AMAZING ST. AUGUSTINE FLORIDA
WARREN RESEN – North American Travel Journalists Assn.
This is a city that continues to amaze, entertain, and educate visitors even those who have previously visited. As a frequent visitor myself, I can attest to the fact that there is always something new happening in America’s oldest continuously occupied European city.
Dori and Craig, long time Florida residents, for years had ignored my recommendation to visit St Augustine offering such comments as, “But it’s such a small city, what could t be there of interest to us?” Eventually they listened to a friend and took the drive north. After returning home they told me that, “There were a ton of things to do, way more than we could do in just two days, and we did a lot in those two days.” A couple of days in St. Augustine is a good start but hardly long enough to really learn about the city and all it has to offer.
The year officially recorded for Juan Ponce de Leon’s landing on the coast of Eastern Florida just north of the present day city of St. Augustine is 1513. When Ponce de Leon claimed what he probably thought was an island, he was technically claiming all of North America including Canada and Alaska for the throne of Spain.
The City of St. Augustine was officially founded by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, an admiral in the Spanish Navy, in 1565. To put the historical timing in prospective, it was in the following century (1607) that the English settlement in Virginia of Jamestown was founded, abandoned in 1610, and reestablished in 1616. In 1620 the Pilgrims landed on that famous rock in Massachusetts.
Let’s look at some of the attractions in St. Augustine that make this city so special. The iconic landmark of St. Augustine is Castillo de San Marcos, a coquina stone fort and the oldest one in the United States. Construction of the fort began in 1672, 107 years after incorporation of the city, and was completed 23 years later. Attacking forces twice tried to take the fort in the 1700’s but the fort was never taken. Visitors can take self-guided or docent-led tour inside Castillo de San Marcos. Most visitors are surprised to learn of the time when the United States imprisoned leaders of the Seminole Nation in the fort.
Conveniently located across the street from the fort is the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, one of the city’s newer and highly rated attractions, featuring authentic pirate artifacts dating back more than 300 years. Modern day interactive exhibits offer unique experiences for learning about what this era of history was like. Visitors will also have the once in a lifetime experience of seeing the world’s only remaining authentic pirate’s treasure chest.
Dori and Craig visited the museum and remarked that “it great for all age groups with lots of hands on activities for the kids. We spent a couple of hours there and read everything.” The museum’s motto is PLEASE TOUCH.
Backing up to the pirate’s museum is an area long known as the Spanish Quarter. It was recently repurposed as the Colonial Quarter and features three centuries of the Spanish and English occupation of St. Augustine. Costumed tour guides walk visitors through the three centuries while “residents” busily work at their trades.
This is a walking city. Once you park your car almost everything of interest can be reached on foot. But before you embark on a self-guided sightseeing tour I highly recommend that you take one of the city’s hop-on, hop-off sightseeing trolley tours. You will see the city’s major tourist attractions, be given a detailed history and lore of St. Augustine, with a bit of local humor thrown in, and will then be able to decide what you want to visit.
Starting at the southern end of the Old Town you have a lot of “oldest” designations. The Gonzalez-Alvarez House on St. Frances St. is the Oldest House in Florida. It was built shortly after the British had burned the city in 1702. The house is an important stop for its historical significance. Its lovely grounds and museum add to the experience.
Around the corner on St. George St. is the St Frances Inn. The original structure, (circa 1791), was expanded over the years with the first travelers being hosted in 1845 . Joe Finnegan, its owner for more than 30 years, claims to be the “oldest” inn keeper of the oldest inn, in the oldest city. I have an affinity to this accommodation, frequently staying here during visits to St. Augustine because of the history and ambience of the building, and its excellent breakfasts, and its wonderful host. One day I hope to see the reported ghost of the inn.
The heart of St. Augustine’s Old Town is at King and St. George Streets. Everything radiates from here: sightseeing tours, museums, attractions, restaurants, and lodgings.
St. Gorge St. is a traffic free pedestrian-friendly walkway. It is lined with buildings and shops selling history, food, trinkets and t-shirts. Some visitors have been heard to comment negatively on the commercial use for this historic area without realizing that in the old days it was taverns, buggy whips, muskets, and general stores here. It has always been a street of merchants.
