St. Augustine, Florida is like an ancient Castilian princesa. Dressed in a gown of grass-green velvet, draped in a veil of Spanish moss, she invites you to celebrate her 450th birthday, September 4-8, 2015.
She wants you to know all her long and diverse history, both the triumphs and the struggles, and revel in the vibrant city she has become. Surrounded by natural beauty of land and sea, rich with choices for accommodations, dining, attractions, and nightlife, St. Augustine is an exuberant hostess.
In a year-long party, St. Augustine commemorates the 450 years since Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and his ships landed on Florida’s East Coast. Predating Jamestown by 55 years, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the continent. Like the Pilgrims, the 800 African and Spanish colonists survived because the Timucuan peoples of the village of Seloy gave them housing and protection.
In this year’s events, the diverse beginnings of St. Augustine are proudly heralded in the museums, posters, and even on the trolley tours. An on-going free display, Tapestry, explains, “The intermingling of Native Americans, Hispanics and Africans was the very beginning of the diverse American culture, one that characterizes our nation today.” (Dana Ste.Claire, director of the St. Augustine 450th Commemoration.)
Through the perils of wars, famine, yellow fever, the Trails of Tears, and time, the many peoples of St. Augustine endured. Though now a small city with a population around 22,000, St. Augustine had over 6.5 million visitors last year. She became a vacationer’s destination in the 1880’s when the industrialist Henry Flagler of Standard Oil and Florida East Coast Railroad discovered St. Augustine. He was on a honeymoon with his second wife. He so loved the setting, he turned the village into a Gilded Age winter paradise.
St. Augustine’s early wooden buildings were destroyed by disasters and fires, including being leveled by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, yet many treasures remain to highlight her long history.
Walk down the cobblestone streets to see:
- a cannonball stuck in an early 1700’s Spanish building (later renovated by the English)
- the site of the first Mass and parish on the continent
- many statues of Ponce de León and Florida’s oldest tourist attraction, The Fountain of Youth .
- cemeteries holding the mass graves of thousands, victims of epidemics, wars, and religious struggles
- The Lightner Museum and the main building of Flagler College, Henry Flagler’s architectural treasures featuring Art Deco collections, abundant gold finishings, and Tiffany stained-glass windows
- the notorious jail that inspired the movie, Cool Hand Luke
- The Accord Freedom Trail of significant sites of the Civil Rights Movement (Dr. King preached and was jailed here while supporting the St. Augustine Four after their sit-in at the Woolworth’s counter).
In three days, there was only enough time to skim the history of St. Augustine, but this traveler would insist that you see the Castillo de San Marcos, the St. Augustine Lighthouse, and old St. Augustine.
The Castillo is a unique 17th century style fort perched on the edge of St. Augustine’s Matanzas Bay. Built in 1695 with walls of coquina, accretions of seashells, Castillo de San Marco is the oldest surviving fort on the continental U.S. Only the San Juan Historic Site in Puerto Rico is older.
The Castillo has withstood the attacks of pirates, invaders, and hurricanes, but the old walls still stand. It was proclaimed a national monument at the same time as the Statue of Liberty. For a time-line of Castillo de San Marco and a detailed description of the grounds, click here
Visitors are welcomed to the Castillo by volunteers dressed in period costumes. Knowledgeable park rangers offer tours and information. Check the schedule to see a recreation of the cannon firing drill (be careful to cover your ears!). The cannon used for the mock firing is a small one. Still, if loaded, a cannonball could hit the St. Augustine lighthouse 1.5 miles away.
On the upper level, cannons of many generations and sizes are displayed. You are welcomed to explore the courtyard and interior rooms dedicated to periods of The Castillo’s history. Many simply spend their time staring out to the wide spaces, watching the ships and yachts floating near the draw bridge and the piers of the Bay.
