Cycling Florida’s Sea Islands

February 18, 2016
Nassau Sound Looking toward Big Talbot Island

Nassau Sound Looking toward Big Talbot Island

A mid-winter sojourn on Amelia Island, Florida, had two purposes: a visit with Mike and Diane, my cycling son and his wife, and vigorous bicycling in preparation for two weeks of even harder cycling events in Arizona. Rainy days, low temperatures, and blustery wind limited the miles I could ride, but made it possible to delve into the geography, history, and culture of this unique little place.

Most of my coastal experience has been in Oregon, where beaches provide a narrow and contested interface of mountains and rocky headlands with the Pacific Ocean. For this reason, I faced a geographical challenge in order to understand the roadways that the north Florida seaboard offers cyclists.

Amelia Island is one of one of a string of small, sandy islands that front the Atlantic Ocean, beginning in South Carolina and extending down the Florida coast. Hilton Head and St. Simons Island are part of this chain. Thirteen miles long and less than four miles wide at its widest point, Amelia is less than half the acreage of Hilton Head. It is separated from Georgia by the St. Mary’s River, and from the Florida mainland by the Amelia River and Nassau Sound.

Immediately north of the St. Mary’s River is Cumberland Island and south of Nassau sound are Big Talbot, Little Talbot, and Ft. George’s Islands. Together with Amelia Island, they are sometimes called the Sea Islands. South of Ft. George’s Island, the St. John’s River, Florida’s longest waterway, reaches the Atlantic. It is part of an inland lagoon system made possible by the barrier islands which, as sea levels dropped long ago, “became an obstacle that prevented water from flowing east to the ocean” (St. John’s River Water Management District).

Amelia Island is long and narrow and one arterial highway, Florida’s coastal highway A1A, runs its full length. Only a few miles from its northern terminus, A1A crosses the Amelia River near the widest part of the island, travels north a short distance to the deep harbor and historic town of Fernandina Beach, and crosses over to the Atlantic. After hugging the beach for several miles, it angles inland and continues south, leaving Amelia on a bridge over Nassau Sound.

During Amelia Island’s earlier history, A1A provided access to communities that have long been important to African-Americans. Since World War II, expensive resorts and condominiums have become the most prominent features of this stretch of highway.

For ten miles on Amelia Island and another fifteen as it continues south over the three smaller Sea Islands, this highway provides delightful cycling: smooth surfaces, good bike lanes, and virtually no elevation gain or loss. Much of the highway travels through wooded, swampy countryside, with the ocean beaches out of sight.

Big Talbot Sign

Part of Amelia and virtually all of the lower islands are state parks, which makes the cycling even more pleasing, especially to an out-of-shape cyclist like me. Recreational cyclists prefer the off-road bike trail that parallels A1A much of this distance.

With Mike and by myself, I bicycled along this corridor several times, staying on the highway bike lanes, and became acquainted with some of the history of Amelia Island, especially that of American Beach, which for several generations was a nationally important haven for African Americans who were suffering under segregation laws and customs. In another blog, where I review An American Beach for African Americans by Marsha Dean Phelts, I have described this part of my cycling experience.

Cyclists cannot help but pay attention to the string of expensive resort and residential communities on Amelia. Not only have they encroached upon long-existing African American sections of the island, but they have brought large numbers of winter residents, vacationers, and permanent residents. The character of the island is changing.

My contact with this new population took place at the Starbucks a mile from my son’s home, south of Fernandina Beach and north of American Beach and the new resort communities. It is the one new-style coffee shop on the island that I have seen, and in the mornings when I and my computer spent time there, the people I met were mostly my age, white, and from places like Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, and New York. Like me, some of them value the New York Times and its “New York values,” but unlike me they seem to have little interest in the distinctive history of this part of the American South.

During my two weeks in the Sea Islands, I rode 275 miles at a pace that pushed my conditioning forward, thus fulfilling my needs as aggressive cylist. What pleases me even more is that a new part of America, previously unknown to me, has been revealed, so that my identity as contemplative cyclist is growing stronger, too. I’m sure that I’ll be back!

NaNa Dune on Amelia Island

NaNa Dune on Amelia Island