Amelia Island's Equestrian Side
Getaways for Grownups tours Florida’s Top 10 Island by horseback.
by Hope S. Philbrick
For my birthday, I planned an escape to one of my favorite places: Amelia Island, Florida. I’m not alone in my adoration of the place: Amelia Island has been named among the Top 10 North American islands by Conde Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards for six consecutive years.
If you start in the Keys, Amelia Island is as far north as you can go on the nation’s East Coast without leaving Florida: You can stand on the shore and, if facing the right direction, see St. Marys, Georgia. (Thanks in part to such close proximity, Amelia Island shares more cultural commonalities with Georgia than it does with South Florida.) Amelia Island is just 13 miles long and two miles wide. Nearly 10 percent of the island is authentic nature: the north and south ends of the island are park preserves.
There’s much to love: The island has long stretches of white-sand beaches, tree-covered parks, the historic town of Fernandina Beach — many of the buildings are on the National Register, along with the 50-block Historic District — several historic sites, and a relaxed seaport vibe. To fill the days, you might choose among tours, spa, golf, dining, biking, shopping and beach activities.
Since I was traveling alone, the itinerary need not please anyone but me. So I picked options with a horse theme. It was fantastic.
Here’s the inside track on some of the island’s equestrian fun:
Amelia River Cruises & Charters
Any tour led by a guy who calls himself “Pajama Dave” is bound to be relaxed fun, and this one lived up to expectations. (Pajama Dave’s tagline: “Livin’ Life Comfy.” Seriously, how can you not love it?)
Amelia Island is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Intracoastal waterway, Nassau Sound and Cumberland Sound, which is one of the largest and deepest inlets on the East Coast. So, a boat tour is a great way to get to know the island and its surroundings.
While narrating the tour, Pajama Dave covers a range of topics. Regarding industry, he explains that Amelia Island used to be a shrimping hub with a processing plant that serviced more than 130 shrimp boats, but an increase in imported farmed shrimp has seen the industry decline so there are now only five shrimp boats based on Amelia Island. Other businesses on the island include a paper mill and Burbank Sport Nets, the world leading maker of hand-tied nets.
History buffs will enjoy the fact that from the boat you can glimpse Old Town, the original encampment of the Timucuans and the last Spanish Town in the Western Hemisphere in 1811. You can also see the pre-Civil War-era fort at Fort Clinch State Park.
Wildlife sighting opportunities abound during the tour. The area is home to manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, more than 300 varieties of birds and, on Cumberland Island, Georgia, more than 200 wild horses (as well as deer, bobcat, boar, turkeys, armadillos and birds).
Of course, the horses are a main draw since it’s rare to be able to observe horses that are truly and completely wild — and by boat is the easiest, best and safest way to observe them. “They’re wild and they’re dangerous,” warns Pajama Dave. “Every now and then someone who thinks he’s a horse whisperer winds up getting hurt.”
Life for a wild horse presents real challenges: “On average, a wild horse will live six to eight and maybe 10 years,” he says. “They eat lots of marsh grass, so there’s too much salt in their diet.”
Cumberland Island is Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island and is designated as a National Seashore by the National Park Service. It’s protected from development and the number of daily visitors is limited to help protect the pristine maritime forests, beaches and marshes. The only way to get to the island is by boat. (For more information, see “The Living History of Cumberland Island.”)
Amelia River Cruises & Charters may not stop on Cumberland Island, but gets you close enough to see the horses. And makes sure the trip is safe, relaxed, informative and fun.
At eight years old, Boomer is a celebrity in his community, the star of numerous articles and even a book. Pretty impressive for a Percheron draft horse who pulls carriage tours around Amelia Island.
Raised by the Amish, Boomer is the largest horse in northeast Florida at 19 hands tall and 2,300 pounds. He knows the tour stops so well that if the driver gets engrossed in an anecdote about one of the sites passed en route and lingers longer than usual, Boomer gets a bit impatient. Despite that, and his habit of stealing ice cream and lattes from people, the gentle horse wins the affections of all he meets.
Standard tours last approximately a half-hour and pass major landmarks in the Historic District of Fernandina Beach ($15/adult). Private tours, available by advance reservation, can pick up and drop off at downtown locations of your choice. (All tours operate only in evening hours, when temperatures are cooler and more comfortable for the three horses owned by the company.)
Specific tour routes vary every time. “This is not a cookie cutter tour,” says Owner Cyndi Myers. “I can’t give an interesting tour if I’m bored by the information myself.” The conversation is indeed far from dull: architecture, history, legends and the current culture on Amelia Island are discussed wherever the ride rolls.