The Castillo is built of coquina, the basic building block of old St. Augustine. A product of the ancient seabed shells and pressure, coquina is unique to the area. As it was porous and not so rigid as solid stone, coquina absorbed the impact of cannon balls. At night, the soldiers would remove the balls, fill the holes with straw, and plaster over the damage. The next morning, the walls seemed undamaged.
The recovered cannon balls would be reshaped and shot back at the attackers. One British onslaught provided the Castillo and the Spanish with all the munitions needed for the 45 days it took to repel the enemy.
If a force managed to get to the base, the walls were angled out. The seashells, though long-buried underground, were a haven for bacteria. Before antibiotics, a scratch could fester and cost a man his leg or his life.
What You Should Know:
- Outside the Castillo, there are places to sit for observation and relaxation. However, don’t sit on the walls or cannons inside! The walls are delicate.
- The volunteers and rangers love what they do. Take pictures, ask questions, and explore.
- Get a tripod. Even if you try not to jump when the cannon goes off…you will!
St. Augustine Lighthouse, guardian of the nation’s oldest port, is shining with its new coat of paint and new purpose. Though replaced by modern navigation tools, the 1870’s lighthouse, keeper’s house, and park let you step back into the past and up into the clouds.
The beautiful site lives on through the efforts of the St. Augustine Museum and the community, especially the Junior Service League of St. Augustine. You may find the lighthouse by map, cell phone, or trial and error, but the easiest way is to head for the tower high above the surrounding terrain.
Each lighthouse had its signature paint design for daytime and a unique light character. The famous “day mark” of the St. Augustine Lighthouse is a wide black and white spiral. The light, still in working order, has a pattern of three beams that can project 20 miles.
For the strong of leg and heart, it is a delight to climb the spiral stairs, all 219 of them, to the top of the high tower walk. It is an arduous climb, though you can rest on the landings. There is no handicap accessibility up the tower and young children, under 44 inches, are not allowed. However, the vista is stunning. A 360 degree view of the Atlantic, Intercoastal Waterway, Matanzas River, and St. Augustine is at your feet. A few steps higher and you can see the original hand-cut crystals of the still working Fresnel lens, now powered by a 1,000 watt bulb.
The Keeper’s House
Though the original house was burned to the beams, the house has been recreated with period furniture, wallpaper, and accessories. The life of the keeper was difficult, with the whole family part of the effort. Every 2 hours, five-gallons of oil needed to be carried up all 219 steps to fuel the light. There is a display just inside the lighthouse to give you an idea of how incredibly heavy that bucket would be. Despite the difficulties, it was considered an honor to have the position. Widows would often take over if their husbands died.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse is also a working marine archeology site and the nation’s only underwater archaeology school. The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum is a parent organization to the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.
You can go on a behind-the-scenes tour and meet with the archeologists in action. Researchers are excavating the remains of a maritime disaster at the mouth of the estuary. Near the end of the American Revolutionary War, New Year’s Eve, 1782, 16 ships tried to dock in St. Augustine. Unfortunately, all approached at the same time. All 16 sunk. Because they were so near shore, the immigrants survived, but lost everything in the struggle to lighten the ships’ cargoes. Researchers are freeing their lost belongings from the seabed accretions and discovering hidden stories. The tiniest elements, a button from a soldier’s uniform, a bronze door lock with a key hidden inside, and silver spoons are helping the researchers to tease out the past.
- On the premises, a group of volunteers build ships using the old tools and shellacs. The Heritage Boatworks are, “Keeping alive the art of wooden boatbuilding.” The lines of the hulls are lovely.
- Ghost tours: Our guide won’t go into the basement of the keeper’s house at night. The Lighthouse is a main feature of the Ghost tours of St. Augustine. Though airy and clean, with cool air and intricate ship models, the basement is claimed to have a spectral night visitor.
