Amelia Island: A weekend retreat under $500

AMELIA ISLAND — Nestled off the coast of Northeast Florida, there’s an island time forgot.

A place where locals greet each other by name and strangers with a cheery smile. In the historic downtown, dog bowls are set out by businesses, a testament to the community’s hospitality. Benches line the street, encouraging passersby to sit and stay awhile.

It’s not just Amelia Island’s kindness and pace that suggest time moved on and left the 13-mile strip of land behind. It’s a place that is home to a mid-19th-century fort, Florida’s oldest bar and an “Old Town” settled by the Spanish in the early 1800s (and long before that, the Timucua Indians).

For modern-day travelers, it would be possible to stay at a fancy hotel for $400 a night and spend lavishly on fine dining, plane rides and golf outings. But for the average Floridian looking for a weekend retreat, Amelia has no shortage of affordable and fun options for a couple’s getaway, or for a small group of friends or family.

Since Amelia Island is only about three hours from Orlando by car, it’s an easily-accessible destination for a two- or three-night stay.

Amelia Island: A weekend retreat under $500
Fort Clinch is a historical destination on Amelia Island. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)

Though visitors can find upscale seafood and other fine dining options on the island, there are also a number of food options that are easier on the wallet.

Ms. Carolyn’s Restaurant, a no-frills diner nestled in an unassuming strip mall, has a number of breakfast and lunch options that won’t break the bank and also won’t leave you hungry. For lunch, the shrimp po’ boy ($9.95) provided a simple but satisfying seafood sandwich topped with lettuce, tomato and a slightly tangy sauce with the right amount of kick. Some warm cheese grits made for the ideal side.

Amelia Island: A weekend retreat under $500
A shrimp po' boy sandwich and cheese grits at Ms. Carolyn's Restaurant on Amelia Island. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)

Another inexpensive yet popular island eatery for breakfast and lunch staples is Beach Diner, a local chain with locations in Jacksonville and Ponte Verda Beach as well. The restaurant is homey and the atmosphere laid-back. For lunch, the grilled salmon special ($12.99) came with a hearty cut of fish and plenty of sides — fried green tomatoes, mashed potatoes (with gravy) and cornbread.

For dinner, Amelia Tavern Restaurant & Brewpub proved to be a good choice for local bites and brews. The establishment has almost a dozen of their own beers on draft and a food menu of more than just light bar bites. The Tavern IPA ($6) had notes of orange peel and honeysuckle and was hoppy enough to satisfy most IPA fans. Finger foods, such as pretzels and beer cheese, made its way to other bar patrons regularly throughout the night. But for an entree, the fried Mahi tacos ($18) — served with lettuce, guacamole, pico de gallo, ancho-lime aioli and a side of Mexican street corn — definitely hit the spot.

Amelia Island: A weekend retreat under $500
Mahi tacos are a filling entree at Amelia Tavern Restaurant & Brewpub on Amelia Island. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)

Amelia Island is home to a number of relaxing watering holes, many of them affordable for the average vacationer looking for lively libations. But two have particular claims to fame.

The Palace Saloon, located in historic downtown Fernandina Beach, touts itself as the oldest bar in Florida, first opening in 1903 as the “ship captains’ bar.” This came at a time when Fernandina’s docks were reportedly among the busiest in the south. The Palace stopped selling alcohol during prohibition (up until midnight the eve of prohibition), surviving the next handful of years by selling gasoline, ice cream, special wines, 3-percent “near-beer" and cigars.

Amelia Island: A weekend retreat under $500
The Palace Saloon claims to be Florida's oldest bar and features century-old mahogany carvings on Amelia Island. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)

A fire in 1999 nearly caused the saloon to close, but it was restored thanks to passionate owners and a public that demanded its existence. It now attracts visitors from around the world who gaze upon its more than century-old mahogany carvings, inlaid mosaic floors and embossed tin ceilings. The “world-famous” pirate’s punch ($9) is served in a souvenir cup and is one of the bar’s more popular options.

The island is also home to what claims to be Florida’s smallest bar, a novelty establishment called The Outhouse. True to its name, the shack originally housed a toilet that now serves as a planter outside the door.

The Outhouse is not exactly a full-service bar: Visitors can grab a beer or wine from one of the mini-fridges for a small donation.

Amelia Island: A weekend retreat under $500
The Outhouse, part of the Artisan Village of Amelia, claims to be Florida's smallest bar, seating two people plus a bartender, seen on Amelia Island. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)

As for the capacity? The bar can fit two people, plus a bartender. There’s a TV and soundbar, LED lighting on the ceiling (along with about 2,000 corks), magnetic poetry on the door and wall art depicting bar and drinking scenes from TV and movies. It’s a part of the Artisan Village of Amelia, a small conglomerate of artists who come together to share studio space and host community events. As such, it’s only open during business hours (11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday).

Fun and games (plus, an art project)

Scenic wildlife and beaches are abundant on Amelia Island, but sometimes sunburnt visitors need an indoor escape, especially during the hot summer months (or when Florida afternoon rain showers strike).

The Fernandina Pinball Museum offers a fun respite from unfavorable outdoor conditions, as visitors can enjoy all-you-can-play access on almost two dozen machines after paying the price of admission ($10 for one hour, $14 all day). Since it is a museum, one game dates back to 1932. Others were made in the ’50s and ’60s. More recent pinball machines include Avengers, Ghostbusters and Star Wars, each of which has been manufactured in the last decade.

