Romance, history, charm and culture: St. Augustine is Florida’s little gem

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

Irene journeys to St. Augustine – aka America’s oldest city – and finds it to be very different from the rest of Florida

You can tour St. Augustine by trolley, car, horse-and-carriage, bicycle, on foot or even in a hearse (nighttime ghost tours!) Or, you can do them all! I found myself one day on my bicycle, backing up to a carriage with a charming palomino in front. Now where else would THAT happen?

St. Augustine, Florida is officially the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States. Settled by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1517, on his futile quest to find the so-called Fountain of Youth, St. Augustine, has indeed stayed alive and vibrant through the centuries. This delightful European-mixed-with-Southern town is very Spanish colonial topped with a hefty portion of white columns, y’alls, and sweet tea, draped with Spanish moss, lush palms and towering bougainvilleas and hibiscus. It’s an eclectic, romantic, sultry sort of place – one where people walk for hours and gaze upon the endless history, beauty, heritage and whimsy all around them. It was built surrounding the mighty 300 plus-year-old Castillo de San Marcos, a fort which withstood countless foreign attacks, with walls of up to 18 feet thick. The fort is the oldest and only remaining 17th century stone fort in the mainland U.S.

St. Augustine, Florida

Just 15 minutes from miles of pleasant, wide sandy beaches on adjacent Anastasia Island, St. Augustine offers a plethora of activities and sights to see. While many Floridians tend to visit for just a long weekend, there is more than enough here for at least a week’s stay. Delightfully, you don’t need to reside in a typical chain hotel – St. Augustine is home to some 30 charming bed and breakfasts, lovingly attended to by their owners. They compliment the image of this city as being perfect for lovers – in fact, many couples marry here, often right in the parlors or on the front porches of their B&B’s, or in the ancient Plaza by the gazebo.

St Francis Inn

One of our favorites is the St. Francis Inn, just around the corner from the Oldest House Museum in an especially quiet residential section of the old quarter. The St. Francis, with 17 rooms, affords the cosiness of a B&B with the amenities of an actual inn. One of the very few B&Bs in town with a swimming pool and free rental bikes, the St Francis’ staff is superb and its cuisine is generous and delicious. This B&B would be a perfect choice for those traveling with children. Another B&B, located right in front of the old Spanish fort on the main pedestrian stroll, is the St. George Inn, with a very accommodating staff and large, well-appointed rooms. Also closer in to the shops and cafes you’ll find the Inn on Charlotte, a delightful property attended to personally by its friendly, gracious owner. Here, the rooms are named and decorated for historical figures from the area. Food here is also exceptional and the staff will jump over hoops to accommodate special needs. For those who want the size of a B&B without the intimacy, try the Casa de Solana – a more reserved B&B where you won’t feel at all pushed to chat with other guests. Spring and summer are the high season months, with pleasant warm temperatures and minimal rainfall.

Claude's Chocolates

Excellent restaurants of all ends of the dining spectrum abound in St. Augustine – it’s a tiny microcosm of the world, with authentic French, Spanish, Cuban, Italian, Southern, Cajun, Russian, Polish and Mexican cuisines. Deserving special accolades is the informal, reasonable and very French Bistro de Leon, owned and operated by a renowned French chef and his wife. Check out the members of the independent restaurant group with its 13 eclectic venues. Ready for a treat? Visit the exquisite, tiny Claude’s Chocolate, with chocolates you’ll never forget. Claude is a transplanted Frenchman who was a chef in his former life, now a happy chocolatier creating each exquisite truffle and bonbon by hand. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything to surpass his chocolates anywhere in the world. Claude’s is on the same block with the Tony Casa Monica Hotel, across from Flagler College.

Good Morning America, in conjunction with Travel & Leisure Magazine, have named St. Augustine as their number one selection of places Americans could go “to feel as though they had jetted across the Atlantic without breaking the bank.” We agree! With the old quarter’s narrow, brick and cobblestone streets, lined with ancient coquina walls, no sign of commercialism and no noise save that of the clip-clop of horses, we felt transported into another world and another time.

There’s a rich history here from the Spanish, British and American occupations. Be sure to take the open-air Old Town Trolley Tour to get your bearings when you arrive. Well-informed guides lead you through 19 of the town’s historic and notable sites, at each of which you can disembark for as long as you like and then hop back onto the next trolley.

Old Town trolley tour

Don’t miss the Old Florida Museum with an excellent overview of the city’s history from pre-European times through the 1900’s. A big draw and magnificent treasure in St. Augustine is the sophisticated Lightner Museum, housed in the former luxurious Hotel Alcazar, showcasing the country’s ‘Gilded Age.’ Don’t pass up the tour of Flagler College, just across from Lightner – this is no hum-drum college visit. Flagler is a gorgeous former hotel which displays spectacular frescoes, moldings, carvings and other artwork, as well as the most beautiful student dining room you’ll ever see.

You’ll see some lurid, some fantastic and some actually charming sights at the original Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum – especially enjoyable for families. Another kitschy place is the original site of the so-called Fountain of Youth, where Ponce de Leon thought he found the secret of eternal life. If you visit, you’ll see a small panorama, drink a cup of water, and leave, unfortunately, in exactly the same condition as when you entered! Take some time to visit the new Pirates and Treasure Museum – very well-done and really delivering much more than one might imagine.

Over on Anastasia Island, the Alligator Farm Zoological Park, founded in 1893 and one of the nations’ oldest zoos, is an incredible place – built on a natural bird rookery, you’ll not only see hundreds of enormous alligators, crocodiles and caimans of 23 species, but nesting egrets, roseate spoonbills herons, and more, in dizzying numbers and at an arm’s length. This is a superb zoo – don’t miss it. While out on the island, take time to visit the St. Augustine lighthouse, 165-feet-high and offering a gorgeous view from the top of its 219 steps of the surrounding Matanzas Bay. If you’re there during the full moon, the lighthouse celebrates it monthly with a champagne toast and refreshments.

Vilano Beach

While out on Anastasia, you can take in a beach outing – the Atlantic beaches here are quite nice, with harder sand that can be driven on, as many do to have picnics from their cars. Beaches nearby include Vilano, St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra (also home to some renowned and pricey golf courses.)

Situated on Florida’s ‘First Coast,’ travellers will typically fly into the pleasant, vibrant city of Jacksonville and then drive the hour down to St. Augustine. There’s plenty to see and do in Jacksonville as well – don’t miss the lovely Riverfront with its excellent museums, center for the performing arts and lively bistros.

Need to know:
St. Augustine: Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau; 800-418-7529;  www.Getaway4Florida.com
St. Francis Inn: 800-824-6062; www.stfrancisinn.com
St. George Inn: 888-827-5740; www.stgeorge-inn.com
Inn on Charlotte: 800-355-5508; www.innoncharlotte.com
Casa de Solana: 888-796-0980; www.casadesolana.com
Cluade’s Chocolate: 904-829-5790; www.claudeschocolate.com
Bistro de Leon: 904-810-2100; www.bistrodeleon.com
Visit Jacksonville: 800-733-2668; visitjacksonville.com
St. Augustine Independent Restaurant Association: www.st.augustinerestaurants.com

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