Over 500 years ago a group of intrepid men and women set foot on what would become Florida and founded a city that still exists today. The world of history is fascinating – at least to me – and the fact that there is such an old place so close by made the yearning to visit even more necessary.
But, I’ve gotta keep it real, most of us get bored with history. Fortunately, there are far more reasons to visit St. Augustine. The nightlife, the food and a resurgence in a downtown that offers a promising future will keep you in town for longer than you expect.
From South Florida, the journey on I-95 is not a difficult one, like any interstate highway it offers nothing exciting, except to guess when the next waffle house is coming up.
Once you are off 95, you realize that you are in a different part of Florida, a much more rural place. The air is cleaner, the temperature’s lower, and the traffic so much better.
The City of St. Augustine
In the middle of the old city, we were lucky to stay in the Best Western Waterfront. The hotel had a great staff and is undergoing renovations. Luckily we were in one of the recently renovated clean and modernized rooms. Offering spectacular views of the bay and the bridge, this could not have been a more perfect place to stay, even the (tourist) trolly stops right in front, and you can easily walk to the old city and the Castillo De San Marcos Fort.
On our first day…
Our first day started with a late lunch at Meehan’s Irish Pub, a must see, literally a few steps away from our hotel. I had a light Mahi sandwich along with a few bites of my wife’s salad. Both of us were very happy and this proved to be an excellent and surprising introduction to an unexpectedly high level of cuisine in the old city. I expected history, but I also got restaurants that rival any in South Florida.
From there we ventured into the most historic part of the old city. It’s both a wonderful and kitschy place where craftsman sell their wheres directly to consumers, in a similar way to that of merchants from 500 years ago. Maybe the same shops weren’t there, but the spirit lives on. Our souvenir dripless beeswax candles await their first lighting on our dining room table.
There is much to see in the old part of the city, and we wandered around for a few hours until we were to meet friends at the Tiny Martini Bar, at the Casablanca Inn, again just a block from our hotel. Though our service could have been a bit faster, the wait was well worth it, and the martinis are made in a style like legendary Blue Martini, meaning you get a lot for your money, and the drinks were stunning.
Our friends who are natives of St. Augustine then proceded to give us a tour. Insider tours are always the best and we were treated to see the stunning interior of Flagler College. Formally the grand hotel known as Hotel Ponce De Leon, this gilded age wonder should not be missed. Built in 1888 it is the first poured Concrete building in the United States, and one of the finest examples of Spanish Renaissance Architecture. Any design student should have this included in their studies. Seriously, they have to insure their tiffany stained windows in the cafeteria. Imagine that at your university!
Our tour ended up at the hotel bar of the Casa Monica. I love the hotel bars in Miami and South Beach. They are magical places offering elegance and quiet getaways. Here at Casa Monica, the high-end atmosphere and elegance was simply wonderful. The drinks too are world class.
Our Second Day…
A simple breakfast at Mary’s Harbor View Café started off our second day. After a night on the town, eggs and potatoes are the most welcome food group. This cute low-cost café offers visitors a quick and pleasant meal as they tour the city. Well worth stopping by.
After breakfast, it was time for the Castillo De San Marcos Fort. It’s hard to believe anything in Florida is more than 100 years old, and here we were in a building which has been in existence for more than 500 years. It survived several wars, Spanish then English rule, then Spanish rule again and then American rule. Now, the old fort still survives its most difficult adversary, the throngs of tourists. It is one of the most fascinating pieces of history a person from North America can visit.
Next, it was time for the Old Town Trolley for the tour of the city. We already had a few destinations in mind, including the fountain of youth and other tourist destinations, as well as the St. Augustine Distillery. Their drivers are great storytellers and every turn had a place in history. One of our stops was not as ancient…
Inside the remains of an ancient ice factory – where do you think people got ice before refrigerators – the St. Augustine Distillery is a local brewer of Gin, Vodka, Rum, and Whiskey. I love that they source locally and try to keep their suppliers local. With their free tour (yes FREE!) you can see the history and how the brewery works. Any connoisseur should stop here, even in the morning. The tour was followed by tastings and mixology lessons. Maybe this is not on the same level as a 500-year-old Spanish fort, but this is part of the new St. Augustine revival and places such as this really bring this city beyond tourist trap status. Their products are top notch and can easily compete with any spirits that you currently enjoy.
Just two blocks away from the Distillery is the Whetstone Chocolate Factory. Having just missed their tour (also free) we opted for a few delicious chocolates and fudge. After that, we were back in tourist land at the fountain of youth.
Later that day, we found inexpensive but wholesome sandwiches, along with a huge beer selection for our early dinner at Rendezvous, which could be described as a college pub.
After that, we were ready for our ghost tour. After all, a 500-year-old city should have ghosts… right?
I’m very much a skeptic when it comes to ghosts and psychics. But my wife who is much more open-minded on such things mandated that we had to take the tour. She insisted that we would capture ‘orbs’ when we took photos. So at 9:20 at night during a huge rainstorm we boarded the “trolley of the doomed” for the Ghosts & Gravestones tour.
With thunder and lightning in the background, the mood could not have been eerier. Especially when a burst of thunder took out the lights for a few seconds. It was a fun tour, with great acting, but no orbs were photographed this night. Perhaps in our next life.
Our Third Day…
On our last full day, we did our last touristy thing, visiting the oldest house (in Florida.) The house dates back about 400 years. It was delightful to see the various stages of the house and how a simple two-room house with a masonry floor was the height of luxury. It makes one truly thankful for our modern life. It, along with the fort, and the fountain of youth are must-see historical sights.
Taking a small break from history we visit the ‘other’ side of St. Augustine. We started with a delightful and light lunch at the French restaurant called Le Pavillon. Their light salads gave us the needed energy to go antiquing at the many shops and galleries just outside of the tourist zone. St. Augustine is much more than a tourist town and one can get lost in the many other stores that are in and near the city.
That night we went out of town to visit our friends who had given us a tour a few days earlier.
Our last day…
The rains that came during our ghost tour returned with a vengeance, and though we wanted to visit the lighthouse, it simply was not to be. As we leave the 500-year-old city, streets began to flood and tourists and locals alike were trapped inside their rooms. But we vow to return soon.