Hotel Watch: Fantasy Island

by Columnist

After an $85-million makeover, Omni Amelia Island Plantation is welcoming families looking for affordable luxury in Florida.

By John Arundel

The recently "re-imagined" Omni Amelia Island (Courtesy Photo)

The recently “re-imagined” Omni Amelia Island (Courtesy photo)

It’s winter and it’s cold, and for many vacationing snowbirds from Washington and other Northeast Corridor cities, that could mean one thing: Time to migrate to Florida and its sunny beaches.

While many feel the gravitational pull to Miami, Naples and the Palm Beaches during winter’s high tourism season, Florida resort destinations near Jacksonville are seeing a resurgence from younger families who maybe can’t stomach the glitz and crowds of Miami Beach, or the seasonal sticker shock of resorts in places like Naples, Palm Beach and Boca Raton.

Searching for such an alternative drew me to the delightful Amelia Island, one of Florida’s southernmost Sea Islands, a chain of barrier islands stretching along the east coast from South Carolina to Florida.

Here I settled on Omni Hotels and Resorts’ recently “re-imagined” Amelia Island Plantation, a 1,385-acre resort which just recently completed $85 million in upgrades and refurbishments making it a fully loaded kiddie mecca: 20 swimming pools, a “Camp Amelia” kid’s club, Segway adventures, paddle boarding and stocked fishing lake, all wedged between natural marshes and four miles of pristine white-sand beaches.

The 1,385-acre resort just completed $85 million in upgrades and refurbishments. (Courtesy Photo)

The 1,385-acre resort just completed $85 million in upgrades and refurbishments. (Courtesy photo)

With a 5-year-old daughter named “Amelia,” a shrewd cookie when it comes to measuring things that delight and amuse her, and a vacation budget not exactly geared to the $20 Pina Coladas found poolside this time of year in Palm Beach, Omni’s renewed push toward the affordable, family-friendly resort experience is a most welcoming beach mat, leaving both parental and child units happy at check-out.

Named for Princess Amelia (1710-1786), the daughter of George II of Great Britain, Amelia Island retains the baronial charm of the sceptre, and a rich history you can almost hear in its whispering pines. It was settled in circa 1000 by natives, who remained there until the early 18th century. French explorers began settling here in 1562, but by 1565 they had been driven out by Spanish forces, followed by British marauders in 1680. French pirates moved in around 1817, proclaiming it “The Republic of Florida.”

Over the centuries Amelia Island changed hands between colonial powers and pirates scores of times. It is claimed that over the last three centuries, eight flags have flown over the Island: French, Spanish, British, Patriot, Green Cross, Mexican, Confederate and the United States. Spending just a few hours here breathing in the gentle breezes of the Atlantic, or paddling languidly among the salt marshes, you see what all the fuss was about.

In modern times, the ownership of Amelia Island has been bloodless, but no less lively.

Development of Amelia Island Plantation began in 1971 by the Hilton Head Island’s Sea Pines Company with an early emphasis to develop the resort in “harmony with nature.” The master plan became part of the deed covenants that protected the tidal marshes, dunes, savannas and wildlife here, with such edicts as a minimum 40-foot buffer of natural vegetation established to protect the waterways.

At Amelia Island, there is an emphasis on  “harmony with nature.”  (Courtesy Photo)

At Amelia Island, there is an emphasis on “harmony with nature.” (Courtesy photo)

In the early going, all things did not work out as planned for the original owners, who filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1976. A new group of investors, taking the name of Amelia Island Company and led by Richard Cooper, further developed the plantation over 30 years, adding new seaside homes, condos and villas, and adding continuously to the hotel’s AAA Four Diamond amenities while keeping it true to its original goal of marrying Amelia Island permanently to nature.

Cooper, Amelia’s longtime president, died in 2008, and the global economic collapse that year hit the island hard. Amelia Island Company filed for bankruptcy in 2009, as did several other resorts up the coastline, including the legendary Sea Island Resort north of Jacksonville. The Cooper family interests, which had retained majority control of Amelia Island for three decades, emerged from the reorganization plan with $5 million. Today, the development reportedly has a total value of $1.95 billion.

