Oldest City Also Has Some of Oldest Attractions
By Karen Rubin
Waking early in the Beach Cottage on our second morning in St. Augustine on Florida’s northeast coast, we enjoyed a stroll along the beach, pleasant even in the chill of winter, and our boys even pulled up some of the beach chairs provided by the St. Francis Inn and laptop to complete college essays.
If we had more time, we would have taken advantage of the bikes that the St. Francis Inn also provides its guests, both at the Beach Cottage and at the inn.
Though the Inn had stocked breakfast cereals in the Beach Cottage (one of three guesthouses it has on Anastasia Island), we took the 15-minute ride back to the St. Francis Inn in order to enjoy the freshly cooked breakfast – then returned back over the bridge to the Island for some of the area’s other major attractions outside the historic district.
Our first stop was the St. Augustine Lighthouse (seeing first-hand just how far a target that cannon shot from the Castillo de San Marcos could hit). The candy-stripe pattern that creates such a delightful landscape from the historic district is tremendous fun to climb. You ascend some 219 metal steps round and round in an increasingly narrow spiral until the top, 165-feet high, where you get a fabulous panoramic view, a peak at the Fresnel lamp, and then it is back down.
At the base is the Lighthouse Keeper’s house, not too long ago a literal wreck, now restored as a museum. Here, you get a better understanding of the men and their families who undertook this vital responsibility, through old photographs and artifacts.
The lighthouse will delight children, but to further engage them (especially in the historic exhibits in the museum), pick up a “Scavenger Hunt.” Also, there is a marvelous gift shop ($7.75/Adults, $5/child 5-11,www.staugustinelighthouse.com).
The lighthouse is located within a public park where there is also tennis and other recreation.
While the downtown district is exquisitely historic, Anastasia Island, is a showcase of St. Augustine’s natural history, on display at a large wildlife sanctuary and at attractions that not surprisingly in a city with a score of “oldests”, are also some of the oldest of their kind in the country.
Founded in 1893 and one of the oldest zoos in the country, we were amazed, frankly, at how contemporary the St. Augustine Alligator Farm is, in terms of its presentation (habitat-style exhibits, for the most part), and themes (ecology), and how cleverly cultural elements like native masks are incorporated. We were surprised to learn that the Alligator Farm, which is truly a zoological park accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, is a noted Wading Bird Rookery where herons, egrets, ibis, spoonbills and wood storks can be seen (they roost in the evenings above the alligators knowing they will keep predators away). Indeed, it will be the center for the First Coast Birding and Nature Festival, centered around St. Augustine, April 12-15, 2007 (for information, 800-653-2489,www.Getaway4Nature.com).
But of course, the major attractions are the alligators and crocodiles – a profusion in numbers and kinds (23 different species) from all over the world; probably the most striking are the two that greet you as you enter, a pair of albino alligators. There are so many, that at one point it occurs to you that most of the 3 million alligators estimated to be left in Florida seem mostly to be here.
The star attraction is Maximo, a 15’3″, 1,250-pound saltwater crocodile who lives in his own pool, and can be viewed through glass underwater. He is over 30 years old, and could live to be 80. The highlight of the visit, of course, is feeding. As it happened, with Maximo going into a season when he rarely eats, he chose not to devour the guinea pig that was dangled in front of him, but we nonetheless did get to see his massive teeth.
An entire exhibit, “Gomek Forever” is devoted to Maximo’s predecessor, who at 18-feet, 2,000-pounds was one of the largest crocodilians ever on display, and wowed audiences at Alligator Farm for years (the video of him is amazing). Equally interesting, is an incredible display of art from New Guinea, where Gomek was born.
The park has a Kidszone, a playground where Kids can let off steam while peaking through to an exhibit featuring a Malibu stork and West African crane.
The time was growing short, and for our last activity in St. Augustine, we could not miss the chance to see what all the fuss was about: The Fountain of Youth, probably America’s first tourist attraction.
The presentation here seems to be a relic of Old Florida and the plastic flamingo sort of tourism – the structures date from the 1950s – but the Fountain of Youth is still not to be missed; it is a significant archaeological site of the Indian town, Seloy, where in 1513 the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon opened up a new era in America’s colonial history.
Occupying a 12-acre park (pet-friendly), it offers several important exhibits, with narrations at three: a planetarium, the Spring House, and something called the Globe of Discovery.
