Explore Jacksonville

Into the Wild

Flora and fauna take center stage on the First Coast’s barrier islands, while city conveniences are never far from reach.

All along Florida’s First Coast, urban development coexists harmoniously with the pristine beauty of Mother Nature. From Amelia Island to St. Augustine, the state’s northeast coastline is blessed with a string of beautiful barrier islands that offer unspoiled beaches, coastal woodlands and tidal streams—all within easy reach of modern conveniences, hotels, restaurants and shopping. This part of Florida is relatively undeveloped, and the leisure pace of life encourages relaxation. Simply put, the First Coast’s barrier islands offer visitors the best of both worlds. 

Amelia Island

The comment expressed most frequently by visitors to Amelia Island is that it doesn’t look like the rest of Florida. “It’s more like the Old South than the other developed areas of the Sunshine State,” says Ray Hetchka, who moved to Amelia Island in 1996 to escape the long, snowy winters of New Hampshire. 

“The historic area in downtown Fernandina Beach was mostly built at the end of the 1800s,” he explains. “But it’s still an end-of-the-road beach town with surfers, beach walkers and pirates.” It’s true: Faithful members of the Fernandina Pirates Club dress in authentic pirate garb for every local parade and event. 

The small-town feel and friendly residents are not the only things that attract visitors to Amelia Island. There are 200 protected acres of beaches, salt marshes and maritime forests to explore. And Hetchka, along with his wife Jody, knows every nook and cranny of his adopted home.

It didn’t take them long to realize that this area was ideal for kayaking. They opened Kayak Amelia in 1991, and have been paddling the local waterways ever since. Show up on their doorstep, and one of their knowledgeable guides will be ready to paddle through the quiet salt marsh creeks with you.

Wildlife of all shapes and sizes is abundant on these excursions. You’ve got everything from microscopic, single-celled plants to dolphins and manatees. “The salt marsh is the most productive eco-system on the planet,” Hetchka says. “There is always something cool going on that’s worthy of our attention, you just have to know where to look.”

On any given day, the usual cast of characters includes osprey, great blue herons, great egrets, snowy egrets and even the occasional bald eagle (especially in the fall and winter months). Plus, all sorts of fish, crabs, stingrays and oysters are in evidence, too. 

Hetchka’s favorite trips are the firefly tours they do in the spring of each year. “There is a place here where lightning bugs gather in the thousands for just a couple of weeks,” he says. On the tour, Hetchka and his group paddle at sunset to a special location, dock their kayaks and then walk along a trail. As it gets darker, the group’s friendly chatter quiets down. Suddenly, in the darkness, all you hear are “oohs” and “aahs.”  Hetchka says: “It looks like someone covered the forest floor with thousands of blinking Christmas lights. It’s the most magical tour we do.”

Anastasia Island Further south, near St. Augustine, is Anastasia Island. Head over to the southwest side of the Bridge of Lions and, chances are, you’ll meet fun-loving local Zach McKenna. He’s the one riding what he calls a Tryak down the street. The owner of St. Augustine Eco Tours has morphed his Schwinn adult tricycle into a kayak-mobile of sorts. More often, though, you’ll find him on a catamaran or a sailboat. 

On any given day, he’s cruising through the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTMNERR), more than 73,000 acres of protected salt marsh, mangrove tidal wetlands and lagoons, oyster beds and more. The area provides a vital habitat for a multitude of sea life and wildlife. During each of McKenna’s excursions through the GTMNERR, there’s always something incredible to witness, like a bottlenose dolphin swimming with its newborn calf, an eagle ray with a wingspan as wide as a car cruising with the currents or amorous manatees wrestling in the shallows. 

After spending more than two decades exploring the Florida coast, McKenna, an interpretive naturalist, has amassed an arsenal of experience and information. He is most knowledgeable about birds. “I use the birds as ambassadors, explaining foraging methods, mating habits and life history,” he says. “I am fascinated with the 200-plus species of birds in North Florida, and I learn something every time I add a species to my life list.”

The Talbot Islands

The first thing to know about these two distinctive islands is that Little Talbot Island, weighing in at 2,300 acres, is actually larger than Big Talbot Island, which is a mere 1,700 acres. Talk about false advertising. Truth be told, “it’s all due to the dynamic nature of barrier islands and ocean currents,” says Peter Maholland, who works as a park ranger at Talbot Island State Parks. 

The second thing to know is the “skeletons” that litter Boneyard Beach on Big Talbot Island are not skeletons at all. Because of the natural erosion of the island, petrified cedar and oak trees have soaked up massive quantities of sea salt and baked in the sun, leaving a desolate coastline that attracts photographers from all over the world. On top of that, locals claim Big Talbot Island is haunted. 

Could it be the ghosts of the Timucua Indians? There are Indian burial grounds on the island. Or could it be the spirits of Civil War soldiers? The records for Big Talbot and Little Talbot islands go way back to prehistoric peoples. In fact, “there is record of over 5,000 years of continuous occupation of these islands, and evidence of early human habitation can be found throughout the islands,” Maholland says. 

The Timucua were the first documented residents around 4,000 B.C. The Spanish followed in the 1500s, then the British in the 1700s (during which time General Oglethorpe named the islands after Charles Baron Talbot, Lord High Chancellor of England) and the Spanish again in the late 1700s to early 1800s.

After the Civil War, many of the islands were cleared for plantation crops, such as sea island cotton, indigo and sugar cane. “Development sprang up on surrounding islands, but the Talbots were left relatively untouched,” Maholland says. 

That is one reason they are so popular with visitors today.

There’s no private development on Little Talbot, and Big Talbot has only private residential property at its southern end. These islands are isolated from the city, and yet, visitors are never far from urban conveniences. Upscale restaurants and hotels are only a 30-minute drive from both islands; Jacksonville is to the south, and Amelia Island’s Fernandina Beach is to the north. 

Lastly, the unique landscape alone draws visitors to the islands. Two scenic, 20-foot bluffs line the craggy Atlantic coastline on the eastern side of Big Talbot. Then there’s the lush canopy of southern live oak with some laurel oak mixed in; all draped in Spanish moss. 

Stand on the beach at any time from December to March and, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot a pod of endangered North Atlantic right whales as they return to their spawning grounds off the Florida coast. Birds, too, flock to the islands. “Little Talbot Island is one of the few places in northeast Florida where wintering piping plovers are found,” Maholland says. 

Now that you know some of the natural wonders to be found on the First Coast’s barrier islands, try exploring them on
your own. You’ll be glad you did.