Departing Florida

Oct 01, 15 Departing Florida


 JEANNE O’CONNOR – photographer (NATJA)

It has been more than a thirty year love affair with Florida.  But having  experienced many changes, perhaps too many, it was time to move on. The only question on the way north was what would this long term resident want to revisit that best represented the real Florida?

Many options were available. Key West? Exotic and unique but a long way away from the mainland and not really Florida.  Orlando?  Physically located in the center of the state but also is not the real Florida.

Years ago when I was visiting a small village in the jungles of Panama, a young boy from the village asked me where I lived.  When I told him Florida, his face broke into a big grin and he replied, “Ah, la casa de Mickey Mouse!”

For me, there was only one candidate worthy of representing Florida. It was St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied European city in Florida and the country.

St. Francis Inn.

St. Augustine has had  5 flags flying over it during its almost 500- year history during which time Florida’s Native American populations were decimated by European diseases and conquest (Spain – 2 times), France, England, American, and the Confederate States of America.

The, Seminoles, were late comers. They had migrated down from Alabama and Georgia in the 1700’s and cannot really be considered any more native than the Europeans.  The event that saved them from  almost assured annihilation was the looming Civil War.

Leaving our south Florida home, we hit the Interstate heading north   in two cars loaded with our most important possessions. The rest of our belongings went into storage. On the road, iPhones and coordinated GPS’ made for an easy trip.

Pirate’s Museum

Reaching St. Augustine, we headed for our favorite stopping point, not the usual roadside look-alike chains but the St. Francis Inn, America’s oldest continuously operating inn in the oldest continuously operating European city in the Continental United States.  St. Augustine recently celebrated the 450th anniversary of its incorporation in 1565.  The next big blowout will be the celebration of its discovery 500 years ago by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1523.

The St. Francis Inn has not been around that long but its beginning was in 1791 when a sergeant of the Infantry Regiment of Cuba was granted the lot at what is now the corner of St George and St. Francis Streets and built a 2-story coquina home there.

In 1845 the private residence was converted to a lodging establishment which became known as the Grace Dummett House. in 1888 the then current proprietor  added a third floor and mansard roof to the Inn.

The St. Francis Inn had eleven prior owners when  current owners, Joe Finnegan and his wife Margaret, bought the property in 1985. Joe was no stranger to the Inn having spent many summers there with his parents when they were guests during the time when the Inn offered short term rentals.

Only authentic pirate’s treasure chest existing in the world. Locked compartment within the chest for the really special stuff.

When Joe Finnegan heard the Inn would be going up for sale, he didn’t hesitate to buy it intending to preserve the unique heritage of this one-of–a-kind property. Joe has owned and operated the Inn for more than 30 years. That’s equivalent to several lifetimes in the hospitality industry.  He likes to refer to himself  as the oldest innkeeper of the oldest inn in the oldest city in America.  That’s quite a mouthful.

Let me ask a question of the reader at this point. The last time you were on vacation and stayed overnight on the road or at your destination,did you stay at a bland look-alike chain lodging based solely on price and the advertised Continental (high carb) breakfast?

The thought I’ve tried to impart to my readers over the years has always been to get off the beaten path.  Stay local.  Learn the area’s history and culture…or just stay home and save money.

In St. Augustine there are many choices for lodging including about 25 historic inns. The St. Francis Inn is in the oldest part of the Historic District and  out of the commercial area.  Most anything of importance and interest in the District is within walking distance. The Inn itself is not a carbon copy of anything else.  It is unique.

Pat Croche and the author

Each room at the St. Francis Inn is different in size, appearance, and furnishings.  Healthy, appealing homemade buffet breakfasts are prepared fresh every day. Afternoon “happy hours” bring guests back to the Inn for a little relaxation and conversation.  Room service is available without charge and there is one more thing to watch for.  Over the years there have been many reported sightings of the St. Francis Inn’s resident ghost which is to be expected in a building with this long a history.

In St, Augustine everything old is new again. Old attractions improve their images and new ones rely on the city’s history to attract visitors. Case in point is one of the oldest attractions in the city, The Fountain of Youth.

This formally moribund attraction has awakened from its long Rip Van Winkle existence. Some people have even commented that it probably had not changed since the days of Ponce de Leon and that if you were there once, there was no need to go back.  That’s no longer true today.

This way to the Fountain.

Archeologists have been busy at work rediscovering previously hidden footprints of old villages on the site. This attraction has come alive with restorations of these old villages and reenactments of life as it was hundreds of years ago.  It’s no longer just the story of the Spanish era and a fountain.

Several years ago a major new attraction invaded the city, the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum.  In the old days pirates invaded the city by sea. These modern pirates, who were previously housed in a museum in Key West, packed up their belongings and entered the city by a land route.

Author with friend.

The museum opened across the street from the historic Castillo San Marcos, a location from which pirates actually attacked the city in the past, The St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum  with its priceless relics, including  the world’s only authentic surviving pirate’s treasure chest  and one of only two original pirate “jolly roger “ flags in existence is a hands-on-museum, loaded with interactive computers for visitors to learn about history.

On guard in the Colonial Quarter.

One of my favorite exhibits is the authentic old iron cannons that, thanks to the magic of Disney, visitors can fire electronically. This is probably the world’s premier museum dedicated solely to the colorful history of pirates.

The entrepreneur behind this undertaking is Pat Croche whose name might be familiar to some.  He was the former owner and president of the Philadelphia 76ers.  His exuberant presence can be felt throughout the museum. But “museum” might be a poor word to use in this case since this is not a museum in the usual sense. This is a place for learning, interaction, and excitement. As soon as this project  was up and running, Pat switched his attention to another undertaking  on an adjoining street.

When the site of the Old Spanish Quarter on St. George Street was put out for bids by the City of St. Augustine, Pat’s plan for what is now called the Colonial Quarter was accepted and this location is now alive with the history of the area over three centuries of Spanish and English rule, again, a new attraction but one that honors the past history of St. Augustine.

We are now residents of Western North Carolina.  Our Florida visits will be less frequent.  But with every return trip, St. Augustine will definitely be on our must visit list to check for what’s new in the oldest of modern cities in the United States.


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