The planetarium show (the oldest manually operated planetarium in U.S.) is most interesting because it shows how Ponce de Leon and the explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries would have used the stars to navigate. Ponce de Leon actually sailed on Columbus’ second voyage, in 1493, and after serving as the first Governor of Puerto Rico, Ponce decided to search for “Terra Bimini”, a place rich with gold and a miraculous spring. He outfitted three ships with his own money. In the process, he actually discovered the mainland of North America (not Columbus, as so many believe), arriving in April, during the Festival of Flowers. He named the place, La Florida.
The actual “fountain” is not a fountain at all, and even in Ponce de Leon’s time was a bubbling spring; since then, the water table dropped 12 feet and the same water is pumped up from below the ground, within the Spring House.
Here there is a life-size diorama, complete with moving waves on a painted ocean, depicting the encounter between Ponce de Leon and the Timucuan Indians. The reason he thought the water had such powers is that the Indians, at over six feet tall, towered over the Spanish – unfortunately, the diorama, displaying more chauvinism than historic integrity, shows Ponce the same height as the Indian chief, who would have been nearer to 7 feet tall, when Ponce de Leon was only about 5 feet tall. We are told that the reason the Timucuans grew to such height is because it was their custom that the tallest man marry the tallest woman (I thought about that and realized that we have a similar culture, in that men rarely marry women who are taller.)
Clearly, the Fountain of Youth did not help them much, because after the Spanish arrived, the Timucuans contracted diseases that killed them off.
Drinking from the Fountain of Youth didn’t help Ponce, either, because when he ventured out again in 1521, to establish a colony on La Florida’s West Coast, he was shot with a poisoned arrow by a Calusa Indian and died of the infection.
Within the Spring House is a cross made of sand and stone – innocuous at first until you realize that it is supposedly the actual cross that Ponce de Leon left in this place, that had been rediscovered in 1919 by a workman (at least, that is the story). But amidst the dioramas, it is hard to appreciate.
Take the opportunity to drink from the Fountain of Youth – the sulphur-tasting water (it is treated before it is served) is quite putrid, but worth the experience.
The third part of the narrated tour is the “Discovery Globe,” two stories high, 56 feet in diameter, that describes the 100 years of Spain’s glorious history in exploration (I was not impressed).
More impressive, though not because of its presentation, is a structure that houses the Timucuan burial ground. Once again, this should be much more reverential and significant. Now it looks like smoothed over gravel, but there are life-sized photos to show where the graves were discovered.
Even more interesting was the Indian man who has an encampment where he discusses what life would have been like for the Timucuan at the time.
The theme that is advanced, though, seems about as disingenuous as making Ponce de Leon as tall as the Timucuan chief: “The first successful integration of Indians and Europeans” is how the site is presented. Except that the Timucuans went extinct after their encounter with Europeans. (Fountain of Youth; allocate about 1 �-2 hours; $6.50/adult, $5.50/ seniors, 3.50 60-12, 800-356-8222).
We regretted that we did not have more time to visit Marineland of Florida, another legendary Florida attraction, in fact, the oldest “oceanarium.” It, too, has gone through some major updating, including a new Dolphin Conservation Center with eight different dolphin habitats. Here, you can take part in a dolphin discovery adventure (general admission is $5/adults, $2.50/child; interactive programs with dolphins start at $65 and can even be customized for special events; 888-279-9194,www.marineland.net).
Historic Inn, Up-to-Date Amenities
The St. Francis Inn was an exquisitely perfect choice for our multi-generational getaway, in every way. The charm of the inn is evocative of New Orleans (dare I say), with the wrought iron gate and the quiet garden behind ivy covered walls, complete with a fountain with a collection of poi. Tucked off to the side of the inn is a lap-sized swimming pool – not so necessary at Christmas when we visited, but welcome during eight months of the year.
The St. Francis Inn gives a family the opportunity to become thoroughly immersed in history – living for a time in one of St. Augustine’s oldest homes (the original section dates from 1791) and one of its oldest inns (since 1888) in one of the oldest cities in America, just a block or so away from numerous “Oldests” – like the Oldest House, the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse, right in the midst of the historic district.
This could have been enough, but the St. Francis Inn, and its sister property, Casa de Solana, offer an amazing array of amenities that is entirely unexpected but oh, so appreciated.
The St. Francis Inn was a thoroughly enchanting place to have breakfast before heading out for a busy day of sightseeing, and to come back for afternoon refreshment with wine, no less, and in the evening have a pleasant cup of coffee or tea or hot chocolate. The availability of parking in a town where space is at a premium, was no small thing, either.
Guests of the Beach Cottage (the owners have three beach houses) have use of the inn’s amenities, as well. And so, we couldn’t resist taking the 15-minute drive back to the inn each morning in order to enjoy a delectable breakfast (guests of the St. Francis Inn and the beach houses can also breakfast at the Casa de Solana and use the pool.)
