Amelia Island Downtown Tasting Tours holds mixology tours every Friday and Saturday from 5:30pm–7:30pm. Priced at $45, each tour includes four local bars (different every outing), where attendees (no more than 14 per group) sample one cocktail per venue. For more information and to book, visit ameliaislanddowntowntastingtours.com.
You know that mixing vodka, gin, and rum may not be a smart idea. But you do not let that thought linger; you are about to have a good time. You stroll into the homey Hola! Cuban Café (www.holacubancafe.com) in downtown Fernandina Beach. The owner, Marisol—last names are a needless formality in this tight community—beams from behind the counter, “Here for the mixology tour?” You nod.
Little do you expect that the two-hour long bar crawl with Amelia Island Downtown Tasting Tours will amount to anything heftier than a light alcoholic binge. But it turns out to be what Marisol wittily defines as “a moving cocktail party.” Among your 12 fellow partygoers are spouses on vacation, a couple celebrating their 16th anniversary, and a sailor with the U.S. Navy who just got back home.
Audrey, who leads the bashes together with Marisol, tells us it’s a walking tour, but we won’t be walking far. “Just a couple of blocks,” she says. After Marisol’s brief rundown of the rules – no smoking and no drinking on the street are among the strictest – you venture to your first stop, the Crab Trap (ameliacrabtrap.com), where a flight of stairs – tackled while you are still sober, Audrey jokes – takes you away from the ground-floor crowd. Edwin, the bartender, is already shaking the evening’s starter, “The Island Time”, a fruity concoction of rum, pineapple and orange juice, which he describes as “easy to prepare, easy to drink and easy to get drunk with.”
Although the tasting tours began as a fun activity to pull locals back to the heart of town in the slow season, today they enjoy a strong attendance of vacationers, who Marisol treats to tidbits of the peculiarities of the bars. While the mellow notes of the cocktail perk you up, Marisol talks about the history of the bar-restaurant. Nonetheless, its generous 11am–7pm happy hour is what really grabs you.
As a still-hushed buzz zips in your head, the now babbling group moves on from the second to the third stop, the Palace Saloon (www.thepalacesaloon.com), Florida’s oldest continually operating bar, which has survived a fire to trade both liquor and ghost stories. Its vintage, Western-classic ambiance overwhelms you – from the thick cigar odor to the barmen’s vest-and-tie uniforms. Even if the Palace keeps the fresh, sweet streak of the tour, its spin – a fusion of watermelon, elderflower and cucumber – feels oddly refined, just like the place, itself.
Soaking in the chill, Caribbean vibe, of the last venue, the Green Turtle Tavern (greenturtletavern.com), you cannot help but picture the beach. The laidback dynamic, amplified by the soulful live tunes of a local band that turns the patio into a dance floor, more than makes up for the rather average key lime pie cocktail. Creative idea, you admit, but still wince at its sour-milk undertones. You venture outside, where your drink buddies are already twirling to the beats. Finally, you grasp why Marisol and Audrey run the Amelia Island Downtown Tasting Tours: to connect, to communicate, to entertain, and to, simply, create memories.
Marisol’s and Audrey tips to a great Amelia Island Downtown Tasting Tour:
Keep an open mind for cocktails that may differ from your preferences. You might be in for a delight.
Come eager to meet other people. You never know when, how, and where you will make a new pal.
Wear comfortable shoes, so you do not wobble after the fourth drink. Leave those five-inch stilettos at home, ladies.
Fill your belly prior to the tour, and make dinner reservations for after it.