Varied attractions make Oldest City appealing for all ages
By Karen Rubin
When you visit places as a three-generational getaway, what is old and young takes on a very different meaning: our perspective of history and historic events is enhanced. There is nothing more wonderful than a grandchild being exposed to the world of ideas from the benefit of experience of grandparents.
For this reason, whenever possible, we turn our annual pilgrimages to grandparents in Florida into getaways that add an element of adventure and discovery. Changing the venue, getting out of Grandma`s house, and exploring has the effect of creating opportunities for shared experiences that becomes the stuff of family folklore.
And so, over our Christmas visit, we embarked on a three-day exploration of St. Augustine, the oldest permanent European settlement in the continental United States, a city that has so much to appeal to all generations – too much, in fact, for a mere three days.
Adding to the appeal was that we stayed at a beach cottage owned by the wonderfully charming and most historic St. Francis Inn, giving us the best of all worlds: we were able to sprawl out in comfort in this most pleasant house, just steps away from the white sand beach on Anastasia Island, and were able to enjoy the substantial amenities of one of St. Augustine`s oldest inns.
We arrived in the evening of Christmas Day to the sparkling lights decorating the city; the St. Francis Inn was gracious enough to provide a list of restaurants that were open on the holiday. Our choice of the Columbia Restaurant, walking distance from the Inn right in the center of the historic promenade, was a perfect introduction to St. Augustine, and so warm and welcoming for the holiday – specializing in Spanish and Cuban cuisine, served in what appears a Spanish courtyard, with seating on two levels.
The walk provided us with the sense of this place as a community, with most of the tourists gone or tucked in, strolling down these narrow, cobblestone streets, back to the St. Francis Inn. There, we enjoyed the dessert selections that are part of the guest amenities, before taking the 15-minute drive, over the bridge to the Beach Cottage, looking back at the glittering lights that formed the outline of the buildings against the water.
At the Beach Cottage (one of three beach homes, plus a “bed-and-boat” owned by the St. Francis Inn) we found a refrigerator stocked with fresh-squeezed orange juice, a carafe of milk, various cereals and coffees, and all that we would need for breakfast. We were able to spread out in two bedrooms and a living room with a queen-sized sofa bed, and two bathrooms for our use, and three remote control TVs. Our son dove into the whirlpool bath, in its own room with its own TV.
Instead of breakfasting at the beach, though, we opted instead to return to the St. Francis Inn to enjoy the delicious cooked breakfast consisting (that morning) of a cheese…(like a quiche), pumpkin pancakes, bagels and toast, juices, fresh coffee, served in a delightful dining room furnished with antiques and period pieces.
The St. Francis Inn, which proved an ideal choice for our multi-generational getaway, and its sister property, Casa de Solana, are within St. Augustine`s historic district – truly, one of the most beautiful and interesting anywhere. Indeed, the inns are two of only 35 buildings that date from St. Augustine`s Spanish Colonial Period.
Our first stop after breakfast was the imposing Castillo de San Marcos, which probably more than any other structure in St. Augustine, captures the essence of this city`s heritage. Perhaps because it is such a formidable structure – the equivalent of Europe`s castles but without the glamour of a royal mansion home – it is a literal link to the earliest days in the founding of the New World.
As we cross the draw-bridge, we are immediately taken back in time, greeted by men in the uniform of Spanish soldiers of the 1740s, who defended this outpost of Spain`s empire. That was a critical time: the British attacked the fortress in the summer of 1740, expecting a quick and easy victory. But they were rebuffed.
Indeed, the Castillo of San Marco had never been lost in battle. The castle was successfully defended in 15 different battles, and only changed hands, from the Spanish to the British, back to the Spanish and then to the Americans, by treaty.
We were lucky enough to come when the soldiers were demonstrating their cannon-firing drill. The officer explained that it was designed to take the full measure of 10 minutes because it was calculated that, with 77 cannons, they could only afford to set off six cannon balls an hour in order to have enough ammunition to hold out for as much as three months before help could come from the nearest Spanish outpost, in Cuba.
They practiced so well, they could hit the famous St. Augustine lighthouse a full 1 1/2 miles away with a baseball sized cannonball. They could hit a target 3 � miles away.
