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.
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.
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.
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Hilton 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