Here’s my advice: Get on your boat right now and take a cruise to Fernandina Beach, Florida. Not only is this a great destination for history, food and drink, and laid-back, old-Florida vibe, its location on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), accessibility to one of the best inlets on this part of the East Coast, and range of accommodations make it a top stopover for monohulls and mulithulls alike.
This little town is eminently walkable and charming—without being a parody of charming. You could even say it’s adorable, with its shady streets and nifty Victorian cottages. Of course, it’s loaded with a wide variety of restaurants, with more than enough fresh seafood to go around, Timoti’s Seafood Shack and Salty Pelican, to name just two favorites. It has cool shops and galleries—Twisted Sisters and Art on Centre, since I’m naming things—and a bijou book store. It also boasts a few, but not too many, historic sites and, running down Front Street, a railroad track for the niche visitor. Finally, it has a crazy interesting history, full of pirates and Mexican freedom fighters and so forth, which you can read about when you get there.
This is Florida without the glitz. In fact, this is barely Florida at all. Fernandina Beach lies on Amelia Island, just south of the St. Marys River, which divides Florida from Georgia and is a very good inlet, despite the occasional submarine. Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, home to the Atlantic Fleet’s massive ballistic missile submarines, is just upriver in St. Marys, Georgia. It’s a real eye-opener if you happen to be in the river when one is sharking in or out of the inlet.
If you are coasting, the St. Marys River is an A-number-one inlet choice—one, because it’s wide, deep (no nasty bar to cross), well-marked and maintained for the subs, and two, because you can come inside, turn left into the Amelia River, and be sipping your first beer at Florida’s oldest bar (Palace Saloon, 1903) within 5 nautical miles. I know, amazing!
On the other hand, if you are cruising the ICW, Fernandina is practically handier, because the channel passes within 15 or 20 yards of Fernandina Harbor Marina. In fact, the ICW splits the difference between the marina and its mooring field. Think of it: You’ve been meandering down the ICW for weeks and you’ve just arrived in Florida. This is the place to stop and celebrate. If you are headed north, well, it’s still a good stop anyway, and the beer is just as cold.
You have three good options to decide where to stay. The city marina reopened a few years ago after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 utterly destroyed the original. It now has lovely, long, side-tie, size-is-no-object, floating docks. Size is such a non-issue that the marina has accommodated many famous people’s very big yachts, such as those belonging to Oprah Winfrey and John Travolta, to name just a few.
“Wait,” you say, “why didn’t you mention Oprah and John before? If they thought Fernandina Beach was worthwhile, we’re in!” OK, sorry, I wanted you to get the whole picture.
Along with those catamaran-friendly docks, the marina is right in town. You step off the docks, cross the railroad tracks, and you’re on Centre Street, the town’s brick-fronted, tree-shaded, main thoroughfare.
If mooring fields are more your style, that option is available too. Access to the marina dinghy dock is extremely quick and easy, just a short dinghy trip across the ICW. Also, a mooring ball here will give you peace of mind as you swing in the zippy current (though usually only a knot or so) and roughly 7-foot tidal rise. The downside is that the mooring field is smack next to the ICW. This is a no-wake zone, but with all that traffic, especially in late fall, you may find yourself rolling in one boat’s “no-wake” after another. And in a strong northerly, that stiff chop will find you a bit exposed.
Which brings me finally to anchoring. You can anchor just off the mooring field, where the holding is quite good—I’ve weathered several unpleasant squalls just here—but, again, you will be fairly exposed. The alternative is to go up the southwest branch of the Amelia River, which is conveniently located just opposite town, until you are happy with the location. I’m partial to a spot about 1 mile upriver just before the depths go down to 25 feet or so. Alternatively, you can find slightly more protection around that branch’s first bend and then just inside its Bells River tributary. The caution is that this is all marshland, so the definition of “protection” is a bit imaginary—as in “I’ve gone around three bends so I must be more protected.”
To sum this destination up: Easy to get into, lots of choices for staying, perfectly delightful and no-fuss to visit. Oh, and did I mention dog friendly? On top of that, the town hosts the very popular Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival in May, if you happen to be in the neighborhood.
So what’s the downside? Sigh, here it is: Fernandina Beach is book-ended by a sawmill and a paper plant. This, by the way, is why there is an operational railroad track right down Front Street. It’s very charming. (On that subject, Fernandina exists where it does because it was the starting point for the first cross-Florida railroad.) But, when the wind is right, it does smell a bit, well, papery. And, yes, when the humidity or cosmic meteorology is just right, the smoke and steam hang low over town like Charles Dickens’ pre-scrubber London.
But really that’s rare, so pretend I didn’t even mention it.
Mostly it’s sunny and blue and beautiful. This is Florida, after all.
Cumberland Island National Seashore
A visit to Fernandina Beach also puts you a stone’s throw (more or less) from what is arguably one of the most fascinating national parks on the East Coast—Cumberland Island National Seashore. Cumberland Island is on the north side of the St. Marys River inlet as you’re entering from the Atlantic; or it’s what you’re seeing to the east as you amble down the St. Mary’s via the ICW en route to Fernandina. A small but protected anchorage provides dinghy access to the dock where the ferry from the mainland puts in (the only way to access Cumberland is by ferry or boat). Miles and miles of beach to ride bikes or walk on; a deep, mysterious maritime forest to wander; fossil shark’s teeth on the sandy walking paths; wild ponies and armadillos; historic ruins of Dungeness, the 1880s mansion of Thomas Carnegie; the grave of Gen. Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee; the first African Baptist Church, established in 1893 by emancipated enslaved people—Cumberland Island is loaded with history and natural beauty.
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