In those days, soldiers joined for life; they drilled three times a week. These days, volunteers who love to wear wool in Florida, go through cannon school, to provide this bit of living history to visitors.
The drill is conducted in Spanish, and we watch transfixed as they go through this 10-minute choreographed “dance” – every action paced out.
Despite the changes to the city and the harbor, he made it easy to visualize what the soldiers would have encountered.
There is fascinating “backstage stories”: in 1736, the Spanish governor of St. Augustine granted freedom to runaway British slaves who established Fort Mose nearby as a free community; three signers of the Declaration of Independence were imprisoned here, though apparently, were under “house arrest.” The Indians considered most hostile to the American expansion in the West, including Geronimo`s family, were incarcerated here for generations, mostly under cruel conditions (think Guantanamo Bay), until one U.S. captain thought it better to “Americanize” the Indians, instead.
At points in time, the entire town would have to take shelter inside the Castillo, which looks so solid and strong, yet is actually made of a cochina – a kind of concrete made of sea shells – and quite fragile. Its greatest enemy, we were told, is not the cannon balls that were fired at it, but the thousands of visitors who visit each year and pick and sit and climb.
The Spanish soldiers who were based here soon intermarried with Indians and with Blacks, becoming the first Floridians.
St. Augustine was established in 1565 by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, and for the next 235 years, it was the political, military and religious capital of the Province of Florida, from which Spain exercised jurisdiction over a vast region. Though the Spanish never found gold here, St. Augustine was a vital military base to protect its colonial trade and commerce. Allocate at least one hour to see Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.
Our next stop was an interesting counterpoint to the starkness in design and substance of the Castillo: the Lightner Museum – extraordinary as much for its architecture as its quirky collections that are revealing about life from Victorian to early 20th century times, and the interesting stories behind them.
The docent literally waltzes in to the Music Room, with some of the most unusual mechanical musical instruments, taking a turn with visitors, as the music plays from one of the music boxes, and tells the story of Lightner, his passion for collecting, and how the museum came to be.
The Museum is housed in what used to be the grand Alcazar Hotel, an exquisite example of the Gilded Age, built by Henry Flagler who first “made” St. Augustine into a tourist mecca, and then, inadvertently killed it when he extended his railroad down to the sunnier shores of Miami. The Great Depression in 1929 was the final blow, but for Lightner, who made his fortune as a publisher (“Antiques & Collecting”) doing what he loved to do best, collect. “He believed collecting was good for you,” she says.
Lightner took advantage of America`s biggest garage sale, the Great Depression. He bought up massive amounts of stuff which he could no longer house in his Chicago home. And then he came to St. Augustine, and bought the Alcazar in 1946. When he died in 1950, he left the building and its contents to the people of St. Augustine.
This part of the Alcazar, which originally had 375 guest rooms, had all the recreational amenities, including the world`s largest indoor pool – even in its present incarnation a marvel to behold. Today, it is used for the very pleasant Café Alcazar restaurant, ringed by antique shops and boutiques, and is used for concerts, special events, and private functions.
Next to that is the room that fascinated me most: each case another collection. My favorite was the one with beautifully decorated plates out of cigar bands. The collections were so personal, and collectively, they told the story of people amusing themselves with what was available during the Great Depression, for example. Each represents a quest, an art, a talent, a creation.
On the second floor, where the decorative glass collection is, was the gymnasium and Turkish bath – you see the plumbing and the Swiss-style spray showers. It is strange and wonderful. And then you come upon the button collections.
The Lightner Museum offers three floors of costumes, furnishings, artifacts of the 19th and 20th century daily life, that it is aptly referred to as “Florida”s Smithsonian” (77 King St., www.LightnerMuseum.org).
The Alcazar was across the street from Henry Flagler`s Hotel Ponce de Leon, built in 1887, a stunning example of Spanish Renaissance architecture which such exquisite features as Tiffany windows, ornate murals. After the hotel closed, it became Flagler College, but you can still tour the building, which is listed as a National Historic Landmark (www.flagler.edu).
