Friday, July 10, 2009

Fernandina Beach, FL & Cumberland Island, GA

June 20 - 28, 2009
Fernandina Beach, Florida
We've arrived in Fernandina Beach, located on Amelia Island, FL, on Saturday, June 20. We've read horror stories about the currents and tides here, and are happy to have a mooring ball across from the Fernandina Harbor Marina (even if it does take us 3 tries and the near-loss of our boat hook to get tied up!). The marina is in the process of building a new shower/laundry structure, so unfortunately they don't have a laundry facility (which we desperately need right now). The showers are set up in temporary trailers - they're pretty gross, but it's marginally better than a boat shower...we think! Since our dinghy engine gunked up again, we plan to be here for a few days. We can't get it to a repair guy until Monday, and we'd like to spend more time exploring the town. After checking in to the marina, we take showers and walk a few blocks to Arte Brick Oven Pizzeria. We're too wiped out after our grounding earlier in the day to eat out, so we order a pizza to take home; tonight's agenda is pizza, wine, and a brainless movie. There's just one hitch: Rene was able to jury-rig the engine to dinghy to shore, but couldn't restart it to motor us home; out come the way-too-small dinghy paddles, and we're paddling back to the boat against the current after sunset. Did we mention the current here??? Just as we round the pier out of the marina, Stacy sees a nose come out of the water two feet from the boat: GATOR! She raises her oar in the air, ready to attack if the gator comes any closer. Rene's screaming to keep paddling (the current is carrying us away from the boat). As the rest of the body comes out of the water, it becomes pretty obvious that it isn't going to eat us; we've managed to scare a manatee as it came up for air, and the poor thing dives down deep pretty quickly after seeing us.

Sunday Rene feels like he's been hit by a train (after-effects of manually working the anchor following our grounding), so we settle for a recuperation day on the boat. That evening Rene comes up with a new way to rig the outboard (he's getting really good at this!), so we head into town for dinner at O'Kanes Irish Pub on the main street. It's our first real pub-grub since Key West, and we enjoy Steak & Guinness Pie, Bangers & Mash, and a couple of good ales. The place is quiet, but our bartender/waiter is fun to talk to and gives us a few pointers about places we should see in and around town.

Monday morning Rene once again manhandles the outboard to get us the 2-3 miles upriver to the repair shop. Rather than wait there for the outboard to be fixed, we've decided to taxi into town, starting with breakfast at Amelia Island Coffee. What a great little place! They seem to cater to both tourists and locals alike, and the girls behind the counter greet each regular and call out his or her usual order as each one comes through the door. The cafe also serves sandwiches and ice cream, and has wi-fi for its patrons. We didn't bring our laptops with us, but it would be a perfect hang-out for cruisers! We finally finish our coffee and pastries and walk to the visitor's & tourism bureau in the old railway station to pick up a few brochures. The volunteer working there is extremely helpful, pointing us to a pamphlet of a self-guided walking tour of Fernandina's historic district. We spend the next few hours wandering through the streets admiring the beautiful restored homes, most of which were built in the mid- to late-1800s. From there we check out a few of the shops (very touristy, but cute things and they have AC!), followed by lunch at Karibo Cafe (the local micro brewery). By that time, our outboard is ready. (It's great to have a "car" again!) We dinghy from the repair yard back to the boat, and feeling poor after the $200 engine repair bill, decide to have dinner on the boat. It's a good thing we've decided to stay in; around 7pm, we're hit by a thunderstorm that must gust to 40 knots or more. We're too afraid of a lightning strike to turn on our instruments during the storm, but we see sustained winds of 24+ knots after the worst has passed.

