Planted in Paradise
Handpicked Elegance at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort
written by Colleen Ann McNally | photos courtesy of Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort
“Diablo!” he shouted as he fought with the fishing reel gripped tightly in both hands. I couldn’t help but chuckle, although I know I couldn’t do any better — I had already tried before handing the job to Chef Hector Santiago.
Known as an Atlanta “Top Chef” from his appearance on season six of Bravo’s hit TV show, and more recently as the star of local headlines anticipating his restaurant El Super Pan at Ponce City Market, it’s a funny happenstance that we would meet far from our city or any kitchen.
Instead, we were on a boat just off the shore of Florida’s Fernandina Beach. I had been reluctant to leave mycomfy bed at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort before sunrise that morning, but this moment made it totally worth it.
Neither of us skilled fishermen, we were fish out of water here — but isn’t that the perfect opportunity to see things in a new perspective? For Santiago, it was calculating the future possibilities he could make from the devilish stingray battling on his line. For me, it was a new appreciation for where seafood comes from before selecting it in the freezer section, or more often — considering I lack Santiago’s culinary skills — ordering off a fresh catch menu.
A Winning Weekend
Ultimately that stingray, plus a couple of sharks and whiting would become a clever chorizo with rouille and a spicy green olive and tomato relish. The stakes were high, as the dish was Santiago’s submission to the cumulative competition of the second annual “Fish to Fork,” a weekend-long culinary celebration partnered with The James Beard Scholarship Foundation.
“Fish to Fork” is very much the brainchild of the Omni Amelia Island Plantation’s Executive Chef Daven Wardynski, and as a result the event showcases the resort’s unmatched approach to dining. Wardynski
challenges six renowned chefs from around the country to join Amelia Island charter captains for a fishing excursion before turning their catch-of-the-day into scrumptious seafood, prepared and plated for hundreds. Attendees sample offerings from each, and vote as many times as they like with dollar bills benefitting the cause. Perhaps it was home-field advantage or a true testament to his inventive approach, but Wardynski remained the reigning champ with his Togarshi Black Bass creation.
For a taste of “Fish to Fork,” tickets are available solely for the Saturday night shindig, but the VIP Package invites guests to truly immerse themselves in the culinary experience, as well as really get to know the chefs (read: hear them curse like sailors while reeling in ingredients for their competing dish). The three-nightexperiences include an intimate cocktail and dinner overlooking the ninth hole of the Oak Marsh Golf Course, the famous fishing charter, an inspired waterfront, wine-paired dinner at the Sunrise Café and a farm-to-table lunch at The Sprouting Project — the stunning onsite aquaponic greenhouse, organic garden and apiary.
Fairways to Heaven
If the itinerary sounds overwhelming, I’ll admit it was quite the opposite. How can one not be relaxed when the charter is the only real reason to leave the property’s 1,350 acres all weekend? Onsite is a shopping village of boutiques, restaurants ranging from casual to fine dining, boutiques and my favorite, Marché Burette, a grocery and wine shop stocked with delicacies and delights.
This convenience means never being too far from the sound of waves or a cocktail shaker. You could say our group became fast friends with the skilled mixologists at the Rum + Tequila Experience, a boutique bar dedicated to artisanal spirits located on the lower pool deck. There, we sampled a tequila flight — out of pure culinary appreciation, of course — with a lesson on the nuances of Blancos to Reposados to Anejos and Platinum varieties, including a special label Herradura barreled and bottled exclusively for the resort. I’d have to research those nuances again for the finer points, but I did master the simple equation of rum plus tequila equals no stress.
Still basking in the glow of an extensive $85-million re-imagination, the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort truly takes at least an entire weekend to explore. While I came for the food, a visit to the spa and to lay by the pool with mimosas made with fresh Florida citrus, many come with admirable goals of being more active. These opportunities are ample too, from 54 holes of championship golf to the 23 Har-Tru tennis courts and award-winning recreation programs and kids camps. Adventurers can rollick via kayak, horseback, Segway tour or bike along the 7 miles of paved trails.
Still others come for art. The inaugural “Cocktails & Canvases” weekend launches this month, offering another ideal option for travelers in search of an immersive vacation. A balanced combination of intellectual yet approachable activities, “Cocktails & Canvases” has something for everyone’s palate or palette. Think hands-on Asian paper-cutting, paper collage demonstrations, chef-led gourmet dinners and educational tastings of some extraordinary beverages set against a backdrop of coastal elegance. No signs of “Diablo” here, just a heavenly getaway.
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