St. Augustine, Florida
Value for Money:
Personality Types that Like it Best
Did You Know … ?
- St. Augustine was the first permanent European settlement in the U.S. (1565).
- St. Augustine is the site of America’s oldest wooden schoolhouse (1716 or earlier).
- The oldest masonry fort in North America, Castillo de San Marcos, still guards St. Augustine (built 1672-1695).
- Nearby Fort Mose was the first legally sanctioned community of freed slaves in what became the U.S. (1738).
- The Cathedral Basilica in St. Augustine was home to North America’s first Catholic congregation (1594 or earlier).
City of firsts
If any half-grown school girls and boys do not know that St. Augustine is America’s oldest city, they will know it when their parents take them to the Florida site on a family trip designed, however surreptitiously, as an educational journey. But what a classroom!
Except for 20 years under British control (1763-1783), St. Augustine belonged to Spain from its founding in 1565 until 1821, when the U.S. bought Florida. As a result, it preserves a Spanish colonial heritage unique in the eastern U.S.
In addition, the surviving Spanish colonial section of St. Augustine is impressively large. The central historic district encompasses 144 city blocks, and 11 pedestrian-only blocks are at its heart. St. Augustine counts 85-plus historic sites and attractions.
Travelers of all personality types — and not just those of school age! — visit historic attractions even if their real interests lie elsewhere. Some most-visited sites are the Oldest House Museum Complex; the Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum, a living history operation; the Government House Museum and Cathedral Basilica on the central plaza; the Dow Museum of Historic Houses, and a massive fort, the Castillo de San Marcos.
These are representative of much that has been restored. Preservation began in the 1880s when oil tycoon Henry Flagler started investing in historic buildings. Seeing the city’s potential as a resort, he also built grand hotels and helped foster a tourist industry. His elegant hotels still stand, but today one is Flagler College, another the Lightner Museum.
Flagler saw a nascent resort town because St. Augustine, besides being pretty and fascinating, is on the northeast coast of the Sunshine State with access to beaches and water. The city sits on a peninsula, wrapped on three sides by rivers, one of which gives access to the Atlantic less than a mile away. The rivers, the ocean and long sandy beaches translate into broad choices for lovers of beachcombing, fishing, sailing or more adventurous sports.
Finally, this is duffer country. The PGA Tour is headquartered at nearby Ponte Vedra, and the World Golf Hall of Fame resides in St. Augustine. Golfers are naturally drawn to the area to polish their game.
Things to do for Venturers
- Fish from a kayak on the Tolomato or Guana River north of St. Augustine, or on the Matanzas River to the south. The area abounds with opportunities to fish. It also abounds with rivers and waterways that seem made for kayaking, fishing rod or no.
- Grab a candle and march in the British Night Watch Parade through downtown St. Augustine. The parade is the high point of a December weekend devoted to commemorating the 20 years (1763-1783) that the British held the city. The parade, which ends with musket shots, singing and other merriment, recalls the times when guards, sometimes with the citizenry, locked the city’s gates each night.
- Climb the 219 steps to the observation deck on the 18th century St. Augustine Lighthouse for a high-altitude view of the area. This is a working lighthouse with a museum, as well.
- Sail in St. Augustine’s waterways. One option is the shipwreck tours offered by Outreach Sailing Adventures. The St. Augustine operator takes customers out on a replica 1833 pilot schooner, invites guest to help crew the tall ship (but you don’t have to) and uses remote sensing equipment to search the ocean floor for wrecks.
- Take the Ghosts and Gravestones Tour, by trolley, which includes a visit to Tolomato Cemetery.
- In or around St. Augustine, you have these options: kite flying, kite surfing, parasailing, surfing and windsurfing. Choose at least one.
Things to do for Centrics
- For an eye-opening experience, listen to the Disney-style animatronic figures in the city’s 300-year-old schoolhouse as they describe a typical day in the 18th century classroom, and see the textbooks students used. Ask yourself how you would have fared in such a school.
- If you are a bird lover, Anastasia State Park, not even two miles from downtown St. Augustine, offers the chance to spot several kinds of heron, snowy and great egrets, white ibis, even the bald eagle and many more species.
- Have lunch at the bottom of a swimming pool. The Cafe Alcazar occupies the deep end of the indoor pool that was once part of the grand Alcazar Hotel. The hotel is now the Lightner Museum
- Fish in the surf near the Vilano Fishing Pier at Vilano Beach. You have a chance to catch black drum, bluefish, flounder, pompano, red bass, sheepshead, speckled trout, whiting or yellow-mouth trout.
- Get a sense of life for defenders of the Castillo de San Marcos. Now a national monument, the impressive site, which overlooks the water just outside the historic city’s gates, offers daily ranger programs on the history and culture of the fort. Also, costumed reenactors are always on site to demonstrate the weapons or aspects of the colonists’ lives.
- Scoot over to nearby Ponte Vedra, headquarters of the PGA Tour, to work on your golf game at fine courses. Also, ride horseback along the beaches at Ponte Vedra.
Things to do for Authentics
- Tour the oldest parts of St. Augustine in a horse-drawn carriage, open-air trolley or sightseeing train. Return to spend quality time at the Oldest House Museum Complex or any other section of the historic Spanish town that struck your fancy.
- Shop at art galleries, antique shops and old bookstores, often located in historic buildings that are as interesting as the products on sale.
- Take the kids to see the huge alligators at the Alligator Farm Zoological Park.
- Head to the beach. Forty-two miles of pristine beaches await you.
- Join one of St. Augustine’s First Friday Artwalks, a chance to peruse the offerings at more than 20 art galleries — and maybe buy a treasure for your home. On some of these Fridays, there are gallery openings, artist receptions and live entertainment — and they are free. So are the parking at the San Sebastian Winery and transport on the historic town’s trolleys.
- Eat a lot of fresh seafood. Also, try a few Southern specialties, such as Florida gumbo.
For more information, consult the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau at www.floridashistoriccoast.com