By Elizabeth Kerr

Florida is celebrating its 500th Anniversary this year. What you might not know is that it all started in St. Augustine, recently recognized as one of the top 20 places to see in the world according to National Geographic Traveler.

Although part of you is likely anxious to get back home to friends, family and terra firma of any kind, a short stay in St. Augustine will leave you wanting more and certainly provide you with one final memorable reprieve before the last leg of your journey.

St. Augustine welcomes boaters of all shapes and sizes at any of it many marinas, most of which offer the many amenities any boater would want. Despite the great choice, the St. Augustine Municipal Marina located just south of the Historic Bridge of Lions in the city's historic district provides the perfect beginning to your St. Augustine adventure.

St. Augustine is indeed a walking city. In fact, the tourism board offers themed walks (and bus tours) to suit every taste, whether it’s a pub crawl, a ghost hunt, a culinary delight or simply a truly historic tour. If you happen to be there during the Nights of Lights, mid-November through mid-January, take a St. Augustine Gold Tours “eco-friendly” electric trolley night tour with host Peter Gold (formerly an English court barrister and true historic buff) and bask in the beautifully illuminated building and trees strung up with over two million white lights throughout the town.

Before you start your walking tour, grab an authentic Spanish breakfast at La Harencia Café where you’ll be warmly welcomed by Chef Manny and darling server and wife, Annette. Before you know it, you’ll be enjoying a Café con Leche while perusing the many Cuba-inspired dishes including the house specialty – Guajiro –a plate of pork, served with black beans, salsa and cheese on top of toasted Cuban bread. If not your fancy, Manny will whip you up an open-faced omelette just the way you like it.

After a short stroll up Aviles Street, you’ll find yourself standing at the base of a statue of Ponce de Leon pointing towards Spain. Here you can see the Bridge of Lions that connects the historic city to Anastasia Island, home to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, several great restaurants, shops, and, of course, the beach.

From here, walk north along Avenida Menendez to the Castillo do San Marcos Fort – the oldest masonry fort in the United States built to protect and defend Spain’s claims in the New World. Explore the several spaces that once housed soldiers and prisoners, enjoy the large interior courtyard and climb up to the gun deck that offers a spectacular view of the city. If you time it right, you may witness a re-enactment, a cannon firing or a weapons demo.

Depending on how much time you have, cross the street (south) and grab a coffee at the Crucial Coffee Café; treat yourself to one of the many bite-size delicious sweets they have on display. Meander back through St. George Street where you are sure to get your retail fix.

For lovers of architecture, stop by Flagler College and take the student-conducted tour. Flagler College was formerly the Ponce de León Hotel built by Henry M. Flagler in 1888. The building was constructed entirely of poured concrete and local coquina stones and wired for electricity provided by DC generators supplied by Thomas Edison.

But that wasn’t Flagler’s only contribution to St. Augustine’s architectural beauty. He also built the Alcazar Hotel just across the street. After years of accommodating vacationing wealthy guests, the hotel closed. In 1946, Chicago publisher, Otto C. Lightner, purchased the building to house his extensive collection of Victoriana and opened it as a museum two years later. Costumes, furnishings, mechanical musical instruments and other artifacts elegantly exhibited on the Lightner Museum's three floors give you a glimpse into 19th century everyday life.

If your budget permits, even a one-night stay at the Casa Monica is worth the expense. The original hotel opened in 1888 and stayed open until 1932. 30 years later, it was purchased by the St. Johns County Commission and converted into a courthouse. But in 1999, Richard Kessler purchased the building and restored to its original form (through pen and ink drawings now displayed throughout the hotel) and re-opened it as a luxurious 5-star hotel. The significant restoration includes magnificent antiques dating back to the 1600’s as well as purchased and commissioned paintings that depict the history and the people of St. Augustine. If you can’t stay, pop in for a drink at the Cobalt Lounge, amble around and enjoy the charm and elegance of this magnificent hotel. If still early evening, it’s worth a stroll east along King Street: specialty shops such as Claude’s Chocolate and The Ancient Olive will instantly solve your family and friends’ souvenir gift list.

Rewind to April 2, 1513. It was recorded that Ponce de Leon’s navigator Anton de Alaminos used an astrolabe, the most advanced equipment then available, to log their ship’s position at 30 degrees 8 minutes – just south of today’s Ponte Vedra Beach and a few miles north of St. Augustine. The following morning, Ponce de Leon came ashore to claim La Florida for Spain. It is rumoured that he was actually looking for the Fountain of Youth.

Today, you can visit the World Famous Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine and drink from those legendary waters. While there, learn about the native Timucua tribe, watch a Cannon firing, or just stroll around the 15-acre waterfront park and watch the peacocks strut.

USEFUL ST. AUGUSTINE WEBSITES
www.casamonica.com
www.floridashistoriccoast.com
www.laherenciacafe.com
www.staugustinegoldtours.com
www.staugustinegovernment.com/visitors/municipal-marina.cfm
www.staugustinehistorictours.com

Photo Captions:
Photo 1 - Casa Monica illuminated during the Nights of Lights held every year in St. Augustine from mid-November to mid-January.
Photo 2 - Statue of Juan Ponce de Leon (facing in the direction of Spain) in St. Augustine’s historic city.

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