Happy 450th birthday to St. Augustine, the oldest city in what is now the United States. Even if you can’t attend the week-long celebrations in September 2015, this historic city is fascinating and fun any time.
My favorite spots on a recent visit were the Fountain of Youth, the Pirate & Treasure Museum, the beach (of course), and a tour of the Gilded Age grandeur of the former Hotel Ponce de Leon, now Flagler College.
There is a week of special events, including free concerts, free museum admission and more, capped by the visit of the Spanish royalty for the re-enactment of the landing in 1565 by Spanish conquistadors on September 8th, by Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles, whose tomb is at the Mission Hombre de Dios, near the spot where he landed, 55 years before the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock.
That spot on the beach in St. Augustine is marked by a 208-foot tall cross, which you can see for miles when it’s lit at night, like a lighthouse beacon, and a park which includes archeological digs and a small historic chapel that dates from 1603.
Speaking of lighthouses, the historic St. Augustine Lighthouse is said to be the most haunted spot in town, and there are after-dark paranormal tours. Or, you can go on a ghost tour, as I did, and walk around the historic district with a guide dressed in period costume – my guide was in a Revolutionary Era soldier uniform.
We visited the Tolomato Cemetery to see if we could see the so-called “Ghost Bride” who reportedly roams around in her wedding dress, or one of the ghost children seen playing there, or one of the ghosts of the victims of the 1803 Yellow Fever epidemic that wiped out most of the town, at another cemetery a few blocks away. No such luck.
Outside of St. Augustine, most of us credit – incorrectly – Ponce de Leon or even Christopher Columbus for discovering St. Augustine, and Menendez de Aviles is pretty much overlooked. In town, Aviles is revered as the city’s founder, and the main shopping street is named for him.
Ponce De Leon first visited here in 1513, named the coastline La Florida for its flowers, and left. That’s when he discovered the gurgling artesian spring now known as the Fountain of Youth, which is now in a park that’s half archeological site, half theme park and botanical garden. I drank a cup or two, but did not notice any sudden surge of energy or disappearance of wrinkles. Perhaps if I drank a couple of gallons.
More than 60,000 artifacts have been found in the park. Some are displayed in dioramas and other exhibits about the native Tumucuuan Indians, but most are at the University of Florida.
Railroad and Standard Oil millionaire Henry Flagler built the Hotel Ponce de Leon in 1888 for his wealthy friends, which helped kickstart Florida’s tourism industry. These days, the sprawling Mediterranean-style complex is home to the well-regarded liberal arts Flagler College.
While rooms upstairs have been converted to classrooms and dorm rooms, the elegant Flagler Room off the lobby remains frozen in elegant Gilded Age time. Take the tour to see sparkling Austrian chandeliers, Victorian furniture and portraits, and a fireplace made of the largest single piece of onyx in the western hemisphere.
Even if you don’t take the tour, the grand entry, with its soaring dome and intricate mosaic floors, will take your breath away. It did mine.
Another must-visit is the Castillo de san Marcos, the historic fortress.
Go late in the day, so you can watch the ceremony of the lowering of the flag, by a National Park Service volunteer dressed as an 18th or 19th century soldier. I watched Mike Evans, US Air Force (Retired), who served in Afghanistan, lower and fold the flag.
The fortress is across the road from Old Town and the Pirate & Treasure Museum, the largest museum of its kind. You’ll see treasures from the Atocha, which was lost in 1622 and found by the same group that located the Titanic, and an original 1850 Jolly Roger flag, one of only two known to exist.
I was also fascinated by the wall of newspaper clippings of important pirate news, including one from 1722 annouuncing the death of Bartholemew Robert, the pirate known as Black Bart. There’s also some gruesome displays of pirate punishment, but it all ends on an upbeat note in the last rooms before the exit, with posters, costumes and videos of Hollywood pirate movies, from Errol Flynn (Captain Blood) to Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean).
Another kind of booty on display at The Players Club, home of the annual Players Championship golf tournament each spring, played on the Stadium Course with its world famous 17th hole Island Green. You don’t have to be a member to visit the clubhouse for a meal or a free guided tour of golf memorabilia, including the first trophy won by Tiger Woods.
St. Augustine is an easy 30 minutes from the Jacksonville airport. Since it’s along Florida’s northern coast, it’s cooler and less humid in the summer than at resort cities further south.
Find out more about St. Augustine and its neighbors, now being marketed as Florida’s Historic Coast.