Old World Charm Reigns Supreme in St. Augustine
By: Catherine Trifiletti
A swift breeze from Matanzas Bay rattles palm trees lining the walkway outside Castillo de San Marcos as groups of tourists wait their turn to enter what stands as the oldest masonry fortification in the continental United States. Looking at the 16th century structure drives home the significance of St. Augustine as more than just a relaxing Florida getaway. It is a city that has seen centuries of history unfold, changing hands of power along the way, but never losing its understated beauty. It is only in the early morning light when streets are quiet and boats are tucked away in marinas, sails unfurled, that you can truly reconcile the blend of old and new that comprises America’s oldest city. Visitors to the quiet Floridian gem – population 14,000– must encounter the city’s great historical landmarks to unwrap the authentic St. Augustine experience.
The places that function best in St. Augustine are the ones that strike a happy balance of past and present. Start your visit with a walk down cobblestone Aviles Street lined with Spanish colonial buildings that now house contemporary boutiques and bars. Stop for a refreshing libation or coffee along America’s oldest and most well-trodden lane. Continue the stroll onto St. Augustine’s main pedestrian artery St. George Street, which boasts countless shops, ice cream parlors and outdoor cafes coaxing visitors out of the Florida sun. If walking becomes tiresome, do as the Old World settlers would and opt for a horse-drawn carriage ride. Look out for the spectacular Flagler College and the neighboring Lightner Museum, both former hotels founded by railroad tycoon Henry Flagler. A ride around the historic district isn’t complete without a visit to Castillo de San Marcos. The centuries old fortification hosts daily reenactments of cannon firings once used to ward off unwanted guests like pirates or encroaching British forces. Manning the cannons are a group of dedicated volunteers dressed head-to-toe in period costumes.
Standing atop the great fort looking out over the bay, it takes a bit of imagination to picture the great Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon anchoring his ship on the shores of what is now the Northeast coast of Florida. In searching for the “Fountain of Youth,” a folkloric water spring said to bring its visitors eternal youth, he stumbled upon the peninsula which he named “La Florida.” Fast forward about 50 years years and the Spanish, intent on colonizing Ponce de Leon’s big find, laid down their roots in St. Augustine. In 1565, with hoards of settlers in tow admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded “St. Augustin,” naming it for the feast day for St. Augustine. The current Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park pays homage to Ponce de Leon’s pursuits and the actual site where Aviles touched down on Florida’s land.
A relatively newer attraction, the St. Augustine Lighthouse was built in 1871 to guide ships safely through Matanzas Bay. If the walk up 219 winding stairs doesn’t take your breath away the 360-degree view at the top of the lighthouse will. As the evening approaches, opportunity arises to learn about St. Augustine’s spooky past. So long ascuriosity trumps fear, the Ghosts & Gravestones Tour offers a tour equally educational and chilling around some of the city’s most haunted landmarks. Energetic and knowledgeable guides make the experience a stand-out.
A long day of exploration and history lessons will require some 21st century rest and relaxation– cue Casa Monica Hotel, a part of the famed Kessler Collection that boldly mixes traditional and contemporary design. Opened in 1888, the property has seen its fair share of history, changing from a hotel to a county courthouse in the process. Eventually acquired by hotelier Richard Kessler, the space found its niche as a luxurious Bohemian haven for visitors to the old city. With a resident art gallery, a sleek in-house spa, acclaimed restaurant Costa Brava and the chic Cobalt Lounge for late night jazz, the property has something for everyone. Warm southern hospitality and comfortable accommodations will ensure that guests are well-prepared to tackle another day in the Nation’s oldest, and arguably most charming, city.
For more information, about the city of Saint Augustine, visit www.citystaug.com