Jean Ribault was The First Coast’s First Tourist.
The French explorer made landfall, on April 30, 1562, where the placid St. John’s empties into the Atlantic. There Ribault discovered a “faire cost, streching of a gret lenght,” and an “infenite number of highe and fayrc trees.”
Hey, the guy was from out of state.
But never mind that. The point is that, thanks to public ownership of the Talbot Islands and the primitive wetlands of the vast Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, much of the coastal landscape between Mayport to the south and Amelia Island to the north remains pretty much as Ribault must have found it: Miles of deserted beaches, wide stretches of palmetto scrublands broken up by forests of salt-sculpted, moss-draped oaks and stands of palms…all of it sandwiched between the ocean and a wonderland of twisting creeks, sloughs, mud flats and rookeries.
Which is why this is one of my all time favorite Florida bike rides – a 40-mile trek up the Talbot Islands to Fernandina Beach and back.
Start riding at the entrance to Little Talbot Island State Park, my all-time favorite winter camping ground.
For the first mile and a half you share A1A with some fairly fast moving traffic. But it’s got bike lanes and there are only two place, both narrow bridge crossings, where you briefly have to share the road with cars. Just be careful.
Mile 1.5: A quick right jog and you’re off the highway and onto the Timucuan Multi-Use Pathway. This is a beautifully designed off-road bike/ped path that runs the rest of the length of Big Talbot all the way to Nassau Sound. Winding and tree covered, it is a gorgeous trail.
Just after the 4 mile mark, you’ll arrive at Big Talbot Island Boneyard Beach. If you’re on a hybrid or fat tire bike you can ride down to the Boneyard – so named for all of the fallen trees strewn along the shoreline like bleaching whale bones. If you’re on a road bike it’s still worth a short hike to the bluff overlook for the amazing view.
Leaving Boneyard Beach the paved trail soon becomes a wooden walkway. There are two covered bird watching shelters here overlooking a beautiful expanse of shallow blue water and mangrove swamps alive with – what else? – birds.
Mile 5. You are crossing Nassau Sound on the long, slender Coastal Highway Bridge. To your right are awesome views of the Atlantic. To your left fishermen are lined up along the old George Crady bridge….long since closed off to traffic and now reserved for anglers. (I used to write about then-Rep. Crady when he was in the Florida Legislature, back in the ’70s. He would bring his guitar to the House floor to entertain fellow lawmakers while they were waiting for the leadership to hammer out a budget agreement.)
Now you are on Amelia Island, home of the rich and shameless. There is a separated bike path running up the southern stretch of the island, but using it necessitates frequent stops at the entrances of hotels, resorts and condo communities. I prefer to stay on A1A, which has perfectly adequate bike lanes.
Mile 9.6: Hang a right on Burney Road and head to the beach. In this case, historic American Beach.
Why historic? Because in 1935, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, bought up this stretch of beach so his employees could vacation there. For decades it was one of the few Florida beaches where blacks could afford to live and play. Now it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and remains a relatively modest and quiet beach community.
Mile 11. You’re on the Amelia Island Parkway, a two-laned, low speed canopied road that takes you past the Ritz Carlton. Hey, stop for cocktails if you have a fat wallet.
Mile 13: You’re on South Fletcher Ave., a two-laned road with narrow bike lanes that runs for several miles along the beach. But don’t count on seeing too much ocean…literally hundreds of beach houses block your view.
Mile 18: That’s Ft. Clinch State Park on your right. I know I said this was a 40 mile ride (out and back) but if you want to chalk up still more miles take a detour through that long, skinny state park to its Civil War- era fort. The fort is spectacular and the views along the way are breathtaking. It’s about three miles in and three miles out if you go all the way. You might even catch sight of some of the wild horses that live on nearby Cumberland Island.
After passing Ft. Clinch you’ll cross Egan’s Creek. That elegant tower off to the right is Amelia Lighthouse, one of the oldest in Florida.
Mile 20: You have arrived in the heart of historic Fernandina Beach. A classic old Florida downtown. Need lunch? There are a ton of great restaurants and cafes. A beer maybe? The Palace claims to be the granddaddy of all Florida saloons.
And just before you get to the waterfront stop at the Visitor’s Center in the old railroad station on Front Street. That gent sitting on the bench is David Levy Yulee. He doesn’t say much – heck he’s bronze after all – but Yulee has a fascinating history. He opened up the Florida frontier when he built a railroad from Fernandina to Cedar Key. He was a U.S. Senator for a while, but also got tossed into prison for supporting the confederacy.
Oh yeah, don’t forget to visit the Shrimp Museum and take a walk on the waterfront.
Then get on your bike again, turn around, and head back to Little Talbot. The return ride is every bit as scenic and spectacular.