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Merrell McGinness


On Island Time: Family friendly

When you live in landlocked Tennessee, taking small children to the beach is kind of like childbirth: long and painful at times, but ultimately worth it. Eventually, you wind up forgetting the hard parts and want to do it all over again.

After eight-plus hours in a car bound for Amelia Island, Florida, I wasn’t so sure that was going to happen this time. My husband was exhausted, my five-year-old daughter bored, and I had a horrible backache. Still, I smoothed my clothes and put on some lipstick: We were staying at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, and I didn’t want to arrive looking as frazzled as I felt. When we pulled up to the hotel, staffers traded us glasses of Champagne and gelato for our luggage. In the lobby, my daughter smiled as barefoot children scampered by in bathing suits. Pirate paraphernalia dotted the decor, a nod to the island’s colorful past as a smugglers’ paradise. A sigh of relief escaped my mouth. At this, the southernmost Ritz on the East Coast, “upscale” thankfully does not equal “uptight.” And boy, was I ready to unwind.

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

I found it easy to do just that on “A-million Island,” the nickname my daughter gave the eighteen-square-mile isle. Maybe because it has something for everyone, from eco-excursions and world-class fishing to championship golf and luxury spa treatments. We began our trip with something we all wanted to try: a boat tour of the island’s backwater marshes. Our Amelia River Cruises & Charters captain was a font of local knowledge, pointing out sights such as Civil War–era Fort Clinch and a recently capsized shrimp boat that harkened back to the days when the island was home to a booming shrimping industry.

We also explored downtown Fernandina Beach, the island’s unofficial capital. Its fifty-block historic district, listed on the National Register, encompasses a postcard-perfect main street, scores of Victorian mansions, and a sprinkling of funky Florida bungalows. We stopped by the Amelia Island Museum of History, which chronicles the island’s last four centuries and displays the eight national flags that flew over it during that time. The highlight for our daughter was the museum’s interactive ship. She loved steering its wheel, exploring its cargo barrels, and practicing the fine art of knot tying.

While in Fernandina Beach, we also took a horse-drawn carriage ride through downtown. Cyndi Myers, owner of Amelia Island Carriages, seemed to know every house, every person, even every pet we passed. She introduced us to Mr. Felix, a beloved local who sells boiled peanuts from his bike, and Theresa Hamilton, a bed-and-breakfast owner who fed our horse, Jazz, his nightly treat of carrots, much to our daughter’s delight.

Jazz wasn’t the only one who was hungry, and we were happy to discover that the island’s restaurants don’t just accommodate families, they cater to them. At Timoti’s Seafood Shak, we sidled up to an outdoor picnic table and munched fried shrimp while our daughter explored the pirate playground. Another night, we sat in swings (forget barstools!) at the Tiki Bar at Sliders Seaside Grill while our daughter happily built castles in a giant sandbox playground until dinner arrived. The redfish we ordered was lovely, as were the ocean views.

Our last night, we kicked it up quite a few notches and brought our pint-sized foodie to the Ritz’s signature restaurant, Salt, one of only three AAA Five Diamond restaurants in Florida. Considering Salt’s pedigree, we were surprised by how welcoming it is to youngsters: Not only are there changing tables in the restrooms, little ones are presented with an impressive Petite Gourmet Menu (think Atlantic halibut served with Georgia grits and drizzled with lemon broth). My husband and I opted for Chef de Cuisine Richard Laughlin’s shrimp and grits, which arrived encased in a glass dome infused with hickory smoke. When the server lifted the lid, the fog-like smoke wafted away, revealing Key West prawns and scallops on a pillow of goat cheese grits.

Downtown Fernandina Beach
Downtown Fernandina Beach

As impressed as we were with Salt, we were equally wowed by the hotel’s Ritz Kids program. Designed for children ages five to twelve, it offers everything from princess/pirate tuck-in service to Kid’s Night Out, a movie and game night away from mom and dad. There’s also a daily environmental education program developed by Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, which helps young scientists explore the island’s ecosystems.

The kids enjoy the fun and games, and parents get a nice break. I opted to spend mine in the hotel’s spa, indulging in the signature “Heaven in a Hammock” treatment, which combines massage, acupressure, and stretching—all administered while I was suspended in a hand-woven hammock that removed pressure from my spine.

It was a fitting treatment for a getaway that eliminated so much pressure from my life. I didn’t once have to worry about keeping everyone happy; on Amelia Island, there were endless activities that let kids be kids and adults be adults, all at the same time. In fact, I’ve almost forgotten about the last-minute packing, the long drive, and the attending whines (“Are we there yet?”). I’m ready to do it all again.