Tuesday morning we ride the ferry to St. Mary's, Georgia. We plan to anchor off St. Mary's after leaving Fernandina Beach; since it's only 10 miles between the two cities, we figure it'll be a nice stopover before heading across the ICW to Cumberland Island National Seashore. We discover that there's a ferry running between Fernandina and St. Mary's, which offers us a good opportunity to see whether it's worth a side trip on the sailboat. The ferry ride follows the ICW north from Fernandina Beach, across St. Mary's entrance (the inlet from the Atlantic Ocean), and west up the St. Mary's River. If you follow the ICW further north, you arrive at King's Bay - home of the navy's Trident submarines. We've heard that you sometimes get lucky and see a submarine come up the channel, and we eagerly scan the inlet for any sign of an incoming sub. At one point, we see the cream and orange speedboats that usually accompany a submarine in or out of the channel come storming through the inlet. Unfortunately we never see a sub, nor does our ferry captain when he makes the return trip to Fernandina. Oh, well - hopefully we'll see one when we're anchored off Cumberland Island! St. Mary's turns out to be much smaller than Fernandina, but it still has plenty to offer visitors for a day trip. We stopped by the submarine museum, got anchoring and other general information about the Cumberland Island National Seashore from the visitor center, and wandered into an old Presbyterian church built in 1809. The highlight of the day was a tour through Orange Hall, an 8000 sq ft restored antebellum mansion built in 1829. Our guide showed us through the rooms, many of which were furnished with original pieces or period pieces donated by St. Mary's residents. After a leisurely lunch at Pauly's, which was recommended by our ferry captain, we were back on the 2:30 ferry to Fernandina Beach. It was a productive trip - we enjoyed St. Mary's, but don't think there's enough to justify anchoring the boat there. We'll spend another day or two in Fernandina Beach, and will then take the boat up to Cumberland.

Wednesday morning we embark upon a 10-mile bike ride: 2 miles each way to the beach, plus a 6-mile round trip ride to the fort in Ft. Clinch State Park. The park covers over 1400 acres at the northern tip of Amelia Island. It looks over the entrance from the Atlantic Ocean to the ICW, and hosts white sand beaches, bike trails, hiking trails, and campgrounds. Construction of the fort began in 1847, which was built at the mouth of St. Mary's River to protect Fernandina's port and railroad. The fort was never completed, but served as a military post during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and WWII. Ft. Clinch became a state park in 1935 and the buildings were completed along with the construction of roads and campgrounds soon afterwards. Our visit to the park also gave us a chance to see the Amelia Island Lighthouse, the oldest one in Florida, from an observation deck. Since the lighthouse is in a residential area, you can't really visit it. There are city-run bus tours that access the property twice a month, but we were satisfied getting a few good photos from the state park. After our bike ride, we've decided to reward ourselves and spend our last dinner in Fernandina at the Crab Trap, a spot recommended by all of the locals that we met. After a farewell beer at O'Kanes, it was time to head home.

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia
Thursday morning we tie up to the Fernandina Harbor fuel dock for fuel, water, and pump-out, followed by the 6nm trip to Cumberland Island National Seashore. We've really been looking forward to visiting Cumberland Island, which is Georgia's largest and southernmost barrier island. There are 50 miles of hiking trails, 40' sand dunes, 400-year-old live oak trees, saltwater marshes, 16 miles of beaches, back-country campgrounds, and no vehicles allowed other than those owned by the National Park Service or the handful of residents on the island. Best of all, there are over 180 wild horses (initially brought over by the Spanish) that still roam the island. The NPS has a no-intervention policy (no feeding, veterinary service, population control, etc.), and people are forbidden from feeding or petting the horses. The island itself is 18 miles long, 3 miles wide at its widest point, and has about 15 inhabitants in the off-season. 90% of the island is owned by the Park Service, and the remaining 10% will be given to the NPS over time. While we're here, we plan to visit the ruins of Dungeness, the mansion once owned by Thomas & Lucy Carnegie, as well as Plum Orchard, an 1898 30-room Georgian Revival mansion built as a wedding present for the Carnegie's son. We anchor off the Sea Camp Dock near the ranger station and spend the rest of the day on the boat. Tomorrow, the explorations begin!

