Despite loving the occasional snow-covered trail ride (actually it’s the only way to love anything snow covered), recent chilly temperatures have me reminiscing about warmer adventures – specifically my trip to my second favourite destination in Florida: Amelia Island. Two summers ago my journey there turned out to be more horsey-themed than anticipated, and not only because this is the only place in Florida where you can ride on the beach.
Amelia Island is the Florida of days gone by – summer homes along the shore, beaches lined with boardwalks and independent restaurants serving up locally-caught grilled shrimp, seafood chowder and fish tacos you take outside and eat at picnic tables under a canopy. This narrow island, 18-miles (29km) long and three miles (4.8km) wide, is in the northern part of Florida, just south of Georgia and a one-half hour drive from the Jacksonville International Airport.
It’s not the kind of place I thought I’d have three different equine experiences.
I stayed at the island’s flagship property – known as the Island’s Castle – the Fairbanks House, a short walk from downtown Center Street and the marina. Here, the stately opulence of the building’s physical presence blends with the pistol personality of Inn Keeper Theresa Hamilton to create an experience that’s part down home charm and part upscale antique posh. A hospitality professional by nature, Theresa will book dinner and activity reservations for you, and it’s because of her I ended up in a carriage ride through town, and a boat tour past wild horses.
First: The Carriage Ride. It’s not like the questionable operations of large cities where horse work under unreasonable conditions. There aren’t many companies offering this service, so competition is not fierce and the horses are family members. Book a ride with Amelia Island Carriages and you get either Boomer or All That Jazz, two carriage horses owned by Cyndi Myer an island resident who takes visitors on regular and pre-booked tours of downtown Fernandina Beach’s historic Victorian properties.
Boomer is a fixture in town, and a kids’ book about him graces the display windows of many stores. Myer regales passengers with stories about founding families, nuns dedicated to nursing fever victims, and houses with carousel horse-adorned porches that have inspired their own tall tales. All the while, she drops the reigns and simply voice-commands her well-trained draft horse through the streets. She jokes that either horse follow its own route, with the occasional ‘ho’ and ‘walk on‘ as guidance, and she alters her commentary according to their choice of turn. (Actually, I’m not sure that was a joke.)
Second: The Wild Horses. The not to miss two-and-a-half hour boat tour by Amelia River Cruise & Charters led by the quirky Captain Pajama Dave takes participants along the island’s shores then passed Cumberland Island in Georgia that’s 90 percent protected park land and home to herds of majestic wild horses, whose ancestors were left behind by missionaries a century ago.
Their exact lineage is debated but these are likely descendents of horses belonging to 18th century English settlers. The equine then mixed with Tennessee Walkers, Paso Finos and Arabians in the late 1800s. Like pockets of wild horse colonies in North America, theirs is a story of survival, reverted instinct and a fearless avoidance of humans, whom they tolerate but don’t yield to. (See my previous post here).
But it’s the beaches that attract most people – including me – because what is Florida without sun, sand and shoreline? Amelia Island has the later in abundance: 13 miles (21km) of beaches attract families, couples, and multi-generational travelers throughout the day thanks to available change rooms, gazebos, boardwalks, and beachside restaurants.
But here’s the big draw (for me anyway): this is the only area in Florida that allows horseback riding on the sand. Three stables offer this service, most trailering horses to Peter’s Point Beach, including the family owned Stay’ N Country Ranch.
Third: The Beach Ride. You meet the trailer in the parking lot and there’s more than one operator who offers rides, so check who you’re signed in with. I met my guide and horse about 30 minutes before the ride started, and turned out it was just her and I heading out this morning.
One-hour rides usually begin at 11 am and must be booked in advance. Depending on the company, the rides are generally slow walks or trots for beginners mostly in the sand, but the horses are equally comfortable with the waves dancing around their hooves at the water’s edge.
I, however, wasn’t so steady. The ebb and flow of the water left me with a slightly dizzy feeling (I get dizzy easily) and I had to focus instead on the horizon in front of us, sort of negating the experience of a water ride. However, sand is great for horse hooves so there’s no stumbling; it’s easier than arena riding.
No helmets are provided, but I was riding the owner’s champion competitive roping horse that apparently doubles as a steady and trusted trail horse. The easy trot (because there were only two of us) was a calm – this straight line ride was more about the view and the salt air blowing through our hair like some kind of film set adventure … before turning around and experiencing the whole thing from the other direction, waves still rocking underfoot.