Linking natural and historic attractions of northeast Florida along the Atlantic coastline, parts of Nassau and Duval counties have been incorporated into the “A1A Ocean Islands Trail Scenic Byway.”
Island Hopping in Northeast Florida
The Ocean Islands Trail offers lots of scenic waterfront views while meandering through five fabulous barrier islands along a 40-mile stretch of northeast Florida. Hop between Amelia Island, Big Talbot Island, Little Talbot Island, Fort George Island, and hop aboard the Mayport Ferry (connection to/from the fifth barrier island/Jacksonville’s beach communities).
This coastal road trip makes island hopping easy! The route crosses marshland and waterways, over a few bridges (no tolls), plus one short ferry ride at Mayport (drive your vehicle onto ferry).
Whether travelers drive from the south (Jacksonville) to Amelia Island or do the trip in reverse, this segment of the A1A Ocean Islands Trail features notable historic sites and beautiful beaches worth exploring.
Be sure to linger here and there and absorb the coastal scenery. Enjoy some leisure time and learn about history along the way. The highlights listed below are in order from south to north, starting at the St. Johns River Ferry (departing from the fishing village of Mayport), heading north to Amelia Island.
— St. Johns River Ferry — Enjoy a short cruise (car carrier) crossing the St. Johns River. Catch Mayport ferry, more info, ferry schedule).
Singleton’s — Near the ferry, if you’re hungry, is a very popular place for waterfront dining. A fixture here on the water for over 70 years, get a real feel of an authentic Florida seafood shack. Some might like to try the fried shrimp (visitors often see the shrimp boats docked next to the restaurant). Singleton’s is located at 728 Ocean Street, Atlantic Beach, FL.
— Kingsley Plantation — Soon after departing the Mayport Ferry, heading north on Heckscher Drive, is the entrance to Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island. Be sure to stop at the Kingsley Plantation, constructed in 1798, “the oldest planter’s residence still standing in Florida,” according to the National Park Service.
Well worth a visit, Kingsley is a sensational riverfront property to see with fascinating history (plenty of informative signs explain history for self-guided tours). Kingsley offers FREE ADMISSION DAILY. The plantation includes the ruins of 25 slave cabins, barn, history garden, dock on the river and gift shop.
— Huguenot Memorial Park — After Kingsley, continue north along Heckscher Drive. Also consider making a stop by Jacksonville’s beautiful Huguenot Memorial Park at 10980 Heckscher Drive (904)255-4255, an excellent spot at the Fort George Inlet to take in waterfront vistas.
Huguenot is known as one of the best places to observe birds in northeast Florida (migratory winter sea and shore birds), with far less visitor traffic in colder months. Known as the JAX beach people can drive onto, this aspect of the park appeals to many. However, note that spring through fall on weekends, Huguenot gets very crowded (up to 10,000 vehicles enter). The park has also been recovering from major damage caused by Hurricane Matthew (October 2016). After closure for several months, the park reopened in 2017. MOVIE TRIVIA: For those who recall “G.I. Jane,” the beach scenes in the 1997 film starring Demi Moore were shot at Huguenot Memorial Park. Notably, the Navy SEAL “Hell Week” training was filmed here, with backdrop of Mayport Naval Station across the water. —Little Talbot — Next along the A1A Oceans Island Trail is Little Talbot Island, a Florida State Park, offering gorgeous shoreline for beachcombing, biking, and birding. There’s also a campground within this park. For those interested in getting out on the water, a paddling adventure awaits at Kayak Amelia, also located on Little Talbot Island (13030 Heckscher Drive).
—Next door is Big Talbot Island, another Florida State Park. Big Talbot is known for “Boneyard Beach,” a unique graveyard of tree “skeletons” downed along the beach, a favorite place of photographers.
— Spoonbill Pond — Big Talbot is also home to Spoonbill Pond adjacent to the Nassau Sound at Amelia Island’s doorstep. Pictured below, a half-mile-long boardwalk was completed in 2016 along the edge of Spoonbill, an excellent spot for observing wading birds and migratory water fowl.
— Amelia Island State Park — Situated along the Nassau Sound and wrapping Amelia Island’s southern tip at the Atlantic Ocean coastline, this beautiful state park is a favorite spot for people fishing from the shore. The George Crady dedicated fishing bridge (no cars) that spans the Sound (parallel to the Nassau Sound vehicular bridge), is here also. Note that Kelly Seahorse Ranch is located at Amelia Island State Park, offering beach horseback riding excursions.
—American Beach — After Amelia Island State Park, continue along A1A/First Coast Highway. Another historic place to see is American Beach, the site of beautiful “Nana,” the tallest sand dune in state of Florida, and home to American Beach Museum. The American Beach Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, recognizing the beach enclave for its African American cultural heritage.
— Fort Clinch State Park (904-277-7274) — At the opposite end of Amelia Island, Fort Clinch is fantastic to explore! Located on the northen tip of this barrier island, the park features extensive shoreline along the Atlantic, Cumberland Sound and Amelia River, and is the largest, most natural area remaining on Amelia Island (over 1,400 acres). Fort Clinch State Park offers miles of hiking and biking trails (and bike rentals), beachfront and campgrounds, not to mention one of America’s “most well-preserved 19th Century fortresses.” It’s also the gateway to the Great Florida Birding Trail. See more photos, info, watch Fort Clinch video.
Downtown Fernandina Beach
With historic district of 50-plus blocks, there’s plenty to discover downtown. Fernandina features 400-plus historic structures on the National Register of Historic Places.
Gaze at historic homes, churches, and commercial buildings. Fernandina features pubs, restaurants, gift shops, art galleries, and antiques. Also the hub of tour departures, ride in a horse-drawn carriage or a trolley and learn about local history highlights. Feel Fernandina’s relaxed vibe while strolling the charming streetscape. Learn more about historic downtown Fernandina Beach.
—Amelia Island Lighthouse — Florida’s oldest lighthouse built between 1838 to 1839. Lighthouse tours can be booked through the Fernandina Beach Rec Center, (904)310-3350 (reservations are required in advance). Note that lighthouse tour is only two days per month (the first and third Wednesday monthly at 10 am). The tour costs $5 per person. The gates to the lighthouse property are also open for a few hours on Saturdays from 11 am to 2 pm, allowing visitors to walk around the lighthouse grounds and take photos (but no formal tour). Learn more about the Amelia Island Lighthouse.
Fernandina Bed & Breakfasts
For those with time for a two-day road trip, enjoy the best of Southern hospitality at historic bed & breakfast inns downtown. Stay in one of the grand homes of the “Golden Age,” a prosperous time during the deep South’s Victorian era.