stopped there for 1 night. Amelia Island is a barrier island on Florida’s northeastern border with Georgia and is known for its attractive bed and breakfasts and its southern flair. Whilst, strictly speaking, it is not in the Deep South, it is a world away from “our” Florida.

But it really is very bijou! We walked the entire historic district and had lunch in a matter of 2 hours. As shopping is our absolute last choice of mini-vacation activity, we then walked the 2 miles to the Main Beach Park to burn off the carrot cake from Cafe Karibo (which, I should mention, was superlative 😉 ). The beach was pretty and the water was icy – as to be expected!

By the time we had sauntered back to The Addison for canapés and wine on the terrace I think we had pretty much exhausted our options for the visit. Sure – there are a collection of eclectic shops on the attractive tree-lined Centre Street; there is the oldest saloon bar in Florida; there are river boat trips on the Amelia River; there are museums outlining the colorful history of the town (Native American tribes, swashbuckling pirates (Blackbeard amongst their number), the French, the Spanish – all of whom have left their mark – in fact, the island has been under the rule of 8 different countries during its history); there are over 400 historic structures on the National Register of Historic Places in downtown; there is a 19th century fort; the oldest lighthouse in Florida; and a Pirate Playground for kids 😉

However, having meandered aimlessly through the streets admiring its quaintness and gorged on the innovative cuisine of the chefs at farm-to-table restaurant Burlingame, we were unanimous in our conclusion that 24 hours was enough! It was very pretty, relaxing and family friendly and is an appealing stop-over for when you are heading (as we were) further north to the even deeper Deep South or, conversely, when you are heading further south away from the Deep South 😉

Onwards and upwards to South Carolina’s famous Hilton Head Island – playground of the wealthy and world famous for its golf courses.

The South Carolina Lowcountry conjures images of charming small town southern America, historic antebellum (pre-Civil War) French Colonial plantation homes with their expansive porches and Greek columns, waterfront dining, shrimp and grits, spectacular sunsets over tidal marshes, and the emergence of the Gullah culture. Descendants of West African tribes who were liberated from slavery made their homes on the once relatively isolated Sea Islands and developed their own style of art, culture and their own language – Gullah.

Hilton Head Island offers some, but not all of that.

For historical architecture you definitely do not head to Hilton Head! Conveniently, what it doesn’t offer in the way of history and architecture is not far away in the small towns of Bluffton and Beaufort or an hour away in Savannah, Georgia.

However, what it does offer to the work weary long-weekender is a choice of 400 cafes and restaurants, irresistibly gorgeous sunrise and sunset views over both the Atlantic and the many inland tidal waterways (just make sure you head inside from the marshes as soon as the sun has set and certainly before the first tiny bugs take their first voracious chomp on your extremities), and most importantly for us – it has 12 miles of beach to cycle and walk.

There are apparently 60 miles of bike routes criss-crossing the island over boardwalks and marshes and past a string of beaches. Although we didn’t cycle all 60, it certainly felt as if we had by the time we made our way on the sand from Ocean Oak Resort to South Beach, up into Sea Pines Plantation and around in circles before we collapsed back at the poolside.

I thought it would be easy to ride a bike on the sand – it isn’t. We rented bikes from Island Life Bike Rentals opposite Ocean Oak and having handed over our cash we were immediately told that there weren’t any brakes! Geoff kept reminding me that, strictly speaking, that wasn’t entirely accurate but for a mechanically challenged female a bike on which you had to suddenly pedal backwards to avoid a collision was, indeed, a bike with no brakes 😉 It took most of the morning but in the end I think my brain began to accept the illogicality of it and although I very nearly collided with Geoff’s rear end at several stop signs on the pathways, we did manage to make it through the day without any nasty accidents. In addition, the bikes had no gears which made cycling on sand quite energetic.

So, bike riding on sand – definitely not for the unfit! One minute we were gliding across the hard-packed sand scattering the seabirds into the air and the next we were grinding to an unexpected and immediate halt in quicksand – like trying to cycle through syrup. With no notice whatsoever, your wheels were suddenly 3″ down into the sand and it was impossible to move your legs at all. It was quite an adventure trying to avoid the birds and the giant jellyfish which had washed ashore whilst simultaneously anticipating the unpredictable, meandering path of the incoming waves. The hardest packed sand (and therefore the easiest to cycle with slightly less effort) is the few inches of wet sand revealed by the retreating surf. Geoff, of course, had it down to a tee. I, however, had soggy, wet, sand and surf-filled biking shoes at least twice 😉

At the southern end of the island is Sea Pines Plantation – an enclave of the rich – with multi-million dollar vacation beach homes lining the shore and various other reasonably exclusive holiday rentals. Until a few years ago, cyclists were allowed to bike all over the island – Sea Pines included. Not any longer. In an attempt to keep out the riff-raff the resort now charges an entry fee for a visitor to drive in their car and then you can rent bikes from the various “in-house” rental businesses. So we decided we would sneak in the backdoor (so to speak) and take a look around 😉 There are various beach access points for the residents of Sea Pines to wander out to the sand so we pushed our bikes up beach entry point number 22, smiled sweetly at anyone we passed and pottered around the bike trails inside Sea Pines pretending to be locals.

Once upon a time (pre-1956) you could only access Hilton Head by boat. Charles Fraser, an entrepreneurial real estate developer had a vision to transform the low-lying, largely unpopulated sea island into a world class resort. And the consequent problem with that is that it has a somewhat contrived and soulless feel to it. It is, after all, a purpose-built resort community for holiday-makers. There isn’t any sense of substance or history to it. For instance, there is an iconic red and white striped lighthouse in Harbor Town (the effective centre of Sea Pines Plantation) which has never been a functioning lighthouse. It was designed to be a gift shop and tourist attraction. The Sea Pines preserve area is very pretty – the rhododendrons were in full bloom, there are wooden boardwalks, sprawling beach houses and immaculate southern-style gardens with the requisite Spanish moss-draped oak trees. All very elegant and refined but rather sterile – which I imagine is probably the point! 😉

Back at Ocean Oak, we threw back the drapes and enjoyed both wonderful sunrise and sunset views from the master bed, we sipped our coffees on the balcony listening to the lapping waves and idly watching the early morning beach walkers, we wandered down to the beach every morning and late afternoon to paddle in the waves (always heading south away from the main entrance at Coligny Beach and away from the crowds) and occasionally we collapsed by the pool which mercifully was heated – because the Atlantic most certainly was not!

Interspersed with 2 excellent massages each at Seeds of Calm Spa (where the proprietor Dorine – who specialized in ashiatsu – spent a couple of hours walking up and down Geoff’s back), 3 visits to the excellent Delisheeyo Cafe for lunch (a great vegetarian/vegan cafe with it’s own vegetable garden out front) and various dinners and cocktails with fabulous sunset views over the marshes and waterfronts (Skull Creek Dockside, Old Oyster Factory and Ela’s on the Water) it was a superbly relaxing and pleasant place to spend a long weekend.

Next time we may even stay for longer so that I can further master the art of the back-pedal brake and we can expand our horizons away from the beach and re-visit Beaufort, Bluffton and Savannah all of which would make ideal day-trips.

Until then!!

 

 

 

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