JACKSONVILLE, FL — If you were to stumble upon a chest of buried treasure, Jacksonville’s Talbot Islands would be the perfect setting. Here, far away from the crowds (but an easy day trip from Jacksonville), you could sit in the dunes under the shade of a scrubby sabel palm and savor your discovery without distraction.
If your day trip turns up nothing more than a few shells and some delightful scenery, it’s worth the drive. The Talbot Islands, just north of Jacksonville, offer some of the most state’s most delightful coastline. Driving north along A1-A, you’ll first come to Little Talbot Island State Park, where you’ll find mile after mile of quiet beach. It’s an ideal place for a long walk — and the 19th century shipwreck a mile north of the parking lot makes a good destination during seasons when it is exposed. A separate, 4-mile nature trail provides opportunities to see the island’s interior scrub forests and dunes as well as stretches of remote beach. Bring insect repellant. The Talbot Islands are situated along the Eastern Flyway, so bring your birding guide. About 200 species of birds visit the islands each year.
The next island north is Big Talbot, and it has one of Florida’s truly unique beaches.Its sandy, rust-colored cliffs are rimmed with palmettos and accented by weathered oaks toppling over into Nassau Sound. If you’re a fan of picturesque driftwood, Big Talbot will be heaven. Weathered limbs of every shape crowd the narrow beach. The Bluffs can be reached from the picnic area at the north tip of the island or from the short Blackrock Trail, which crosses the island’s scrub interior to a scenic tidal pool. Although Big Talbot is big on scenery, it’s not particularly suitable for long, romantic walks, especially at night. The abundance weathered trees create an obstacle course even in the daytime.
After soaking up the sun, you can sample the area’s history by taking the 4.4-mile self-guided drive on St. George’s Island, just south of Little Talbot. Pick up a brochure at the abandoned Jean Ribault Club, where the Fort George Hotel was built in 1875. The road winds through a canopied drive as it passes Mt. Cornelia, which at 65 feet is the tallest sand dune on the East Coast south of Nag’s Head in North Carolina. The drive also winds past several Native American sites and ruins dating from the colonial period. The whereabouts of Fort George, built by General James Ogelthorpe in 1736, are unknown.
The tour also visits the restored Kingsley Plantation, which dates from the early 19th century. It was operated by Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife Anna Madgigine Jai, a slave from Senegal, West Africa. The slave force of 60 produced a crop of cotton, citrus, sugar cane and corn. Twenty-three tabby slave homes can be viewed, as well as the house, barn and kitchen.
After a day of exploring, you can head north to Amelia Island for a horseback ride along the beach at sunset, and dinner at one of the many fine restaurants on Fernandina Beach.
Little Talbot Island State Park
The Talbot Islands, one of the best day trips from Jacksonville, are just northeast of the city on Highway A1A. The entrance fee to Little Talbot State Park is$5.00 for vehicles with a maximum of 8 passengers or $4.00 for single occupants. Camping on Little Talbot Island is $24 per night including utilities.The park is located at 12175 Heckscher Drive, Jacksonville. Phone: (904) 251-2320.
Kayak Amelia, located just north of the Little Talbot Island State Park entrance, provides local kayak rentals, canoe rentals (and guided tours) to explore the salt marshes on Little Talbot Island, which offer excellent fishing for sea trout, redfish and other species. For information, call 904-251-0016. Bicycle and Segway Tours are also offered locally.
Big Talbot Island State Park is located on A1A North. For information, call (904) 251-2320. Day use for the picnic grounds cost $3 per car.
The Kingsley Plantation (just south of Little Talbot Island) is free and open daily from 9 to 5. For information, call (904) 251-3537. The Fort George Island Visitor Center is located in the Ribault Club, which is free and open to the public, Wednesday through Sunday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Horseback riding is available at the southern tip of Amelia Island at the Kelly Seahorse Ranch stables. Five-mile rides along the beach cost $35 per person. Call ahead for reservations: (904) 491-5166.