Fernandina Beach; time-machine magic

(Following is the second of two installments about experiencing the route of the East Coast Greenway between Jacksonville, Florida, and St. Marys, Georgia. © 2010, Herbert L. Hiller, Inc.)

Herb Hiller Southeast Region Program Consultant

It was here in Old Town that I learned about “pass-along plants,” like sleeping hibiscus  that, before nurseries, gardeners would pass along to friends.

In Old Town, too, that I found Alice McGuirt, who “Honey’d” me this and “Baby’d” me that about her yard full of dogs, her find of a quarter-dollar gold coin the size of a tunic button, her tangerine and kumquat trees grown from seed (“Honey, they say you can’t grow ‘em that way,”), and her conch shells atop a wire fence that you imagine ready to buckle from endlessly added pots of bromeliads, geraniums and succulents.

“My husband wondered where it would ever end,” said Alice, in a blue mood because she’d lately lost him. “I told him, ‘Baby, would you rather have me down at the Palace Saloon every afternoon?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘Druther have you in the yard.’”

Alice was soul. So was 7th-generation native-born Joe Waas [cq], in his late 40s living in an old house fixed up and built onto in a downtown neighborhood. His boys ride their bikes everywhere. He showed me his cabinets of round-bottomed bottles dug from the yard. “Everything’s old around here,” he said. “The town hasn’t gotten out of hand.”

Atlantic Avenue, which runs from sea to river through downtown captures the magic across its scant two miles.

Alongside glamour-shunning north island beaches, a section of dune and scrub dips and rises, its occasional cedar windblown asymmetrically. Fort Clinch begun in 1842 preserves this terrain, the maritime hammock and marsh next alongside. Little more marks the transition between the modest beach cottage rentals and town neighborhoods. No “them” and “us” in Fernandina.

Along the way pass parks and churches that, come late spring, host performances of the annual chamber music festival. In a town small as this (population 10,500), folks also occupy one-time jury box benches in the restored old county courthouse and church pews while listening to challenging new works performed by world-renowned groups. Most un-Florida like, no musical dumbing down.

Tattooed, ponytailed guys park their bikes at the Palace, same as locals gather evenings near the resorts at the Kraft Athletic Club. There for $50 a year you can enjoy the bar and its screened porch overlooking million-dollar river sunsets, and where regulars more likely work at the Ritz than dine there.

Atlantic Avenue becomes Centre Street west across 8th Street. Centre slopes to the waterfront where activity fans out alongside. The century-old Marina Seafood Restaurant sits at one corner. Across the street, the old pre-Flagler railroad’s last station, now housing the tourist bureau, where, when I lately visited, jeweler Melba Whitaker was sharing her Christmas brownies. (“Last time I made them too cakey; this time I made them more fudgy.”)

Across tracks that end at the port, you might find an inland cruise boat. Lately, that would have been American Spirit, the antithesis of Carnival ships, which, that week on charter, carries only 100 passengers regularly to ports like Green Cove Springs, DeLand and Sanford.

Here you also find Kevin McCarthy’s Cumberland Sound Ferry. It’s a 50-minute ride by 80-passenger tour boat for you and your bicycle to St. Marys. Along the way, McCarthy takes you close by Cumberland Island, where protected wild horses graze and frolic.

St. Marys is a smaller and early version of Fernandina. Mostly people come for the launch that exclusively carries them onward to Cumberland Island National Seashore. Evening, the town empties except for the few who walk and bicycle to the restaurants before ensconcing in B&Bs -- all very back to the future.

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IF YOU GO General information: Amelia Island Tourist Development Council, http://www.ameliaisland.com/, 102 Centre St., Fernandina Beach 32034, 904/226-3524; St. Marys Convention & Visitors Bureau, St. Marys Convention & Visitors Bureau, http://www.stmaryswelcome.com/contactcvb.html 406 Osborne St., St. Marys, GA 31558, 866/868-2199.

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