By Kevin Chaffee
Florida’s premier northern coast resort boasts a rare AAA five-diamond rating for both its hotel and top-notch restaurant, but that is only one of the reasons why upscale guests flock to enjoy the sun, sand and surf there, especially during the June through August summer high season (the opposite of South Florida).
Located on a broad expanse of sandy, shell-strewn beach amid a backdrop of Spanish moss and palmettos near two protected state parks, the setting is more reminiscent of Hilton Head than Miami Beach and is a prime location for birding, cycling, hiking, sailing and fishing adventures.
While the property is well suited for business conferences or romantic getaways, it is first and foremost a family destination with a truly impressive roster of activities and adventures for children age five to 12, many of which are included in the room fee. Adding to the relaxed vibe, the Ritz chain’s usual formal style has been muted here to match the laid back beach scene although hints of luxury are apparent in the plush seating areas of the public rooms, varied dining options and an extraordinary spa that ranks among the best in the nation.
Standard rooms average approximately 400 square feet and offer private balconies with beach views (at least to some degree). The decor features the usual unobtrusive beige or pastel tones with queen beds that are covered in 400-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets. Other amenities include a comfortable love seat, a safe, a well-stocked mini- bar, ample drawer and closet storage, a wide choice of pillow options, an iron and ironing board, a coffee maker and a large screen TV. The rooms are well insulated with very little noise emanating from the hallway and above or adjacent rooms. The marble bathrooms are commodious but cry out for renovation, especially the shallow tubs with shower curtains rather than more up-to-date glass doors. There is a separate toilet, double basins, plush bathrobes and high-end Asprey toiletries.
SUNNING & SWIMMING:
Couples and singles may wish to avoid the immense but often crowded main pool area where DJ’s and live music of the beach vibe or steel drum variety plays throughout much of the day. Lots of children are running, jumping, diving and splashing continuously of course — sometimes parents are watching, other times not. Peace and quiet, however, may be found in a large and rarely crowded indoor pool or an even more exclusive one in the spa (where a treatment reservation is a prerequisite to entry). Guests won’t want to miss swimming and relaxing at the expansive beach, accessed from the hotel via two foot bridges over tortoise-inhabited dunes where chaises longues, towels and umbrellas (available at an exacting $25 rental fee per day) are available from a personable staff. The shoreline is great for a walk especially during the morning or at sunset although there is not much to see apart from an unfortunate row of nearby cookie-cutter condos.
TENNIS & GOLF:
Four newly renovated clay tennis courts can be reserved (use of rackets ad balls and the first daily hour of play are complimentary). Individual and group lessons and drill clinics are offered on weekends from the resident pro. A full-service pro shop is located on-site. Rounds of golf are available at the nearby Golf Club of Amelia Island, a traditional resort course designed by Mark McCumber to present a “unique array of challenges” over marshland, oak canopies and other natural elements that are unique to the barrier islands. Ritz-Carlton guests enjoy discounted rates and premium tee times at discounted rates. The rolling, well-manicured links include wide-open fairways and two holes with views of the Atlantic Ocean.
The resort’s naturalist offers complimentary nature walks and shoreline shell hunts that should appeal to most guests as well as a birding expedition to nearby Talbot Islands State Park where you might even see a bald eagle ($55 per person). A private boat tour to explore the nearby barrier islands is highly recommended. You might see some of the feral horses on Cumberland Island and will surely be amazed by the Dunganess Ruins, the remains of a 59-room Scottish castle-style mansion built by Thomas Carnegie, the brother and business partner of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, that was destroyed in a mysterious fire in 1959. Bicyclists won’t want to miss riding southward down a mostly flat trail from the hotel to Amelia Island State Park, stopping to see the enormous dunes at American Beach, a resort town popular with African American vacationers since 1935.
JUST FOR CHILDREN:
The Ritz Kids Adventures in partnership with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society are extensive and include experiences based on the program’s four themes: water, land, environment, responsibility and culture. Pirates are a big deal here with offerings that include a special treasure hunt, pirate-themed overnight camping experience ($125) and nightly tuck-in with milk and cookies provided by the Pirate Captain, a Princess and Amelia the Macaw ($65). “Dune Dwellers” activities for five-to-12-year olds feature learning about native plants and animals as well as games and crafts ($55). There is also a delightful “Sandcastle Memories” experience with a special concierge” to help scout a perfect location and then sculpt a crenelated mini-masterpiece with refreshments and keepsakes included in the $125 price (per group of four).
The vast spa area’s unusually creative services include a holistic wellness program presided over by yoga gurus Liam and Radha Gillen, who lead guests in “accessing the deepest parts of the mind” through meditation, deep breathing exercises, movement and music. A session with this kind and gentle couple is a not-to-be-missed experience. Other features on the spa’s myriad menu include special scrubs, soakings, saunas and steams as well as yoga sessions, “enzyme renewing” facials plus a long list of massages and other treatments too numerous to mention. There are luxurious waiting and special post-session relaxation rooms, some for couples only, as well as the aforementioned spa pool. A few guests have complained about booking mix-ups at the front desk and the music, which tends toward soft rock standards instead of the usual zen-like spa sounds.