Amelia Island: A weekend retreat under $500
The Fernandina Beach Pinball Museum has almost two dozen machines for people to play on Amelia Island. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)

Just a few minutes from the museum is the Artisan Village of Amelia (which is also home to The Outhouse). The village, in addition to welcoming in visitors for a public gallery and artisan gift shop, hosts community events and pop-in workshops for anyone wanting to make a small art project, such as a hanging jellyfish or a kirigami fish, painting a mini canvas or creating a small sculpture.

Pop-in workshops are 3-5 p.m. Thursdays and 1-3 p.m. Saturdays. Other events involve resin and epoxy pouring or community after-dark arts gatherings. Unfortunately, the Artisan Village will only be open through the end of October due to new ownership. Fans are encouraged to stay tuned for more information about future plans on the village’s Facebook page.

Amelia Island: A weekend retreat under $500
The Artisan Village of Amelia has gallery space, studios and workshops on Amelia Island. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)

Downtown Fernandina Beach has no shortage of shopping opportunities for tourists to snag a small gift or souvenir, a new piece of wall art or an ice cream cone.

Every Saturday, the Fernandina Beach Market Place, a farmers market, opens from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on N. 7th St. in downtown Fernandina Beach. Offerings include ready-to-eat food, such as sambusas and pierogis; produce; homemade jams and spreads; home decor; crafts; and homemade soap.

Fernandina’s downtown is also home to several souvenir shops, two antique stores, a few cafes, boutiques, jewelry stores, a Christmas shop and about four different spots for ice cream or a sweet treat.

Historic downtown Fernandina Beach is home to Florida's oldest bar and a number of local businesses on Amelia Island. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)

Horses, bikes and boats, oh my!

Amelia Island activities range from the very relaxed, like a nap on the beach or a spa trip, to highly adventurous, like a powered hang gliding flight or a sailing adventure.

Luckily, there are enough experiences that won’t deplete your travel savings.

A horseback ride with Kelly Seahorse Ranch ($85 per person) takes visitors on a journey along a wooded trail (be sure to pack bug spray) that leads to scenic, uncrowded beaches. The ranch is located next to the entrance of Amelia Island State Park, the stretch of coastal land that occupies the southern tip of the island.

Amelia Island: A weekend retreat under $500
Reporter Patrick Connolly takes a horseback ride on the beach with Kelly Seahorse Ranch on Amelia Island. (Kelly Seahorse Ranch / Courtesy)

Waves gently crash and wash ashore while riders enjoy the view from atop well-trained horses. These ones aren’t afraid of the ocean, and, for the most part, are very well mannered. The ride lasts almost an hour and is open to riders of all experience levels.

Another picturesque island tour involves a different kind of ride, this one on a fat-tire, pedal-assisted electric bike. Eco-Tours, a relatively new business on Amelia Island, takes tourists on a self-guided ride around the island. One tour takes riders to Fort Clinch, while another goes along the Amelia Trail.

Amelia Island: A weekend retreat under $500
An Eco-Tour is a good way to explore the island on a pedal-assisted electric bike on Amelia Island. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)

And a third tour guides pedal-assisted cyclists on a jaunt along the Egan’s Creek Greenway, an unpaved path where turtles sunbathe and butterflies flutter. The tour then heads to Fernandina’s “Old Town,” a neighborhood of historic homes settled by the Spanish more than 200 years ago. After stopping at a public boat ramp with a riverfront view, the tour heads back along the beach (if the tide is low enough) before concluding.

Or you can take the bike wherever you want, as the tours are merely suggestions. The bikes (before taxes and fees) cost $40 for two hours, $60 for a half-day or $80 for a full day.

Amelia Island: A weekend retreat under $500
Russell Bryant performs live music on a BYOB twilight cruise by Amelia River Cruises on Amelia Island. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)

For those looking to get away from land for a little while, an adult twilight BYOB cruise from Amelia River Cruises ($35 per person) makes for an ideal escape. After leaving from port in downtown Fernandina Beach, dolphins jump alongside the boat. The drinks flow in a jovial atmosphere scented slightly by salty sea air as live music (from Russell Bryant) plays. It’s a nice way to catch the sunset, get away from shore for a while and see the island from a different angle.

Guests on Amelia Island would be hard-pressed to find cheaper accommodation than camping at Fort Clinch State Park. Campsites start at $26 per night before taxes and fees.

Amelia Island: A weekend retreat under $500
Camping at Fort Clinch State Park is an affordable way to find accommodations on Amelia Island. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)

But for those who aren’t looking to brave the tent (or camper) while on vacation, Airbnb options can be found starting around $60 per night. If several people split a house or apartment, the cost can be as low as $40 per person per night.

Hotel rooms start at about $85 per night.

Starting with a budget of $500, I planned to spend $175 on food, $65 on camping (for two nights) and save the rest of the budget for experiences.

The food and drink total for this trip came out to $164, with about $80 going toward food to eat in camp (and firewood), $67 spent at the three restaurants listed above and $16 toward drinks.

The experiences added up to almost $200, with the horseback ride, bike rental and boat cruise contributing to a majority of that total.

The grand total for this trip was $424 before accounting for gas and discretionary purchases at the farmers market and in downtown Fernandina Beach.