Fresh Look at the Old City St. Augustine, Florida
By James and Dorothy Richardson
As the travel brochures
and the tour guides are quick to point out, St. Augustine does
not claim to be the oldest city in the United States, but the
oldest continuously occupied European colony. Either way, a
visit to St. Augustine is a trip through history - over four
hundred years of it. And a city of contrasts. From its Spanish
beginning, which is especially evident in its architecture,
to its modern attractions, St. Augustine and Northeastern Florida
is blessed with a combination of great things to do, beautiful
beaches and history, all within easy driving distance. That
is what makes St. Augustine so special.
On March 27, 1513, Don Juan Ponce de Leon discovered Florida.
He was exploring for Spain in search of land and treasures to
claim for his homeland. He sighted land on Easter Sunday (March
27 in that year) and called it Pascua Florida, which is a name
for the Spanish Easter season. Fifty-two years later on September
8, 1565, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed on Florida soil
and reclaimed the land for Spain. He established the city of
St. Augustine and named it for the saint whose feast fell on
August 28, 1565, the day he first sighted land. Such were the
St. Augustine's Obvious
Many attractions in the historic district show evidences of
Spanish influence. The original City Gates are still standing
and were the only way into the city from the north. They are
located near the Visitor Center and are constructed from coquina
stone, a prevalent building material here and is made from shell
collected from Anastasia Island across the Matanzas Bay. The
Visitor Center, which is also made from coquina stone, should
be one of the first stops in St. Augustine. A variety of tours
are available from the center, from carriage to tram to train.
All are thorough and cover the major attractions of the historic
district. Most tour tickets are good for more than one day and
allow riders to get on and off at points of interest.
One of the main streets
within the historic district is the pedestrian-only St. George
Street, which is lined with unique shops and eateries. In this
historic district of the oldest city, there are the expected
"oldest house", "oldest schoolhouse" and
the "oldest drug store." The history of the Oldest
House, the Gonzales-Alvarez House, is well documented. The original
hut on this site was built in the early 1600s. It burned in
1702 but was replaced with a structure made of coquina stone.
Those original walls still stand. Records remain that trace
the families who occupied this house for nearly four centuries.
This St. Augustine museum is in itself a must see attraction.
The Ponce de Leon Hotel, a lavish 18th-century Spanish Renaissance
structure, was completed in 1888 by millionaire developer Henry
Flagler and is now home to Flagler College. It is located in
the heart of St. Augustine and is a very impressive, instantly
recognized building. Across the street is the former Hotel Alcazar,
which houses the Lightner Museum with its collection of artifacts
including examples of cut glass and Victorian art glass. Within
the former hotel's casino area is the Lightner Antique Mall,
which contains a remarkable collection of nineteenth century
art and antiques.
The Fort Castillo de
San Marcos still stands guard along the Matanzas River. The
fort was never conquered and endures as the nation's oldest
and only remaining 17-century stone fort. Tour the National
Park Service's fort, and then step across the street (San Marcos
Avenue) to the Spanish Quarter illage -- a living history museum
centering on life in colonial St. Augustine. Just down the street
is Ripley's Believe It or Not, located in the Castle Warden,
a beautifully restored landmark built in 1887. The museum contains
oddities collected from around the world.
Just to the north of the historic district are two other notable
landmarks. The Fountain of Youth Archeological Park (established
in 1903) is said to be the explorer Ponce de Leon's legendary
spring. Even if the springs do not rejuvenate the visitor, the
ground's gardens will make the visit worthwhile. The Mission
of Nombre de Dios (1565) is the site of the beginning of Christianity
in this country. The site is marked with a cross visible for
St. Augustine Beach
and Its Attractions
Across the bay from St. Augustine are two other landmarks; three
if you count the bridge that takes you across the bay. The Bridge
of Lions is unique. It gets its name from the two marble sculptures
standing guard at the foot of the bridge on the St. Augustine
side. Built in 1927, the two-lane drawbridge is endangered --
not from poor construction, but for the desire to build a newer
bridge to allow for more traffic, both on the roadway and in
the water. Currently, there is a plan to restore the bridge
and preserve its form. The plan would maintain its structure,
widen the car lanes slightly, and add a safety barrier between
the car lanes and the sidewalks.
Across the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine Beach, the St. Augustine
Alligator Farm and Zoological Park is more than a zoo. It is
the first alligator farm in the country and its major exhibit
is the "Land of Crocodiles", which features all twenty-three
species of the reptile. The Alligator Farm has over two thousand
alligators and crocodiles, plus other forms of wildlife from
around the world - exotic birds, monkeys, snakes, and tortoises.
An elevated boardwalk leads through a lagoon where visitors
can see alligators and wading birds close-up.
Lighthouses are always interesting attractions to visit and
the St. Augustine Lightstation, as it is called, is no exception.
The lighthouse was built in the late 1800s and was manned from
1874 to 1955. Now the lighthouse and its outbuildings serve
as a museum attracting thousands of visitors annually. The ascension
of the 219 steps to the top of the 165-foot tower rewards the
climber with a panoramic view of the beaches of Anastasia Island,
the city of St. Augustine Beach, Matanzas Bay and its marinas,
and the three bridges leading to historic St. Augustine. At
the top of the lighthouse a museum staff member is stationed
to answer questions about the tower, the museum, and the view.
No visit to Florida would be complete without sampling its seafood.
Actually there are several excellent restaurants to try during
a visit to the St. Augustine area, not only seafood, but other
cuisine. For seafood, try the Saltwater Cowboy in St. Augustine
Beach and O. C. White's in the St. Augustine historic district.
Le Pavilion on the north side of the historic district offers
continental cuisine. For a taste of old Spain and Cuba, try
the legendary Columbia Restaurant in the historic district.
With so many good choices, finding a good meal will not be a
problem. Deciding on which restaurant to choose may be.
St. Augustine has no shortage of outdoor activities either.
Opportunities for tennis, golf, and water-related sports are
prevalent and as varied as St. Augustine's other attractions.
A visit to the "nation's oldest continuously occupied city"
is a step back in history and a step everyone should take.
St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The
Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau
88 Riberia Street, Suite 400
St. Augustine, FL 32084
(800) 653-2489; (904) 829-1711
Visitor Information Center
Visitor and Convention Bureau
Ocean Grove RV Resort
4225 S. A1A Highway
St. Augustine Beach, FL