The sunshine state’s oldest city is filled with Old World charm

When Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon discovered Florida in 1513, landing near what is now the city of St. Augustine, there is no question he was more than a little impressed with the place. He named his landfall La Florida (place of flowers) the name eventually adopted by the state.

In addition to a bounty of exquisite blooming plants, the verdant landscape gave way to miles of white sand beaches but what was not immediately evident was how arduous it would be to settle this place whose beauty belied hordes of insects, mangles of twisted greenery, poisonous snakes and last but not least the threat of hostile natives.

Yet in spite of these and other hardships, and various failed attempts to colonize the Florida peninsula, the settlement at St. Augustine was officially founded in 1565 and thrived under the leadership of Spaniard Pedro Menendez.

Over the years the fledgling colony destined to become one of the most charming cities in America was threatened by the French and twice sacked and taken over by the British. It was later restored to Spain and in 1821 it was purchased by the United States.

The sale officially ended Spanish interests in St. Augustine but today the legacy left behind, both historically and architecturally, significantly shapes the character of the country’s oldest continuously occupied city.

I’ve visited pretty much every city in the United States purported to be a “must see” destination yet in my opinion the unique distinction of St. Augustine cannot be surpassed. This enchanting town on Florida’s upper northeast coast has at least 60 historic sites and attractions and the best way to visit them is aboard the city‘s open-air, sightseeing trolleys or trains which offer narrated tours and off/on privileges at key points of interest. Sometimes referred to as the Ancient City, its most popular attraction is St. George Street in what is known as Old Town. Now a pedestrian-only avenue, it is home to numerous original buildings established by early Spanish colonists. Here, visitors can tour the country’s oldest wooden school house together with a Spanish Quarter that replicates early colonial life with costumed interpreters. The avenue is also is also home to Florida’s oldest Spanish colonial house plus the Museum of Florida’s History and the Florida Military Museum. On this street that is constantly bustling with tourists, there is also an interesting mix of contemporary shops, boutiques and restaurants.

At the waterfront, the most visible attraction is the Castillo San Marcos, an impregnable coquina stone fortress built by the Spanish in 1695 to protect the colony from attack. Further along the waterfront is the Fountain of Youth National Archaeological Park, a tribute to the spot where Ponce de Leon is said to have landed.

History claims the explorer believed a fresh water spring on the property was the mythical fountain of youth and although he drank from it, a long and healthy life was not his destiny. A few years later a native wounded him with a poison-tipped arrow which led to his death. Almost every tourist who visits the park drinks from the legendary fountain hoping it might actually contain restorative waters.

While there are numerous other historical attractions such as the black and white striped 165-foot-tall lighthouse that has been guiding mariners since 1874, plus guided tours of an ancient jail constructed in 1891 by the same company that built Alcatraz, there are also illustrious sites that sprang up later during the “gilded age.” Two must-see venues are Flagler College, built as a hotel in 1887 by millionaire industrialist Henry Flagler. Today this Spanish Renaissance masterpiece is a private college, however, there are daily guided tours of the place and one of the key features is the world’s largest collection of Tiffany stained glass windows. The second must-see venue is the Lightner Museum, also built by Flagler as a hotel.

Today it houses artefacts from the 1800s, together with a Tiffany glass collection, antique mechanical musical instruments – and perhaps most fascinating – an Egyptian mummy of a young child.

Overall, the city is a wonderful enclave of historical sites and museums yet it also has a selection of entertainment options that make it a good destination for families. Kids are attracted to places like the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum, a day sail on the replica of a pirate ship, a visit to nearby Marineland or the St. Augustine Alligator Farm where there are at least 1,000 hungry gators. Of course, there’s always the beach which is unspoiled and natural.

Neither are visitors short changed when it comes to dining. There are more than 300 restaurants specializing in everything from Asian to American and everything in between. I sampled only a few so my recommendations are limited. For a fine dinner the Columbia Restaurant in the heart of Old Town did not disappoint with an elegant décor, excellent Spanish cuisine and arguably the best sangria in town. More casual and still in the Old Town is the Bubble Room. Patrons here are often encouraged to order a single entre for two since portions are so large they are best shared. This is a fun place for people with big appetites and a penchant for 12” high cakes.

Best casual lunch can be had on St. George Street at the Bunnery where bread and rolls are fresh baked and soup and sandwiches are both generous and tasty.

Since the focal point of the city is Old Town, I stayed at the St. George Inn just steps from the action. This is an unusual boutique hotel primarily because its 25 rooms are distributed among four different heritage buildings. I lucked out and was billeted in a suite with balconies on both back and front – one overlooking the Castillo San Marcos fort and the waterfront with the other overlooking St. George Street. The hotel’s location cannot be beaten and accommodations are well above par.

Travel Planner

Information: See Getaway4Florida.com or call 1-800-418-7529.
Getting There: St. Augustine is 45 min. south of Jacksonville International Airport and 98 miles northeast of Orlando International Airport. Driving south from Canada, St. Augustine is just off I-95.
Accommodations: St. George Inn. See www.stgeorge-inn.com or call 1-888-827-5740.