Regular visitors to the Sunshine State would probably agree: There are almost as many reasons to love Florida as there are to be jaded by it.
Orlando's asphalt traffic jams, the gone-wild grind of Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale, and the revolting perfection of the South Beach hard bodies have become legendary stereotypes. Add to the mix a slew of beach-side cities along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and you've pretty much seen it all.
So, last winter, for my most recent and approximately 21st visit to Florida, I chose the uncharted (for me, at least) territory of Amelia Island.
The choice was prompted in equal parts by word-of-mouth and an Internet search, so after landing at the Jacksonville airport, we found ourselves on a shuttle bus bound for a 13-mile barrier island off the northeast corner of the state that's noted for green landscapes, excellent shrimp and quiet.
You won't find theme parks or sizzling nightlife on the island, which was named after King George II's daughter. But our primary goal was to escape single-digit temperatures of the Northeast and see green again. It's not that we don't love the spider plant in our living room, but by midwinter, we needed more.
Our home away from home was Amelia Island Plantation, a 1,100-acre complex bordered by the Atlantic shoreline and a seemingly endless canopy of oak and magnolia trees, tropical plants and marshlands.
Plantation is the operative word, since founder and developer George Fraser commissioned an ecological land-use study when he acquired the property in 1971. It resulted in Fraser's standard for development on the plantation: Any future buildings would have to be constructed so as not to disrupt the beauty and function of the natural environment.
Fraser was truly a visionary, "green" before his time. Because of his mission, houses and condos seem airbrushed into the natural pattern of centuries-old live oak trees, tidal marshes, oceanfront dunes and grassy savannas. It's no surprise the plantation has been named an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System.
It was refreshing, indeed, to unwind at a resort that hadn't been groomed into the equivalent of a botanical crewcut. Outside our hotel room, sand dunes sprawled in their natural states, inhabited by nesting birds, thick vines, waving sea grass and, in its center (mornings only), a burrowing armadillo.
Much of our time was spent strolling and biking the paved trails through the woods (there are 7-1/2 miles of biking and walking paths). Our walks weren't motivated by loyalty to cardio as much as to scenery too alluring to pass up. With a mural of green saw palmettos on our left and the saline breezes from the Atlantic on our right, it felt like Monet's Giverny had suddenly sprung up on the beach.
And it's probably a good thing we spent so much time on foot, because the plantation has a half-dozen restaurants from which to choose, and we did our fair share of dining al fresco on ice-filled buckets of just-caught shrimp.
There's also a shopping district with clothing boutiques, gift stores and gourmet shops. For those encumbered with packages from retail sprees, there are shuttle buses that circle the plantation, as well as Island Hoppers (a spiffed-up version of a golf cart) available for rent.
For the go-getter, there's kayaking in the marshlands, 23 clay tennis courts (sheltered beneath a canopy of oak trees), and four award-winning 18-hole golf courses. And aficionados will appreciate the fact that major tournaments are held regularly at the resort, including the Bausch and Lomb Women's Tennis Tournament and the Guinness and Golf Tournament.
While my companion was riveted to the driving range (for hour upon hour), I chose to focus my attention on the Amelia Island Spa. And what cold-blooded woman from the North wouldn't opt for a hot stone massage followed by herbal tea in the gardens?
Afterward, I was so unknotted and relaxed, it was all I could do to wander into the nearby nature center, a mini-zoo filled with turtles, lizards and birds, all of which are rescued animals in varying stages of being rehabilitated.
In front of the nature center is a small lake for those inclined to feed the colony of snapping turtles that live there (turtle food is available for 25 cents a handful). It may sound mundane, but staring into the mossy water to watch the stillness of a turtle's face come into focus became a meditative joy.
Amelia Island is also home to the historic small town of Fernandina Beach. A bit reluctantly, we decided to venture off the plantation to explore the town's cafes, antique shops, souvenir stores, beach-side restaurants and the pelicans that love them.
On weekends, there's a farmers market with midwinter produce from neighboring Georgia, just-out-of-the-fryer crab cakes and a fiddle band. To the naked eye, it was an idyllic Florida scene that bordered on bucolic. But our senses had been awakened at the plantation, and it was beckoning us back.
All too soon, we'd be squeezed into a crowded jet bound for slush boots and winter gloves. We ran for the next shuttle bus and asked the driver to let us off at the turtle pond.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun