I hail from America’s oldest city: St. Augustine, Florida. The town recently celebrated the 450th anniversary of its founding by Spaniard Pedro Menendez.
The most famous town landmark is “the fort,” Castillo de San Marcos, a US National Park Monument. Construction using coquina (shell-stone) rock began in 1672, and the structure stands as the oldest masonry fort in North America. Georgia’s British General, James Oglethorpe pounded it by cannon fire for 27 days in 1740, but the fort never fell. Today, the daily canon firings are by costumed interpreters.
When I first moved here, those canon firings made me jump. Now, they’re part of the city’s charm, along with the scenic bi-plane I hear flying overhead and the horse-drawn carriage rides that slow traffic.
You can easily stroll the historic district including 36 buildings of Spanish and British colonial origin. My favorites are The Colonial Quarter, a mini-Williamsburg focusing on the city’s early Spanish and British settlements, the beautiful Basilica, the 1600’s Gonzalez-Alvarez House, the oldest Spanish dwelling, and Pena-Peck House and gift shop.
Pirate Robert Searle sacked the town in 1668. Learn all about Searle at the Pirate and Treasure Museum containing Smithsonian quality artifacts (a real Jolly Roger flag and the only known authentic pirate treasure chest) and some newer treasures like Capt Jack Sparrow’s sword. Afterward, board the Black Raven Pirate Ship for a swashbuckling cruise on the river.
Foodies love the fact that no chain restaurants are allowed downtown. Dine on Spanish tapas or French patisseries, Mexican favorites and pizza by the slice on touristy St. George Street. Take a Culinary Tasting Tour, one of the best ways to see the old town, and sample some of the extraordinary fare. A stop in the St. Augustine Distillery is another must. Free tours take visitors through the distillery known for hand-crafting gin, vodka and whiskey from local ingredients and Florida grown sugar cane. Tastings follow: try the Florida Mule, a house specialty at the Ice Plant, the attached restaurant.
I love all the festivals, costumed reenactments (Founders Day Celebration, British Colonial Night Watches) and the annual Nights of Lights Illumination from Thanksgiving until the end of January. Some three to four million white lights outline the buildings, bridges and trees. Hop on the Holly, Jolly Trolley and don a pair of 3-D glasses–the lights turn into snowflakes. Quirky and fun!
Don’t miss Henry Flagler’s first grand hotel, the former Ponce de Leon Hotel. Today, this turret and tower Spanish Renaissance jewel is a centerpiece for Flagler College. Touring begins at the fountain in the courtyard, then the grand lobby with its magnificent 80-foot domed ceiling supported by eight hand-carved oak caryatids, the dining room with its 79 Tiffany stained-glass windows and prized clock personally installed by Thomas Edison.
Ready for some sand and sun? St. Augustine Beach lies just across the iconic Bridge of Lions. Whatever you do, have a blast!
To avoid crowds, visit after Labor Day through early November or February-March.