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Published: Saturday, 3/31/2007

Amelia Island resort designed to protect nature, pamper humans

BY MIKE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
The most popular of the four golf courses at Amelia Island Plantation is Ocean Links. The most popular of the four golf courses at Amelia Island Plantation is Ocean Links.
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AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. The balcony of our room at the Amelia Inn & Beach Club overlooked one of the seaside holes of the Ocean Links golf course. Six floors below, I could see two golfers walking across the long, kidney-shaped green. Their playing partners picked their way slowly through the sea oats poking up out of the rolling sand dunes alongside the green, searching for their wayward balls.

A few yards beyond them was a low fence, then another small series of dunes, and finally, one of the whitest sand beaches I d ever seen. Waves lapped against the beach periodically before receding back into the deep blue Atlantic.

Ocean Links is the most popular of the four championship-caliber golf courses of the sprawling Amelia Island Plantation, a secluded golf and tennis resort and residential community located on this small barrier island just off the extreme northeastern tip of Florida.

The island, named centuries ago for the daughter of Britain s King George II, is 13 miles long and about 2 miles wide about the size of the island of Manhattan. It sits between the Intracoastal Waterway on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east, and it s just south of the Georgia state line. The island s colorful history dates back to the 16th century, and at one time it was a favorite hideout for pirates and rumrunners.

It s said to be the only place in the United States to have had eight different flags of sovereignty flying over it at one time or another. As local historians like to put it, Amelia Island was settled by the French, developed by the Spanish, named by the English, and tamed by the Americans.

The island s only city is Fernandina Beach, a former fishing village with a 50-block historic district full of Victorian buildings, many of them listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Shrimp fishing was a major industry here in the early 1900s, and shrimp boats can still be seen down at the docks, but these days the town of about 11,000 residents caters largely to the tourist trade, with a number of boutiques, art galleries, outdoor cafes, and waterfront restaurants.

The resort's shops sell clothing, shoes, jewelry, furniture, and souvenirs. The resort's shops sell clothing, shoes, jewelry, furniture, and souvenirs.
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Development of the 1,350-acre Amelia Island Plantation began in the early 1970s with environmental and land-use studies aimed at protecting the topography, animal life, and plant ecology of the fragile barrier island. The result was an environmentally sound recreational community that s recognized by Audubon International as a Cooperative Sanctuary System.

You ve got humans and you ve got nature, and we re all managing to live here pretty well together, says Jack Healan, president of the Plantation. One way to see that we re succeeding is that there are more wildlife species here now than when we started.

The Inn and Beach Club has 250 guest rooms, each with a balcony overlooking the ocean, and there are about 600 privately owned villas and condominiums here that are in the resort s rental program.

The Plantation s golf courses, designed by celebrated architects such as Pete Dye and Tom Fazio, run along the ocean and wind their way through the salt marshes, creeks, and woodland of the island s interior. Both Golf Digest and Golf magazine rate them as among the best resort courses in the country.

During our stay, I played a round at Long Point, a challenging layout that has hosted qualifying rounds for the U.S. Open. With water hazards everywhere, 50-foot-high dunes, and deep bunkers, I counted myself lucky to escape with a score in the double digits.

As highly regarded as its golf courses are, the resort may be even better known for its tennis facilities. Its Racquet Park includes 23 outdoor green clay courts, most of them shaded under natural canopies of leafy oak trees no small relief for those playing on a hot Florida day. The Plantation is rated as one of the top 75 tennis resorts in the world, and its Juniors program is among the best in the country.

Each spring, the women s professional tennis tour s Bausch & Lomb Championships is played here, attracting such marquee names as Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, and Nadia Petrova. This year s tournament, featuring a $600,000 purse, begins tomorrow and runs through next Sunday.

Near the tennis courts is a spa with two dozen treatment rooms and a meditation garden surrounded by lagoons and woods. The spa s signature treatment is the Watsu water massage, in which a therapist supports and manipulates the client s body while both float in a large pool of warm water.

Next to the spa is a collection of shops that sell clothing, shoes, jewelry, furniture, and souvenirs. March Burrette is a gourmet food market, and there s a pet boutique called Bark Avenue.

The resort s eight restaurants range from the casual PlaE (which stands for People Laughing and Eating ) to the white-tablecloth Ocean Grill.

The Plantation is too big to cover on foot, but a free shuttle service is offered until 11 p.m. daily. One afternoon we stopped at a place called Amelia s Wheels and rented an Island Hopper (a modified golf cart) to explore parts of the island that are beyond the shuttle s routes. After checking out some of the beaches and villas, we cruised through heavily wooded residential neighborhoods, where thick stands of moss-draped oaks are accented by saw palmettos and 100-foot-tall slash pines.

The sprawling homes here sell for between $600,000 and $3 million-plus.

There is plenty of family-friendly fun for guests at the Plantation, including kayaking, sailing, fishing, nature hikes, horseback riding on the beach, bicycling, Segways, and more. The resort s youth programs feature supervised beach games, golf and tennis clinics, treasure hunts, pool parties, paintball, bonfires, field trips, and themed events.

Families are a big part of our audience, says Richard Goldman, the Plantation s vice president of marketing.

The nearby town of Fernandino Beach is worth a visit, as is Fort Clinch State Park, a former Confederate garrison that also served as a training site for U.S. troops during the Spanish-American War. On the first weekend of each month, costumed rangers re-enact a battle at the fort.

On nearby Fort George Island, you can see the Kingsley Plantation, a living history museum and the oldest standing plantation in Florida. It was once the home of a successful Southern merchant who was married to a slave from Africa.

To the north of Amelia is Cumberland Island, Ga., the one-time private retreat of the Carnegie family. A ferry transports visitors to the island from the village of St. Mary s, which is the home of one of the country s largest submarine bases.

And just 30 miles to the south is Jacksonville, the most populous city in Florida, with a world-class zoo, a booming downtown area, and the largest urban park system in the United States.

But if sightseeing isn t your thing, there s plenty to do without ever leaving the confines of the gated resort a secluded place that s figured out how to be both a luxurious and an environmentally friendly Florida hideaway.

If you go:

Where: Amelia Island Plantation, 888-261-6161 or www.aipfl.com.

Getting there: The resort is 29 miles from Jacksonville International Airport, and shuttle service is available ($80 round-trip per guest, with children 12 and under free).

Cost: Daily rates start at $191, with a number of golf, tennis, and family packages available.

Mike Kelly is a retired Blade travel writer.

Contact him at: kelly.writer@yahoo.com.



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