AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. -- People love the beautiful beaches, dunes and marshland -- all set against the vast Atlantic Ocean -- on this small barrier island just 50 minutes northwest of the Jacksonville International Airport.
But life indoors at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island can be pretty stimulating, too. A continuous $65-million renovation since 2006 has revitalized this grand beachfront resort, refurbishing all 445 rooms and suites, building a new spa and rebranding the dining scene.
Jim Badenoch remembers how sleepy and secluded this section of Amelia Island was when he bought his home in the Summer Beach community in the late 1980s. The grand openings of the Golf Club of Amelia Island in 1987 and the Ritz in 1991 suddenly put this destination on the map.
'The Ritz was the place that brought notoriety to Amelia Island,' Badenoch recalled. 'Before that, nobody had heard of it.'
There are several other great hotels and resorts on Amelia Island, which extends two miles wide and 13 miles long, but it's the Ritz that sets the standard all others continue to chase.
'This has always been one of the more popular Ritz-Carltons,' noted Jim McManemon, the resort general manager.
A new and improved Ritz-Carlton resort
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island sits on 26 acres just a short boardwalk across the dunes from a breathtaking beach perfect for swimming or beachcombing for seashells and shark's teeth. This connection to the beach and ocean helps to keep the hotel feeling casual and comfortable.
You're just as likely to see someone in flip flops in the lobby as you are a black tie for a corporate function. There are plenty of places to relax inside and out, from the lobby lounge to the Adirondack chairs surrounding a fire pit outside.
The first phase of this renovation in 2006 really took the property to a whole new level. That's when the resort spiced things up a bit, no pun intended.
Executive Chef Thomas Tolxdorf dreamed up the name 'Salt' to replace the generic-named Ritz-Carlton Grille as the resort's signature dining experience. It was his way of paying tribute to the ocean (and its salt water) that so many guests love. Tolxdorf and his talented team use more than 50 types of salt in their creations, including Himalayan Salt, the purest form on earth. Servers will recommend various flavors to complement any entree. It's the guest's choice to add a little or a lot. The demand for these salts became so great the resort began selling them.
The resort's other menus have also undergone makeovers. The Eight Burger Bar & Sports Lounge, opened in 2010, serves up some mean sliders, heaping nacho plates and local brews. The menu at the Cafe 4750 recently moved away from its Italian roots and has gone coastal. Its farm-to-table initiative delivers more local seafood, such as Atlantic trigger fish, flounder, Mayport shrimp, scallops and grits, and jumbo lump crab cakes. Seasonal vegetables and fruits come from local farms as well as farm-raised, grass-fed beef and lamb. The choices on the breakfast buffet are superb. Just save room for the sticky buns.
Salt also plays a major role at the Ritz-Carlton Spa, built new in 2006. Every treatment starts with a salty foot scrub, a perfect primer to get into that relaxed state of mind. My surrender massage was just what the doctor ordered after golf. The signature treatment is 'heaven in a hammock,' a massage that gives off the feeling of floating. This 2,750-square-foot spa houses a separate steam room, sauna and whirlpool in the men's and women's locker rooms; three relaxation lounges; a private indoor and outdoor pool with Jacuzzi; and a fitness center.
The best part of the room renovations has to be the all-glass, storm-proof, sliding balcony doors. They let the sunshine in, and allow guests to gaze in wonder along the horizon of the beach. All the amenities of a five-star room -- marble bathrooms, threaded bed linens, multiple flat-screen TVs, iPod docking stations –- are now in place.
The Golf Club of Amelia Island
Back before the days of bomb and gouge became the standard in professional golf, the Golf Club of Amelia Island was long enough (6,696 yards) and strong enough to host a major event, the 1998 Liberty Mutual Insurance Legends of Golf won by the then-PGA Senior Tour team of Charles Coody and Dale Douglass.
Today, this private club -- accessible only through the Ritz -- remains as playable and enjoyable as any resort course anywhere. The greens roll pure, but they’re tough to read.
A career day can be had from the short 6,156-yard blues if guests can stay out of the marshes of the back nine, starting at No. 14. The course, designed by Mark McCumber and Gene Littler, is so roomy and comfortable that losing a ball is more pilot error than architectural cruelty. It’s a joy to play.
The resort's many programs pay homage to its coastal treasures.
Our group enjoyed s'mores and drinks on the beach after dinner in front of a roaring fire. This experience can be downsized into a romantic setting for two with hot chocolate, blankets, a stargazer's map and telescope. These winter fires are available Fridays and Saturdays from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
There are several clay tennis courts on property. Excursions to go deep-sea fishing, horseback riding on the beach, kayaking, sailing and surfing are available. There are new offerings in the Ritz Kids program. Or vacationers can sneak away to tour Cumberland Island, Fernandina Beach or the two state parks, Fort Clinch and Talbot Island.
Guests don't seem to stay away too long. The homey feel of this Ritz tends to pull them back in again.