If you love Amelia Island’s family-friendly atmosphere, you might also like …

hilton-head-photos-chamber-DSC_6156Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Regularly touted as one of the top family beaches in the country, this island is a great one to add to your sand bucket list. You’ll find 250 restaurants and almost as many shops, plus adventures such as zip lining through live oaks and horseback riding through Sea Pines Forest Preserve. Don’t miss the Coastal Discovery Museum for up-close encounters with alligators, butterflies, Atlantic blue crabs, and even endangered Marsh Tacky horses. It’s fun to navigate the island by bike, enjoying more than fifty miles of trails and beaches with hard-packed sand. After a day of exploring, pedal to A Lowcountry Backyard for local shrimp and backyard games such as giant Jenga. hiltonheadisland.org

Street Smart: Franklin, Tennessee’s Main Street


The nineteenth-century brick storefronts lining Franklin’s Main Street have an almost cinematic quality. Indeed, the town’s narrative is worthy of a script: A fast-growing community discovers what happens when Americana and affluence, Old South and new blood, converge. Just twenty miles south of Nashville, Franklin is an oasis for some of country’s biggest stars (Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, and Keith Urban all have homes here). Yet it has managed to retain its charm, with the National Register of Historic Places naming its main thoroughfare a “Great American Main Street.” On the west side of this street, beautifully preserved Victorian homes testify to the town’s long history as one of the state’s wealthiest areas. To the east, trendy shops and restaurants attract many a visitor. It all adds up to a place that embraces its heritage while keeping an open mind about its future.

The Franklin Theatre
This downtown landmark’s origins as a 1930s movie house are evident in the art deco styling, and its state-of-the-art sound system attracts big names such as Sheryl Crow, Amy Grant, and Vince Gill. Bonus: There’s not a bad seat in the house. franklintheatre.com

Flowing skirts and billowy tops may dress the windows here, but they’re not the main focus: The shop’s owners hand over more than 10 percent of their proceeds to forty-plus charities. In the last seven years, they’ve written more than $500,000 in donation checks. philanthropyfashion.com

Avec Moi
If owner Bob Roethemeyer were an artist, tabletop would be his medium. He expertly blends modern finds with flea market treasures at his cozy shop. Pop in to discover glittered beeswax candles, handmade velvet pumpkins, and glass Czech Christmas trees. avecmoifranklin.com

This small shop’s style mirrors that of its hometown: classic with a modern edge. Owner Rebecca Davis got her start as a jewelry designer, so it makes sense that her store is best known for its accessories. Browse for hats, jewelry, swimwear, and handbags, most under the Jondie label. jondie.com

Gray’s on Main
At this historical pharmacy-turned-restaurant, nosh on fried pimento cheese balls. Wash them down with a Mademoiselle (pear brandy, lemon, honey, and prosecco) from one of the South’s first brandy bars. Gray’s also hosts live music and special events (Tim McGraw held his Sundown Heaven Town release party here). graysonmain.com

Landmark Booksellers

Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant
On busy days, the wait for lunch can be more than an hour—and that’s before noon! People pack in for the cherry-smoked barbecue, burgers, and made-from-scratch sides (try the squash casserole). A small stage also attracts big talent such as Franklin resident Vince Gill; songwriter nights on Saturdays are hugely popular. puckettsgrocery.com

Landmark Booksellers
This self-proclaimed “Sanctuary of Southern Lit” stocks more than 60,000 titles, including some 2,500 signed first editions. Books sell from five dollars to thousands (price tag for an original Confederate memoir: $7,000), but the guidance from owners Carol and Joel Tomlin is priceless. landmarkbooksellers.com

The Factory at Franklin
A little farther down Main Street, this former stove factory remains one of Franklin’s hottest spots. Stroll the twelve-building complex to paint pottery, strum an artisan guitar, or buy an Oriental rug. Every Wednesday, Nashville flocks here for Music City Roots, a live radio concert that attracts top talent such as the Doobie Brothers. factoryatfranklin.com

When Nature Calls

As the mother of two small children, my self-reflection time is limited to an occasional glimpse in the mirror, followed by the realization I haven’t showered in two days. But here I am in Kingstree, South Carolina, pulling onto the long, magnolia-lined driveway that leads to Springbank Retreat. My car is empty, save for my suitcase, which contains a wild mix of clothes that illustrates my confusion about this weekend. I have no agenda or schedule, not even instructions for checking in.

But this is how Springbank operates. Things aren’t forced; they unfold. As soon as my feet hit the sandy driveway, Sister Theresa Linehan materializes in a golf cart. After a warm hug, she shows me to my cozy apartment and tells me dinner is just up the path at the main house. And then I settle into silence—nerve-wracking, unscheduled, uncomfortable silence.

Described as a center for eco-spirituality and the arts, Springbank is something of an enigma. It was established as a plantation in the late eighteenth century, then became a hunting retreat, then a monastery for Dominican monks. Today, the eighty-acre campus is staffed and supported by the Adrian Dominican Sisters, who have merged their Catholic roots with Native American practices such as sage blessings and “Spirit Quests” to encourage self-healing and renewal. (More on those later.)

