St. Augustine | St. Augustine, Florida

Posted by on April 26, 2002

For those of you who are (luckily) contemplating a drive to Florida to escape our winter weather, might I suggest a stop in St. Augustine.

We stopped in St. Augustine on our honeymoon, a million years ago, and we hadn’t been there since. So, naturally, we couldn’t resist a peek at this oldest city on our way North from West Palm Beach to Savannah.

Long a warm weather watering hole of the rich and famous, thanks to Standard Oil’s founder, Henry M. Flagler, St. Augustine has evolved into a historic area attractive to tourists and history buffs.

Some of St. Augustine was familiar, but it had been a longtime. What I remembered as a big elegant Spanish Renaissance hotel, called the Ponce de Leon, built by Henry Flagler in 1888, was now an area educational institution called Flagler College. It has been Flagler College since1967.

What was formerly the Alcazar Hotel, also built by Mr. Flagler in the 1880’s, is now the Lightner Museum. This extremely weird place is worth a detour, for its odd eclectic collections. These collections include all sorts of Victoriana, art glass, dolls, matchbook covers, salt and pepper shakers, walking canes. Among the dross are many gorgeous pieces, (made by Galle and Tiffany, e.g.) which would be the envy of a less cluttered ensemble.

To add to the general weirdness of the Lightner, there is an Antiques Mall in the rear, in what was formerly the swimming pool of the hotel. Need I say more?

St. Augustine is old, Spanish, touristy, but has many attractions. Tourists young and old love the history abounding in the preserved houses that can be viewed on a carriage tour. There is a small historic town plaza with charming buildings, including a Cathedral, which was begun in 1793 with funds from the Spanish royal treasury. (Don’t forget, Spain ruled the area of Florida for two long periods, and became American territory only in 1821.)There are good beaches not far away, and some very smart resorts. Jacksonville, with its southern branch of the Mayo Clinic, is within an hour’s drive.

Claimed for Spain by Ponce de Leon while he was questing for the fabled fountain of youth, the area went back and forth between the French, the English and the Spanish until 1819 when it was ceded to the United States.

Naturally, one of the areas tourist attractions is the Fountain of Youth National Archeological Park, which I ignored. That might mean that it is a really great place to go, but I leave that to others.

St. Augustine boasts the “oldest house”, also known as the Gonzalez-Alvarez House. No one seems to know if it really is the oldest house, but it was first occupied in the1700’s and survived some of the sackings and burnings that went on during the various “changes of control.” I do remember walking through it many years ago, when we stopped on our honeymoon, at which time I had the distinct impression that it really was the oldest house in the state of Florida. It has since gone through another face-lift and looks just too good to be true.

St. Augustine was founded 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown, and 55 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, which should give you a little perspective. So they probably aren’t kidding about the old houses.

If one were brave enough to drive down to Florida, St. Augustine would be a great stop on the way to Orlando. The children would get a valuable and fun American History lesson. Here, they had real pirates and many of the original buildings are there, including a big fort.

I don’t think I would stay in St. Augustine, what with Ponte Vedra and Jacksonville so near by.

However, there is a rather interesting, completely restored Historic Hotels of America property here right in the center of things on the Plaza. It is called the Casa Monica, and can be seen at www.casamonica.com. It is a four diamond hotel, per AAA, and has a four star restaurant. It was, apparently the third of Mr. Flagler’s three grand hotels in St. Augustine. It would certainly be worth a gander.

Before you wander too far off Route 95, be warned that there is a great Outlet Center at Exit 95 in the St. Augustine area. Although Route 95 is becoming replete with these faux discount store complexes, there are some pretty good shops here, including Brooks Bros., where my driver managed to find the excellent new “non-iron” shirts.

Spinning along up Route A1A, (“The Buccaneer Trail”) from St. Augustine, we arrived at Jacksonville, in search of a Courtyard by Marriott, one of our favorite anonymous homes away from home. To our surprise, we found one on the grounds of the aforementioned Mayo Clinic. It was an elegant location, in the midst of landscaped gardens and a pond, rather that the usual macadam of Route 95.

I would also recommend a strange place at Jacksonville Beach called Famous Amos. Not the cookie, but the restaurant. There are a few of these, but only in the Jacksonville area, and they serve sumptuous good food for breakfast.

We liked Route A1A for a change, so we kept right on going north on it the next day. At Mayport we took a funky little ferry across the St. Johns River. It was a bargain at $2.75 for both of the car and us. The loader/traffic director, who waved cars on board, was the smiling-est such fellow I ever saw, enjoying his boring job more than I think I’ve ever seen. He was using all sorts of hand signals, saluting each car or truck as it drove aboard, laughing and smiling cheerfully all the while. Pure theater.

We drove through quiet salt marshes, shallow shoals, and past super fine white sand beaches. Soon we were at Amelia Island, still on the Buccaneer Trail, and enjoying yet another barrier island.

These driving trips could get to be a habit, if we were to keep on finding such interesting little pockets of the USA.

Betsy Shequine confesses she could NOT take a driving trip without books on tape.

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