- Other tours
Downtown St. Augustine: Nightlife and Food
Historic St. Augustine is vibrant with outdoor cafes, live music, and boutique shops. St. George Street has been transformed into a cobblestone pedestrian mall. One new restaurant is an outdoor garden reminiscent of Maurice Chevalier’s lunch site in the classic movie, Gigi. Well-lit at night, the downtown area is the ideal place for an evening promenade. A walk along the Matanzas River and Lion Bridge is pleasant with wide side-walks and good lighting.
The hot spots on our stroll seemed to be Harry’s, the Tiki Bar, and Michael’s Tasting Room . Though we didn’t get to take advantage, the locals told us that the chocolate shops in St. Augustine and the restaurants, Scarlett O’Hara’s , and companion Rhett’s,are essential spots. We ended our evening at the elegant Casa Monica with champagne splits, dancing, and live music by Tommy and the Groove Connection. (Combine George Benson, blues, funk, and a dynamic young vocalist.)
There are many other live venues in St. Augustine, including an amphitheater and larger clubs. They may be found here:
Some Cuisine Moments:
- The Floridian: A comfortable, somewhat loud, Southern-flavors restaurant, The Floridian has a young crowd. There is fun “to be seen” seating in the front window or outdoor garden. They feature a refreshing drink, Bianca Peach, and a delicious grits with corn salsa appetizer.
- Michael’s Tasting Room: Featuring Spanish cuisine, Michael’s has an amazing wine list. The favorite for our meal was the Robert Hall 2012 Cabernet a Paso Robles, California wine. The cheese tray with Cana de Cabre was small in size, but tasty and attractive. Although I was disappointed in my paella, I heard the Hanger Steak Churrasco with truffle fries was delicious. Guests were well-dressed and seemed to be on date-nights.
- The Costa Brava: The new restaurant at the Casa Monica Hotel, is worthy of its early owner, Henry Flagler. Under the direction of Executive Chef Chris Pickren, even an egg-white omelet was lovely with heirloom tomatoes, goat cheese and fresh greens. The breakfast table was pre-set with a basket of fresh pastries and a side dish of watermelon, blueberries, and mint. And that was just the beginning! (An interview with Chef Pickren and a description of our dinner experience will be the subject of a new post.) (Menus here)
- The Ancient Olive: Learn the fine points of tasting infused and agrumato olive oils and balsamic vinegars (you won’t believe how good homemade popcorn is with truffle oil, about $16/bottle.) Gifts and other food delicacies are available. The store is also an art gallery and is currently featuring Spanish artists in honor of St. Augustine’s birthday.
- Augustine’s Distillery: In a repurposed old ice and power plant building, a new craft distillery offers free tours and tastings of their award-winning Florida Cane Vodka and New World Gin. They pride themselves on using regional grains and heritage sugar cane in their products. Their treasure, their first batch of bourbon whiskey, is still in the wood for another year and a half (great Florida Mule recipe!)
- If you’re at the Beach:
We dined at The Salty Life just across the street from the pier. Though some of the food seemed standard, my order, the Beach Boil, was delicious. The broth was light, the vegetables firm, and the fresh seafood the predominant flavors. Very pretty drinks
- Augustine’s Food and Wine Tasting Calendar for even more!
St. Augustine is on Florida’s Northeastern Atlantic Coast. Mid-way between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach, the city is east of Interstate 95. It is about an hour’s drive from Jacksonville Airport and two hours from Daytona Airport. Shuttle services and rental cars are available from both locations (see links below).
Inside the City: Once you are in downtown St. Augustine, walking, carriage rides, or sight-seeing trolleys are the best modes of transportation. You will need transportation between the beach and the downtown. Though there are shuttle services, they are limited and end before evening. There are many cab companies for those who don’t have a rental car.
For a change of pace: The adventurous can enjoy kayak trips, dolphin excursions, yacht rides, many ghost and graveyard tours, and even zip-lining over an alligator farm!