One block east of St. George St. is Aviles St. the oldest street in the oldest city and a street that will take you to the oldest house. The cobble stone street with its historic homes is a photographer’s delight. On the walk south note the old tabby walls on the right hand side with the indentations of cannon balls still visible from the invasions of pirates in the 1700’s
Most prominent in central Old Town is Flagler College, originally the Ponce de Leon Hotel. It was one of the first major hotels built by the Flagler System (Henry Flagler). Flagler college is today one of the top rated four-year liberal arts colleges in the country. Original museum quality art and décor throughout the building have been preserved. Tiffany windows in the dining room are reportedly insured for more than $30 million.
It is in the college’s dining room where students socialize and stare into computer screens possibly no longer aware of their fabulous surroundings. A guided tour is the only way for the public to experience the magnificent interiors since security measures were imposed. Do take the tour. It’s worthwhile.
Henry Flagler also built the Hotel Alcazar across the street for more the athletically inclined of his guests. It featured a huge indoor swimming pool, exercise rooms, Turkish baths, steam room, and message room and was the center for physically active guests at both hotels.
The Hotel Alcazar was purchased in 1946 and reopened as the Lightner Museum. Its three floors house an eclectic collection of the treasures of America’s Gilded Age and probably has representations of every family heirloom your descendants ever possessed. It is often referred to as America’s attic. The indoor pool now features retail shops and a fine restaurant.
Florida and Henry Flagler are forever entwined but no more so than in St. Augustine. Mr. Flagler and his family are buried here in the Memorial Presbyterian Church on Valencia St. just across from Flagler College. The church, built by Flagler, was completed in 1888 in honor of his deceased daughter.
The question of available dining preferences is usually foremost on visitor’s minds. Walking to restaurants in the Old Town is a pleasant stroll but a listing of places to eat even briefly, where Spanish, Minorcan , French, Greek, Italian, American, and other cultures are represented would take more room than I am allowed here. Ask you innkeeper, hotelier, shopkeepers, even strangers. Everyone has his or her own favorite.
At the north end of the Old Town on St. George St. is the picturesque Oldest Wooden School House in Florida. It was first recorded on tax rolls in 1716. There are no wooden buildings in St. Augustine dated prior to 1702. That’s the year the British burned St. Augustine.
The Fountain of Youth is the oldest tourist attraction in Florida. For generations the attraction remained unchanged. If you visited it once, there was no reason to return. But now descendants of the original owners have brought it back to life. Archeologists have uncovered foundations of early Native American settlements. Restorations are underway to recreate those villages and special events are held throughout the year.
When the 1904 Mediterranean-revival style Casa de los Sueños (House of Dreams) in the north end of the Old Town came on the market, Joe Finnegan owner of the St. Frances Inn (1791), at the south end of Old Town, decided to add a newer model B&B to his stable. The amenities of each B&B are available to guests staying at either facility. Dori and Craig stayed in Mr. Finnegan’s newer model during their visit.
Their comments about the accommodations at the Casa de los Sueños and service were very laudatory, similar to what I’ve experienced at the St. Frances. They said “the staff was friendly and helpful. The freshly made hot breakfasts were different each day. The afternoon happy hours with wine and snacks were a delightful respite from the day’s activities. Then they bring you a “sweet” around 9 PM. Coffee, water, and soda, are available all day and the cookie jar is always close at hand. The location of Casa de los Sueños was great too. It’s near everything. We parked our car and walked everywhere. On the way home we visited the St. Augustine lighthouse, compliments of the B&B’s management.”
In the summer of 2016, Hurricane Matthew inflicted major damage to the city which is at sea level. Basically, the city went under water. Restorations to buildings in the Old District uncovered historic artifacts and remains of earlier inhabitants beneath the foundations historic buildings. We can probably look forward seeing many items on display in the future, again something new in the Oldest City.
Mark your calendars for St. Augustine’s next BIG celebration in 2065. It will be the 500th year of the city’s founding. But before then, consider visiting during a less crowded time. Special events and festivals are held throughout the year.
For complete information about anything and everything happening in America’s Oldest City to go the web site for the St. Augustine Visitors and Convention Bureau