John Grisham’s Ode to Amelia Island

At this Florida retreat, bumming around gets elevated to an art

Photo: Gary Hovland

The small Southern towns of my youth were far away from salt water. There were six of them, all within an hour of Memphis, and all so landlocked that I did not see an ocean until I was eighteen years old. For us, a day at the beach meant a trip to a large reservoir dug by the army.

Because of this minor blemish in an otherwise wonderful childhood, I have always been drawn to long sandy beaches, preferably in warmer climates and with a nice resort nearby. We have found many of these from the Carolinas south and throughout the Caribbean.

Twenty-five years ago, we discovered Amelia Island, a thirteen-mile-long barrier strip north of Jacksonville in Florida. A new Ritz-Carlton had opened there, and we met some relatives for a long weekend. We were charmed by the hospitality of the resort and the laid-back vibes of the other guests. It’s oceanfront, with miles of wide public beaches in both directions, perfect for the kind of serious loafing that I have come to appreciate.

The following year, my wife, Renee, and I ditched the relatives and returned for a week. We ventured out and soon discovered Fernandina Beach, a busy little town with bookstores, restaurants, a famous fudge shop, coffee bars, and boutiques, the perfect place for even more loafing. The downtown streets are adorned with beautifully preserved Victorian homes, most shaded with old moss hanging from even older oaks. One such majestic tree sits in the middle of Ash Street, with a narrow lane on each side, as if it has been watching the traffic for the past three hundred years and will be doing so long after we’re gone. The main drag is Centre Street, and it ends at a busy harbor where shrimpers come and go and charter boats advertise for fishing trips and cruises.


The more we returned to Amelia Island, the more we talked of sinking permanent roots, of either buying or building a home on the beach. These conversations went on for years as our two children grew older. Finally, when they’d had enough, they said: “Either build it or shut up.”

And so we built, on the oceanfront, with two hundred feet of pristine dunes between our cottage and the Atlantic. We retreat there as often as possible, regardless of the season. Renee prefers the fall when the air is cooler and the beach is even more deserted. We’ve hunkered down through nor’easters and watched Super Bowls by the fire. Our family is growing, but we still manage to corral everyone for a couple of weeks on Amelia in the middle of summer, my favorite time. We enjoy long lunches on the porch, late dinners well after dark, and cutthroat games of bocce. There is a lot of porch sitting and reading. Conversations run deep. For a few days our problems, projects, and meetings are forgotten as we fall into the easy rhythm of coastal living. 

Life at the beach can be busy on Amelia Island, if one so chooses. I’d rather swing on the porch with a book, take a nap, and go for a long barefoot walk at the water’s edge. Serious loafing.

>Looking for more Southern getaways? See our favorite classic summer weekends.