Words and images by Jamie Swann
There’s a city just north of Jacksonville where the mayor tends bar for a handful of pirates and people flock to the area yearly to celebrate tiny crustaceans.
“It’s such a small town. It seems like everyone knows everyone,“ said resident Matthew Moses about living in Fernandina Beach. “Yet, we always have tons of tourists visiting, so you’re constantly meeting new and interesting people.”
It’s easy to get drawn into the quiet town of Fernandina Beach. The hundred-year-old live oaks are draped with Spanish moss, and they shade sidewalks that guide visitors and residents alike through the rows of lovingly restored Victorian houses and shops along Centre Street. The breeze from the nearby Atlantic Ocean washes over the town, sending everyone into a tranquil state.
For over 500 years, Fernandina Beach, first claimed by the French in the 1560s, has been a second home to the wealthy and a prime vacation spot to those longing for a peaceful beach retreat. In the late 1800s, it became a booming port town and storybook-like homes began popping up around the island.
Today, Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island retain much of their charm, with their 13 miles of pristine beaches and towering dunes, first-class golf courses and old Victorian homes. Small bed and breakfasts are a welcome site to those wishing to get away from it all, and excellent restaurants await their hungry guests.
“There’s something about this town that keeps bringing me back,” said Walter Kennedy about vacationing in Fernandina Beach. “Living in Jacksonville makes it easy to get caught up in the busyness of everyday live. I come up here to get away. When I’m here, it feels like I’m a million miles away.”
Shrimping has long been a thriving industry in Fernandina Beach. On any given day, you will find more than a dozen shrimp boats nestled into their slips at the marina, nets tucked securely into the booms, almost like they are resting up for their next hard night of work.
But for one weekend a year, the usually quiet town and marina comes alive. Fernandina Beach hosts a party that has thousands of people flocking to the city center, each one ready to celebrate the tiny pink shellfish that has brought the town so much success.
“I was born and raised on the island. It’s a beautiful place to live, I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” said Sea Gypsy, local pirate and Good Will Ambassador to Nassau county and Amelia Island. “We look forward to the shrimp festival each year. For us, it’s more than a party. We give away two scholarships each year, one for academics and one for military.”
The Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival, one of the South’s most popular festivals, is in its 53rd year. It has long been revered as a top seafood festival — Coastal Living magazine ranked it among the 10 best in the nation.
Always held the first weekend in May, the Shrimp Festival is a history lesson, art walk, party and cuisine experience like no other. Each year, pirates invade the coastal town and kick of the party with a bang.
Living year-round in the vacation destination town has become a reality for many. Nearly 12,000 people live on the island and it’s not hard to understand why. The beauty of the island is hard to overlook and has been an inspiration to many.
“I found the island so fascinating that I decided to write a novel about it,” said resident and author E. Louise Jaques. “I moved down here from Toronto nearly seven years ago and was so inspired that I wrote my first novel at 55.”
There is so much to do in the seaside town. Tucked away along the Amelia riverbank, then rounding the northern tip of Amelia Island, with three miles of shoreline on the Atlantic coast, is Fort Clinch. The state park holds the title for the largest natural shoreline on Amelia Island.
Not just a place for beach goers looking for white sandy beaches and salt-water breezes, Fort Clinch has 68 campsites for both RV hookups and standard tent style camping. The park is also home to a six-mile, off-road, multi-use trail.
Like any small town, this one has its quirks and is chock full of history. But Fernandina Beach is a town filled with people who are proud of their culture and looking forward to their future.
“No one cares where you’re from,” said resident Ted Kotisch. “The people here care about you. They want to know how you are, how your family is doing. This town is island-living hidden amongst a small town.”