Where to Stay:
The biggest decision in St. Augustine is, Do I stay at the beach? Downtown? Luxury? Bed and Breakfast? Condo? Camping? There are nearly two-hundred choices in the area. They vary in price and proximity, yet St. Augustine is compact. A short car drive will get you where you want to be.
If you are adults with a special occasion in your life, I would recommend the Casa Monica Hotel. One of Henry Flagler’s earliest acquisitions, this four star hotel is on National Trust Historic Hotels of America. It maintains its original exterior but its interior is new and fresh. After closing in the Great Depression and a stint as the City Hall, the Casa Monica was rescued and completely renovated to Moroccan decor by Richard C. Kessler, founder of the Kessler Collection.
The design has an old-world feel with high ceilings, ornate furniture, mosaics, and fountains. The swimming pool is European style, with cabana roofs, and pool-side service. My room was charming and warm with a high, red velvet headboard and a bathroom large enough for dancing. My favorite part, however, is the art. It is everywhere! The Kesslers are known for traveling world-wide to collect art for their boutique hotels. Even the stairwells have fine pieces. With a romantic flair and set in the heart of the historic district, The Casa Monica is a favorite for honeymoons, for the first, second, or both.
One More Thing:
If you have an extra hour or so…
To feel completely relaxed and happily self-indulgent, consider an appointment at the Poseidon Spa:
The setting is elegant, on the grounds of the Casa Monica Hotel. The director, Amy Hallwood, is adamant that her guests, “…receive exceptional service in an exceptionally clean environment.” In a perfect dressing room, I changed into a soft white robe, and strolled to a lounge where I sipped cool cucumber water until my appointment time. My spa therapist, Erin helped me choose my aroma therapy and oils and treated me to a hot-stone massage. Afterwards, I showered and was invited to stay in the lounge to let the moment linger. It was a glorious experience and well-worth the extravagance.
Once, I stood in the Asia room of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts http://new.artsmia.org/ I had only had ten minutes before the doors closed. I was alone and cried out in frustration, “There’s just too much!” That is exactly how I felt on my last evening in St. Augustine. As she has done for so many, this little princesa has charmed my heart. I know she will do the same for you.
Happy Birthday, St. Augustine!
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Shuttles: Jacksonville Airport to St. Augustine
http://www.floridashistoriccoast.com/ (things to do, where to stay)
http://staugustine-450.com/ Link to activities for the celebration
http://staugustine-450.com/tapestry/ Multicultural display
http://www.nps.gov/casa/index.htm The Castillo
http://www.nps.gov/casa/planyourvisit/upload/CASA_Online.pdf Map and details of The Castillo
http://www.nps.gov/saju/index.htm San Juan Puerto Rico Historic Sites
http://www.staugustinelighthouse.com/ Lighthouse home
http://www.staugustinelighthouse.com/visit/main Lighthouse tours
http://jslofstaugustine.org/about/ St. Augustine’s Junior League volunteer organization
http://www.accordfreedomtrail.org/background.html . The American Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine
http://www.accordfreedomtrail.org/home.html Woolworth’s counter arrests
http://www.accordfreedomtrail.org/four.html The St. Augustine Four
http://staugustine.com/history/henry-flagler Biography of H. Flagler
http://www.thefirstparish.org/ First parish in U.S.
http://fountainofyouthflorida.com/ The Fountain of Youth attraction
http://lightnermuseum.org/ The Lightner Museum
http://www.flagler.edu/ Flagler College
http://augustine.com/thing-to-do/st-augustine-alligator-farm Alligator farm and zip-lining
http://www.casamonica.com/leisure/poseidonspa/ Poseidon Spa
http://www.tastetapas.com/ Michael’s Tasting Room
thefloridianstaug.com The Floridian
http://augustine.com/thing-to-do/ancient-olive The Ancient Olive
http://staugustinedistillery.com/ St. Augustine Distillery
http://visitstaug.com/food-wine-tastings-calendar/ Calendar of Tastes