In 2012, TRT Holdings, the parent company of Omni Hotels & Resorts, emerged as the successful bidder in an auction conducted in federal bankruptcy court. In purchasing the real estate, Atlanta-based Omni stepped things up a few notches at the 30-year-old resort. Omni closed the hotel after its acquisition and embarked on a rapid succession of significant enhancements.

This included making public areas more airy and sleek — with a lobby offering sweeping panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean — and fully making over its 408 guest rooms, suites and many of its seaside villas, which are privately owned but can be booked through Omni Central Reservations.

Luckily for the guest, Omni’s expensive and expansive long-term investment in the property does not show up on the room bill, as room rates range roughly from $139 to $299 per night, depending on occupancy. All of the new “re-imagined” rooms and suites face the ocean. There is no bad view here.

All 400 rooms and suites face the ocean. There is no bad view here. (Courtesy Photo)

All 400 rooms and suites face the ocean. There is no bad view here. (Courtesy photo)

About 80,000 square feet of flexible space was added to accommodate large meetings and conventions of up to 1,600 participants. During our visit, the Georgia State Bar had convened its annual meeting, and one barrister from Marietta I met sipping a vintage cognac and chomping a cigar by the newly added fire pits on the sweeping new veranda delighted in the fact that on the first day of proceedings, a motion was approved to make all sessions end by no later than noon sharp, so as to take fuller advantage of outdoor fun.  Getting athletic and outdoorsy is clearly a focus.

Omni also made big enhancements to the golf and tennis facilities, garnering the attention of the editors at Conde Nast Traveler, which named it one of the Top 120 Golf Resorts in the World, and the editors of Tennis Magazine, which rated it number two among tennis resorts in Florida.

The resort now boasts 54 holes of golf at three distinctly different Audubon International Certified Sanctuary Golf Courses, with wide manicured fairways, large smooth greens and groups of trees at strategic points. The challenging “Long Point” course, designed by Tom Fazio, includes eight water hazards; the “Oak Marsh Course” winds through salt marshes and heritage oaks draped with Spanish moss, and the “Ocean Links” course, as the name implies, runs through sandy dunes and coastal hammock, abutting the ocean on five holes.

On a warm day, the brisk breeze off the Atlantic provides a welcome embrace.

Omni Amelia Island's signature golf course, which seemingly plunges into the ocean. (Courtesy Photo)

Omni Amelia Island’s signature golf course, which seemingly plunges into the ocean. (Courtesy photo)

Tennis has long been a draw here, with 23 Har-Tru clay courts and half a dozen Cliff Drysdale-trained tennis pros on staff. Beginning in 1980, Amelia Island Plantation played host to a women’s professional tennis tournament, which became the legendary Bausch & Lomb Championships from 1987 to 2008.

The nine restaurants and shopping village with 14 boutiques, French-style market and deli at Omni Amelia Island offer scant reason to leave the plantation.

The island offers up a variety of dining choices as well, such as the seafood and paté at Plae, the veggie pizza at the surf-inspired Natural Slice Pizzeria & Surf Shop, and the vegetarian couscous plate at Oceanside Grill, not to mention Marche Burette’s many desserts. The main bar off the lobby has a relaxing new outdoor lounge whose centerpiece is two large fire pits where cocktails may be ordered to commence or finish the evening.

Getting athletic and outdoorsy is clearly a focus. (Courtesy Photo)

Getting athletic and outdoorsy is clearly a focus. (Courtesy photo)

There’s no shortage of ways to burn off the calories here, either. The fitness center has an indoor lap pool, two gyms with workout equipment, and a full schedule each day of wake-up Pilates, personal trainers and fitness classes. There are also bike and Segway tours, offered by Amelia’s Wheels.

“The future is exciting for this landmark location,” Eckert said. “The re-imagination has really put us on the map as the new, family-friendly, family-affordable place to be in Florida.”

Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort
39 Beach Lagoon Road
Amelia Island, FL 32034

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