Many bed-and-breakfast inns just put out a simple continental breakfast, but the St. Francis prides itself in its fresh cooked selections, which on one morning consisted of a a five-cheese strata, Pumpkin pancakes; on another Cinnamon Pecan French toast bake and sausage links. The orange juice was fresh squeezed. The coffee was delectable. The breakfast room is furnished in antiques and pieces appropriate for the era (some of the chairs came from the historic Flagler Ponce de Leon Hotel before it was turned into Flagler College).
There is a separate parlor where there was always fresh coffee, tea, hot chocolate and cookies. In the afternoon, guests can partake of social hour (5:30-6:30 p.m.), with antipasto platter, various dips, Swedish meatballs and complimentary wine and beer; and in the evening, homemade desserts such as white chocolate raspberry torte are set out.
The Inn also makes available the use of a chauffeur-driven Lincoln limousine on Friday, Saturday and holiday evenings, from 5:00 to 10:30 pm, to take you to and from local eating and drinking establishments as well as nearby evening cultural and entertainment offerings (you would need to make a prior reservation).
The inn, which offers 17 rooms (each greets you with fresh flowers and sherry), also has one of the prettiest courtyards, with wrought iron furniture and lush greenery.
I love places where you really feel like someone is thinking about what can make you more comfortable. Here, they even offer WiFi, and an adaptor is available in case your computer isn’t so equipped (like mine), and complimentary VCR or DVD in your room, upon request.
The St. Francis Inn was originally built in 1791, during the Second Spanish Colonial Period, by Gaspar Garcia, a sergeant in the third Battalion of the Infantry Regiment of Cuba. Its architecture reflects the early residents’ concern for their safety and protection – so great was the threat of invasion, that the King of Spain ordered houses to “serve as a defense or fortress.”
In 1838 it became known as The Dummett House, for the owner, Col. Thomas H. Dummett of Barbados, part of long succession of owners who were military figures. Dummett’s daughter Elizabeth married William J. Hardee, a survivor of the Battle of Shiloh and other Civil War battles; another daughter married a Brigadier General of the Civil War, and a third, Anna, converted the family home into a lodging establishment in 1845. Many of the renovations in the inn were made in 1888 by the owner, John L. Wilson, a philanthropist.
In the 19th century, the Inn’s owners and occupants included literary figures and educators, including Pulitzer Prize winner, Dr. William Hayne Simmons.
Similarly, its sister property, Casa de Solana, which dates from 1803, offers 10 historic rooms and suites in the heart of old St. Augustine, at 21 Aviles Street. This romantic bed-and-breakfast inn is one of St. Augustine’s oldest residences. Each room and suite is different in what they offer – fireplaced sitting areas, shaded balconies, private entrance from the courtyard, stained glass, outdoor sitting areas; some have refrigerator, most have whirlpool bath. The Inn offers wonderful amenities, from delicious freshly prepared breakfasts, to fresh-baked cookies, to evening socials. The inn offers use if bicycles, swimming pool (at the St. Francis), complimentary access to the programs, services and facilities at the Anastasia Athletic Club health and fitness center access to fitness club Complimentary access to the programs, services, and facilities at the Anastasia Athletic Club, a state-of-the-art health and fitness center a short drive across the Bridge of Lions onto Anastasia Island, (anastasiafitness.com), as well as the beach (the inn will prepare a picnic basket.
The St. Francis Inn and Casa de Solana represent two of the 35 structures that are still standing from St. Augustine’s Spanish Colonial period.
The owners since 1985, Joe & Margaret Finnegan, clearly have recognized their responsibility in maintaining these two historic treasures. The couple had spent some years in St. Augustine working and even after moving on to other cities, vowed to return. “We bought the inn to have a ticket back,” he said.
But the St. Francis also affords the “fantasy” of staying in a beach cottage. They own three, including one that is a bungalow suited to a couple (preferably, loving), as well as a the Sea Clusion, a 38-foot Chien Hwa Hybridge Trawler Motoryacht that accommodates up to four guests with an aft master cabin and forward twin V berths. The boat is permanently docked at the St. Augustine Marina, but affords the same “bed-and-breakfast,” or rather, “bed-and-boat” concept – probably a first (www.bed-boat-staugustine.com).
For information, contact the St. Augustine, Pone Vedra & The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau, 88 Riberia St., St. Augustine, Fla. 32084, 800-653-2489, www.Getaway4Florida.com ).
See: St. Augustine’s History
© 2007 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.