By Lena Katz
With summer in the rearview mirror and Thanksgiving around the next curve, the landscape may look a little dreary to you these days. Maybe it’s time for a quick change of scenery. Quickie beach vacations, golf getaways or spa weekends are an easy way to perk up a blah autumn. Last installment was all about the Florida Keys—considered by many to be the ultimate Florida beach vacation spot. This time, we focus other domestic destinations: Hilton Head and Amelia Island on the western Florida coast.
While Hilton Head Island has a storied history dating from Colonial times, it wasn’t until the 1950s when builders developed Sea Pines Resort that really transformed the island into a tourist destination. From the start, the intention was to maintain the simplicity and serenity of island life, while bringing in a range of high-end experiences and accommodations that could satisfy wealthy clientele. Today, the island has 24 golf courses, including Harbour Town Golf Links which hosts an annual PGA tournament. Apart from this it remains fairly pristine: Bike trails wind around groves of 100-year-old trees, while inlets and slow-moving creeks offer kayak fishing. People walk out to meet the incoming fishing boats in the harbor daily, selecting fresh catch to bring home and grill up, or eating at one of the waterfront restaurants.
Located in the Low Country coastal area, this is part of the Sea Islands system. It’s a quick drive from Savannah/Hilton Head airport, though it’s actually across the state line in South Carolina. At four hours’ driving distance from Charlotte and Atlanta, it’s a popular weekend getaway for residents of those cities as well as people flying in from the Midwest. Many of the big hotel chains have a presence here. Marriott Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa recently completed a revamp and opened a new spa with 15 treatment rooms. The Westin is a frontrunner as far as spa goes: the chain’s Heavenly Spa program, which draws upon indigenous ingredients from whichever region the spas are located, has a variety of inspirations to work with on this Low Country island. Signatures are the indigo massage and sweet grass wrap and—for people coming in with stiff shoulders after a day on the greens—a heated golf ball massage. For anyone who prefers to experience all the island’s dining and shopping, the Holiday Inn is right across from Coligny Plaza, which boasts more than 60 shops and restaurants.
Tucked away in the northeastern-most corner of Florida, just off the coast of Jacksonville, Amelia Island is the first real destination you reach when you enter Florida, from the north. Its charmingly nostalgic ambience, array of outdoor activities and temperate weather (balmy all the way through mid-November) makes it a weekend go-to for escapees from the urban centers of Atlanta, Jacksonville and Tampa. Life here revolves around the water, with popular pastimes including scenic horseback rides along the beach, and paddling tours with Kayak Amelia. Amelia River Cruises offers river cruises and a Cumberland Sound Ferry Tour. Centre Street anchors the charming historic downtown section; great little shops are clustered along the waterfront. Hotels and resorts run the gamut from family-friendly and serviceably comfortable (the brand new Residence Inn, the recently renovated Amelia Hotel) to spread out and luxurious, like the self-contained Amelia Island Plantation, which has its own spa and runs its own activities including Segway tours. The most luxurious property on the island is the Ritz-Carlton.
Amelia Island is only 45 minutes from Jacksonville Airport, and quick flights from both Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. So escape from the upcoming snow is within reach.
Lena Katz is the author of SUN: California and SIP: California, part of the Travel Temptations series published by Globe Pequot Press.