FERNANDINA Beach, the jewel at the top of Florida's crown, is a priceless but almost forgotten travel destination. With miles of white sand beaches, a picturesque fort, and a completely preserved Victorian village, Fernandina would seem hard to forget. Yet geography and changes in transportation have dramatically shaped the popularity of this Amelia Island port on the Florida-Georgia border, 32 miles north of Jacksonville. A century ago, Florida's first tourists arrived by coastal steamers and turned Fernandina with its good railroad connections -- the first to cross the state of Florida -- into a boomtown. Railroa d tycoons, prosperous merchants, and sea captains built 30 blocks of Gothic and Queen Anne mansions.
While Georgians and North Floridians continued to visit Amelia Island every summer, the development of major highways meant millions of Florida tourists would soon whisk down I-95, oblivious to the beauty of Fernandina Beach.
Only the ``Plumnellies'' could determine the port's fate. These original settlers, whose nickname combines ``plum'' (a term for Floridians) and ``nellie'' (a term for Georgians), succeeded both by attracting new industries and by restoring almost intact the Victorian village.
If you walk down Centre Street past the Palace Saloon, still in business after 90 years, you can easily recapture the spirit of the time when this town housed 13 foreign consulates and was Florida's busiest port. Specialty shops and restaurants now occupy most of the downtown storefronts, and on any side street you'll notice mansions of hand-hewn timber and Victorian churches with Tiffany windows.
The Chamber of Commerce, housed in the old railroad depot, has walking-tour maps of the National Historic District as well as lots of information about food (shrimp is the local specialty) and lodging. A unique welcome center in the town is the first maritime welcome station in the United States. It was built along the Intercoastal Waterway in the harbor, where pleasure and commercial boats are moored.
In a state that regularly obliterates old buildings, Fernandina Beach is a unique Florida experience. Although Vanderbilts and Carnegies once wintered here, there is little outside philanthropy or public funding in Fernandina's rebirth.
Its ``Plumnellie Pride'' is typified by store owner George Davis's motto to visitors: ``We don't want to speed up to catch the rest of the world, we want them to slow down to our pace.''
Visitors can really slow down two miles away in Fort Clinch State Park, with its miles of white sand, campgrounds, and recreational facilities. The 1847 fort has been restored to its Civil War vintage, with uniformed rangers guiding you through barracks and storerooms.
Accommodations on Amelia Island range from deluxe resorts to delightful bed and breakfast spots. Two favorites are the Bailey House, just blocks from downtown, and the 1735 House, a seaside inn with large family suites in a four-story lighthouse.
The island's entire southern tip is the domain of the world-class Amelia Island Plantation, designed by the people who created Hilton Head, S.C. This 900-acre resort, however, is so beautifully poured into the sand dunes and sea marshes of the island that it offers everyone uncluttered privacy whenever they're away from the Pete Dye golf courses and Chris Evert Lloyd's home tennis complex.
It is even nicer to know that Fernandina Beach's best months are in the fall and early summer, when the visitors are gone. Then the Atlantic beaches become deserted and the streets of Fernandina Beach belong to the Plumnellies.