The Lightner Museum is across the street from the Old St. Augustine Village, an exquisite collection of nine historic houses dating from 1790-1910 in their own little “neighborhood,” operated as a not-for-profit museum by the Museum of Arts and Sciences of Daytona Beach. Here, you get the best sense of what it was like in St. Augustine during the colonial period up through modern times- you enter this gated enclave, a square city block, and literally are insulated against the bustle outside, except for the occasional horse-drawn carriage which only adds to the time-travel experience.
The houses are examples of different architecture and are wonderfully furnished in period pieces, but the stories about the owners and occupants make the visit that much more interesting.
The most interesting was the Murat House, which dates from 1790. The home is named for Prince Charles Louis Napoleon Murat, Crown Prince of Naples, nephew of Napoleon. His wife, Catherine, was the grandniece of George Washington, and the first American to become a princess. Ralph Waldo Emerson was friend and stayed in the home. Catherine lived there when her husband served as a volunteer in the Seminole Indian Wars (904-823-9722, www.old-staug-village.com).
From there, it is a short stroll to St. George Street, possibly the oldest “main street” in North America. Much of it is now a promenade for pedestrians – a blessing, considering how narrow these cobble stone streets are. It turns out, that was by design – a way of turning locals into part of the defensive line against invaders. The whole city is remarkable for the way it is planned out – perhaps the first planned community in North America. It is delightful to walk through the original city gates.
While adults will savor the experience of the colonial houses of Old St. Augustine, children will love the “living-history” experience of the Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum, on St. George Street, which seeks to recreate St. Augustine during its earliest period of European settlement. Craftsman in period dress regal with stories as they demonstrate their craft: blacksmith, carpenter, leather worker. You also visit the houses where the Spanish soldiers of 1740 St. Augustine would have lived with their families (904-825-6830).
Just across the street is the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse, sure to be an eye-opening experience for the kids, mostly interesting because it is an authentic building in its original state, built prior to 1728.
St. Augustine offers a score of historic and cultural attractions, depending upon your bent and your mood, and even the ages of your kids.
There are also the odd or unusual, like Ripley`s Believe it Or Not! This was the first permanent exhibit of the “odditorium.” Until then, Ripley, who had become famous for his newspaper column, “Believe it or Not,” had operated temporary “odditoriums” that made the rounds like P.B.Barnum”s circus. But Ripley used to visit in St. Augustine and stay at the Castle Warden, a grand 1887 Moorish Revival style mansion built as a winter home to a partner in Standard Oil, which has been turned into a hotel. Ripley always had the idea to purchase it to showcase his collection. A year after he died, his estate purchased the building, and turned it into a permanent exhibition for his collection of oddities ranging from the macabre to fine art (allocate 1-1 � hrs., 904-824-1606, www.staugustine-ripleys.com).
Not surprisingly, St. Augustine has been selected as one of the 10 most “walkable” cities in North America. It is sheer delight to realize you can explore 441 years of history by foot.
St. Augustine is increasingly becoming a center of art galleries. The first Friday of the month, there is an Art Walk when all the galleries stay open until 9 p.m. and serve wine and cheese; the trolleys and train offer a free shuttle. Another event is Uptown Saturday Night, held the last Saturday of the month, along San Mario Avenue (?), where there are antique shops, book stores, galleries, that host book signings, art openings and exhibits.
A wonderful way to get oriented to St. Augustine, and to take in the attractions that can be pretty far-flung, is to get a ticket on the St. Augustine Trolley, which offers a narrated tour, but also lets you get on/off at some 22 different stops. The $18 ticket is good for three days. There is also the St. Augustine Train, owned by Ripley`s, which offers unlimited on/off privileges at more than 20 stops.
Evenings are when the ghosts of St. Augustine come out, and there is an amazing array of ways to get in touch with them – an indication of just how popular the ghost tours are. Besides the trolley and the Ripley”s ghost train, there is a bus tour, and even a tour by hearse and a haunted pub tour.
Ghost Tours of St. Augustine and Potter`s Wax Museum have just introduced “Ghosts, Myths and Mysteries of St. Augustine.” A licensed guide in period dress escorts guests down the dark streets of the historic district to hear ghost stories, myths, and mysteries of St. Augustine. Then the tour goes into Potter`s Wax Museum (www.potterswax.com800/584-4781).
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 Natural History
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