Springbank Retreat in Kingstree, South Carolina
Springbank Retreat in Kingstree, South Carolina

SR. Sharon Culhane, OP

People come here for all kinds of reasons. Some are tired of city life and want to spend a weekend weaving baskets or learning about Celtic spirituality. Others are in need of longer sabbaticals to reinvigorate their creativity. (Sue Monk Kidd wrote The Dance of the Dissident Daughter while sitting under the Celtic Tree, one of seven “sacred sites” on the property.) 

My first morning, Linehan takes me on the Cosmic Walk, an almost two-mile path with stone markers chronicling the creation of the universe. She explains her perspective on how it all began, with something the size of a tear bursting forth in a mysterious explosion of life. Both man and nature come from that same kernel, she says, so we’re all connected. “Right now, the trees are listening,” she says, gesturing up at the live oaks. “There’s a vibration of energy bouncing off everything. We recognize it as the life force of God.”

I’m struck by this concept, largely ignored by modern society but embraced by indigenous cultures throughout time. I begin to notice the spider webs in the trees, the leaves fluttering in the wind, and the bright green moss carpeting the forest paths.

My visit coincides with three Sisters finishing sabbaticals, and they graciously welcome me into their drum circle. We pray, sing “The Earth Is Our Mother” (well, I listen), and perform a sweet grass blessing, where we burn bundles of the aromatic herb, blow out the fire, and wave the smoke toward our faces. This practice, I’m told, welcomes the positive spirits of nature. We then move under the Granddaughter Tree (an ancient live oak) and Linehan plays a Native American flute.

Merrell McGinness at Springbank Retreat in Kingstree, South Carolina
Merrell McGinness at Springbank Retreat in Kingstree, South Carolina

Merrell McGinness

The sun warms us while we chant and drum, harnessing the energy of Mother Earth. My inhibitions melt by the minute, and I feel my inner hippie emerging. As the Sisters share their experiences at Springbank, more than one mentions that a tree has spoken to her here. I’d like to hear one, too.

Later, during my two-hour walk alone in the woods (called a “Spirit Quest”) I find a quiet spot and perform a sage blessing (like a sweet grass blessing, only with smoking sage) to drive away negative energy. The Sisters have given me questions to ponder—including “What place does your Creator play in your life?”—and encouraged me to listen for answers.

My new awareness of the natural world causes a strange shift. Always squeamish about bugs, I don’t gasp and smoosh them for entering my personal space. I wait. I listen. After a while, I decide nature isn’t in a talkative mood, so I keep wandering the woods.

That’s when two trees catch my eye. Their trunks bear scars indicating they were once strangled by a vine, yet they tower above me like pillars of strength. Hmm. Could these trees be speaking to me? Then I stumble upon the “Nursing Tree,” a felled poplar with several saplings sprouting from its trunk, a beautiful symbol of resurrection.

When I depart from Springbank, it’s with some sadness. Inner peace is easier to find when you’re not knee-deep in laundry and sippy cups. I know I’ll never sell my car, live in the woods, or part with my iPhone. Hey, even Springbank has Wi-Fi. But I’ve discovered if you spend enough quiet time outdoors and open yourself up to new ideas, the trees just might have something to say.

Springbank Retreat, 843-382-9777

A City Slicker’s Guide to Communing with Nature

Merrell McGinness at Springbank Retreat in Kingstree, South Carolina

Merrell McGinness

You don’t have to disappear into the woods to reconnect with Mother Earth. With a little creativity, you can create an eco-retreat in even the smoggiest city.

Do an Urban Earth Walk:
One of the exercises at Springbank is an Earth Walk. Find a greenspace and follow these simple instructions: Walk around outside quietly and let nature call to you. When you find yourself attracted to something—be it a plant, pebble, or flower—ask permission to visit it. If you feel you have permission, pick it up or sit next to it. Concentrate on this ‘being’ as a living spirit. Consciously send your love to it, honoring it as an expression of the Creator. When it’s time to leave, express gratitude to your ‘gift’ and leave it in its natural area.

Create a sacred space outside:
Most urbanites suffer from what author Richard Louv calls nature-deficit disorder. Carve out your own special spot outdoors. It can be your backyard, a nearby park or even your back porch. Spend time there each day to quietly connect with the natural world.

Bring the outdoors in:
Surround yourself with houseplants, collect rocks from walks in the woods, or pluck shells from the beach. Try a desktop water feature, or play the sounds of nature on your smartphone. Weather permitting, open a window.

Grow your own food:
Working in a backyard garden has restorative powers, but even a container garden on your back deck or windowsill will do. When you nurture an edible landscape, it nourishes you right back.

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