In 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon came ashore while looking for the isle of Bimini where he’d heard he could find the Fountain of Youth. His wrong turn was the right move for America, naming the land he set foot upon “La Florida.”
Originally occupied by the Timucuan Indians, there was much strife, with lots of fighting, pillaging, burning down of the city multiple times and rising from the ashes. Tour guides will tell you about this group battling that group and gruesome deaths. But tra, la, la, there are also plenty of tales of hopes and dreams of creating a vacation destination for visitors looking for easy access to warm weather and beautiful beaches. The end result of all that strife, turmoil and yet optimism, resulted in a city full of charm, amazing architecture with intricate details and plenty to discover around every corner.
Although one would like to think they can just explore on their own and get a real feel for the city, doing the tourist thing by taking a guided tour is really the way to go. Start with at the Visitor Information Center, itself in an historic building, built in the Mediterranean revival style in 1938. In addition to interesting and very informative exhibits, friendly staff will answer all of your questions. There’s also a staffer on hand representing Old Town Trolley, one of the touring services in town. They can help you decide which places to visit given your interests and amount of time. They can also sell you tickets for the Old Town Trolley which also gives you discounts to quite a few other venues. With tickets in hand, the next step is to hop on the trolley.
Trolley tours are a great way to get an initial lay of the land and overview of the history. They also let you get off and on at various stops, using it as a means of transportation. Take the full tour first, which lasts over an hour, to make the rounds and hear the full story before then getting off at stops that had sparked your particular interest.
A stay of four or five days (or more) would allow a traveler to see nearly everything they want in St. Augustine – the options are plentiful including Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, Potter’s Wax Museum, the Fountain of Youth (where you can have a few sips), Alligator Farm and the Pirate & Treasure Museum. A tour of Flagler College is a must. It was originally the Hotel Ponce de Leon which had two firsts – running water and electricity installed by Thomas Edison in every room. Now, it’s a posh college with well-led tours by enthusiastic college students. It’s hard to imagine attending college in such an ornate building complete with Tiffany windows in the dining hall.
Directly across the street is the Lightner Museum and hotel. The museum was closed when we visited but we, and so many others, took advantage of the decorative bridge and lush gardens for photo opps. Also closed for the day was the Villa Zorayda Museum which is a big hit with visitors, especially for the Egyptian-themed room. Next time!
The St. George Street area offers block after block of pedestrian-only roads that are narrow and slightly curved. During the first Spanish period, the design allowed funneling the sea breezes off the water into the center of town to cool it, plus it made it more difficult to attack. Today, the streets are lined with stores and restaurants complete with people standing outside, luring you in with samples, menus or just their charm.
One of St. Augustine’s major tour stops is Castillo de San Marcos. The Spanish queen authorized the building of a stone fort in 1672. It was completed in 1695. It is the oldest masonry fort in the United States! You can take tours of the inside but when time won’t allow, strolling around the outside is still very impressive. Walking along the stony seawall, in the grassy area that was the moat, seeing where cannon balls got imbedded in the walls, trekking the boundaries of the fort was impressive in and of itself.
From the Fort, it was easy to see the Bridge of Lions, which links St. Augustine and Anastasia Island. No matter how many times we saw it happen, it was exciting and a little unnerving to watch the draw bridge raise and lower ever so slowly as tall ships passed through. Drawn by the site of the water, we took a Scenic Cruise with discount tickets bought in conjunction with our trolley tickets.
Slow and steady, St. Augustine’s varied sights (the Castillo, pastel-colored homes, sand bars, nature areas, the lighthouse and entry to the massive Atlantic Ocean) made for a very interesting water tour. After having toured around pretty thoroughly on land, it was great to get the perspective from the water side.
Ever-visible is the St. Augustine Lighthouse which was built three times. The first two fell into the ocean! This one, built in 1874, has stuck and you can go up into it, all the way to the top as part of a tour of its museum. With black spindles topping a massive, red and white striped base, it looks exactly like you’d want a lighthouse to look.
Although a lot can be seen in a quick trip to St. Augustine (which is easily accessible via Jacksonville’s and Orlando’s airports), give yourself four days minimum to really take it all in. Thanks to a long and storied past, there’s still so much to see today – a modern history. For more information, visit http://www.floridashistoriccoast.com/
Author Bio: Courtney Drake-McDonough is a Colorado native, writer and editor for local and national publications. She is also the founder of www.InGoodTasteDenver.com, a news and reviews website. She never gets tired of (re)discovering her home state.
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