July 31, 2014

My Kind of Town

I knew I was going to like Fernandina Beach, and like it a lot, when I looked out the window of the coffee shop and saw a man walking a dog in purple pajamas. Point of clarification: The man was in the pajamas. While there may very well be pajama-wearing dogs in Fernandina Beach-it is that kind of town-I did not see any of them on that particular morning.

The dog was some kind of terrier, full of itself and straining against its leash. The man was not nearly as cocky as the terrier, but neither was he slouching along, embarrassed if someone might spot him stepping out in public in his bedclothes. He was smoking a cigar, and smoking it with something of a flourish. And he was, after all, walking along Centre Street, Fernandina Beach's main drag, just down the block from the wonderful old brick edifice that is the Nassau County Courthouse and right past the busy little coffee shop where I was at the counter ordering the day's first cup.

"There's a guy out there walking a dog in his pajamas," I said to the woman who was pouring my coffee. She glanced outside, then back at me.

"You want cream with that coffee?" she said.

That's all there is to the story. I cannot tell you if the man in the pajamas was a local fellow who takes such constitutionals each morning, or if he was a visitor, like me, one who had perhaps lost his luggage and was reduced to wearing the only thing he had. All I know is that Fernandina Beach is the kind of place where a guy in purple pajamas can saunter with a silly little dog through the middle of town while smoking a cigar and the locals aren't likely to take much notice of it. A lot to be said for a town like that.

There are plenty of things to like about Fernandina Beach, which sits at the very northeast tip of Florida, as far you can go in that direction without crossing the St. Mary's River and entering Georgia. I don't know what the official slogan of the Fernandina Chamber of Commerce is, but it ought to be: "A Lot of People Don't Come Here." Which is to say, a goodly number of tourists find their way here because this is, after all, Florida; but the ones heading south are more focused on theme parks, and Floridians heading north are more focused on getting to Savannah or Charleston, and Fernandina Beach doesn't siphon off much traffic from I-95.

Of course, the area is not exactly unknown, since just a few miles from downtown Fernandina Beach, two splendid resorts-Amelia Island Plantation and The Ritz Carlton, Amelia Island-occupy prime stretches of beach as nice as any you'll find in North Florida. These are exceptional places with top-drawer service and terrific restaurants, but they are rather removed from the ebb and flow of Fernandina Beach; and on this particular trip we wanted to hang out in town.

We bunked down at the Florida House Inn Bed and Breakfast, a rambling, two-story affair, just a block off Centre Street, which has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operated hotel in Florida. It was built in 1857 by David Levy Yulee, one of the titans of Florida history and, as befits our quirky state, a man of no small amount of intrigue. He was born in St. Thomas (now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands) of Moroccan Jewish parents and came here when his father bought some 55,000 acres of North Florida pineland with the idea of turning it into a New Jerusalem for Jewish settlers. That plan went south; but Yulee threw himself into Florida politics, advocating statehood and eventually becoming the country's first Jewish U.S. Senator.

Long before Henry Flagler launched his empire of railroads and hotels down Florida's east coast, Yulee started Florida's first cross-state railroad, with plans to link Fernandina Beach with Cedar Key on the Gulf. He envisioned the Florida House as a destination where society folks from up North could enjoy a gracious sojourn before embarking on their adventures southward. Unfortunately, the Civil War flared up before the railroad line could be completed; and Yulee left town on one of his locomotives just as northern troops swooped in to occupy Fort Clinch, which still occupies a bluff above the river just east of downtown Fernandina Beach.

The Florida House has passed through numerous hands in the ensuing years, but it manages a delightfully quirky mix of old and new. Meals are served in a boardinghouse-style dining room with big breakfasts of country ham and eggs and fresh biscuits. The cozy bar has room for small bands to set up in the corner. And the dozen or so guest rooms are each decorated in a different theme. My wife and I stayed in the Pecky Cypress Lodge suite, with its rough-hewn native wood walls, which give it the look and feel of a Florida hunting camp.

Downtown Fernandina Beach is one of the best places in Florida for just walking around and hanging out and taking advantage of whatever presents itself. There are plenty of antique stores and boutiques. Particularly notable: No fewer than three independent bookstores sit within two blocks of each other. The 50-block historic district has dozens of century-old houses, most of which have been gussied up and rescued from disrepair. There are a number of good restaurants, including the exceptional Beech Street Grill, which occupies a rambling Victorian house and serves an adventurous menu that can best be described as gourmet Southern fusion.

Fernandina Beach also boasts more than its share of watering holes, including the Palace Saloon. Founded back in the 1850s, the Palace claims to be Florida's oldest bar. While the brick building that houses it surely has a pedigree, the saloon itself has little of the ambience of days long-gone. Still, it's definitely a worthy place to grab a beer.

It was at another bar along a side street that my wife and I fell in with a friendly crowd one evening and got ourselves invited along on a boat ride bright and early the next morning. Our hostess, Terri Sopp, a North Florida native and a criminal defense attorney, met us at the downtown docks in her 19-foot open-fisherman skiff; and in a matter of minutes we were skimming past the broad salt marshes that mark where the St. Mary's River meet the Atlantic Ocean. Herons waded in the flats and mullet jumped lazily in the still shallows as we skipped across the channel that is the boundary line between Florida and Georgia.

Within a few minutes we were idling along the backside of Cumberland Island, the southernmost in the chain of Georgia's Sea Islands and a place of no small amount of unblemished beauty. The island, accessible only by ferry boat or private watercraft, was long the private domain of the Carnegie family; and some of the descendants still own and run the island's only lodging, the Greyfield Inn, perhaps best known as the place where John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bissett got married. It's just about as idyllic a place as one can imagine, especially when you're rewarded with the sighting of a pair of the wild horses that roam free on Cumberland Island.

Back in Fernandina Beach, we checked in at the coffee shop for a morning cup. The man in the purple pajamas was out again, walking his dog. And this time we didn't blink an eye at the sight of him. 

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