Friday morning we dinghy onshore to join a 10am ranger tour through the forest to Dungeness, the ruins of Thomas & Lucy Carnegie's winter home. Our ranger-guide is Rene Noe, who's lived on the island for 27 years. She's a fantastic guide, and tells us the history of the island and its inhabitants (both prior and current). Her stories involve a lot of audience-participation, and at one point Rene (our Rene) gets to be Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin and "special friend" to one of the original residents of Cumberland Island. As we reach the gates of Dungeness, the first thing we see is a wild turkey, along with 3-4 wild horses eating grass under a nearby tree. Behind them, we see the ruins themselves. Dungeness was built in the mid-1880s at the south end of Cumberland Island. Although Thomas Carnegie died soon after the house was built, Lucy lived in the house with her 9 children, eventually building 4 additional mansions on the island for them. Dungeness burned down in 1959, allegedly set fire by a local poacher involved in a dispute with the family. Thanks to structural instability and poisonous critters (snakes, spiders, & scorpions), visitors are not allowed to go into the ruins. We're able to walk the grounds, and spot the old greenhouse, the remains of an entertainment complex (which once housed a swimming pool, billiards, card tables, etc.), and servants quarters, as well as more wild horses wandering the grounds. After the tour, we follow a tree-lined trail to a boardwalk leading through the salt marshes to the sand dunes. En route, we see and are finally able to photograph a manatee. They really aren't very attractive! From there we cross the dunes to the beach, and Stacy wades into the ocean. The water is gorgeous - like bathwater - but Rene refuses to get out of his shoes and socks ("too much work"). He really missed out!

Saturday is a lazy one, spent reading and working on the blog. We make it ashore to the ranger station to sign up for the Sunday ferry to Plum Orchard, only to find out that the ferry holds 145 people and they've never had more than 70 on the tour. So much for needing those reservations the brochures tell you about! After refilling a few water bottles from the refrigerated drinking fountain (heaven!) and enjoying the office's air conditioning, we head back to the boat. We've been surprised at how few boats are anchored with us. There was one other one the day we arrived, and 3 others the next day, but now it's pretty much just us. One small speedboat has shown up anchored off the dock, but the owner kayaks into shore at night to camp on the island.

Sunday we catch the ferry at the ranger dock to travel the 9 miles up to Plum Orchard, a 24,000 sq. ft. Georgian Revival mansion. Plum Orchard is one of 4 mansions on the island built by Lucy Carnegie for her children, and the house was donated to the National Parks Department in 1898. Rene Noe is our guide again, and happens to be extremely familiar with the house; during her first 3 years on the island, she and 3 other rangers actually got to live in the mansion! They ate and drank from the Carnegie china and crystal, and swam in the indoor pool. We can't imagine how much fun they must've had, and it must've been tough to give it up once the decision was made to renovate the house and open it up to the public. We're sure glad that decision was made, though, as the house itself is magnificent. We start in the library, which still has the original piano and Tiffany lamps (which have a turtle motif in honor of Cumberland's loggerhead population). We then head upstairs to tour the bedrooms and bathrooms, followed by the kitchen, dining room, basement, indoor swimming pool, and squash court. Some of the original furniture is still in place, while other pieces will arrive once air conditioning is installed. You've got it - it's nearly July, the house is closed up all but two Sundays a month, and there is NO a/c! We absolutely loved the tour, but there were a few people who got out as fast as they could to enjoy the relatively "cool" 95 degrees outside. On the way back to the ferry, we stop by the pond behind the house. The pond is covered by green growth, but we clearly see the resident alligator off shore. (No manatees this time!)

On the ferry ride back to Sea Dock, we find ourselves trying to outrun a thunderstorm coming our way. We've left the windows open so the cats can stay cool and go outside if they want to, but we'll have a major mess on our hands if we don't get back to close up shop before the rain starts. Fortunately we get there just in time to close all of the windows. Within 15 minutes, the downpour begins. No worries - it's time to get below to prepare the boat anyway. Tomorrow we're out of stop, Jekyll Island!

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