St. Augustine, Florida-Where It All Began

History, Charm and Lots of Fun

St. Augustine

It's renowned for its history. But what captivated me the moment I arrived in St. Augustine was its charm and beauty. The city is situated next to the lovely Matanzas Bay. The historic Bridge of Lions spans the bay to reach Anastasia Island and its wide sandy beaches. Much of the architecture and cultural beauty of the 16th century Spaniards, such as the brick-lined streets and coquina archways, are still intact.

In addition to this wonderful setting is, of course, its remarkable history. It seems like you can't walk anywhere in St. Augustine without being at a historic site. Founded in 1565, this is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the U.S.

Whether you visit the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the U.S.; the Ximenez-Fatio House built in 1797; or the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse in the U.S., there is something for everyone in the family to enjoy. In total, there are more than 85 historic sites and landmarks to experience in St. Augustine.

St. Augustine

The historic part of the city is compact and easy to explore on foot, but for starters, I would recommend taking one of the sightseeing trains for a narrated tour and overview of the entire city. Tickets are $15 for adults, $4 for children ages 6-12. The sightseeing train tours start every 15 minutes from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. from 20 locations. You can use your ticket for three consecutive days of unlimited on and off privileges.

When railroad baron Henry Flagler honeymooned in St. Augustine in 1883, he was so taken by this lovely city that he returned the following year to found the Ponce de Leon Hotel. When the hotel opened in 1888 it was proclaimed by many as "the world's finest hotel." Soon crowds of visitors headed to St. Augustine, and it has become a major destination for tourists ever since.

St. Augustine

The Ponce de Leon Hotel is now Flagler College. Students of the college live in the many rooms of this formerly fabulous hotel. They have their meals in the ornate dining room. I would recommend taking the guided tour of Flagler College even though the only areas open to the public are the college dining room with its Tiffany windows and the elegant marble-clad foyer in the rotunda. You can also visit the Flagler Room and its odd illusionary paintings executed circa 1887.

A visit to the Lightner Museum, located across the street from Flagler College will take you and your family on a trip back in time. Relics of America's gilded age are elegantly exhibited on the museum's three floors. The Lightner collection includes examples of "Brilliant Period" cut glass and Victorian art glass along with a stained glass room featuring the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Other antiques exhibited include furnishings, costumes, mechanical musical instruments and other artifacts of 19th century daily life.

St. Augustine

What makes the Lightner Museum even more interesting is the fact that it is housed in the setting of the former Hotel Alcazar. That hotel was also one of the many elegant resort hotels of Henry Flagler. The former casino area and huge swimming pool that extended from one end of the building to the other, originally part of the Hotel Alcazar, now houses the Lightner Antique Mall including a restaurant. The recently restored Grand Ballroom now has a wonderful collection of 19th century art and antiques.

Another outstanding attraction is only a short drive across the Bridge of Lions. It is the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park on Anastasia Island. The park is very popular and was founded more than 100 years ago in 1893. Here, I saw wildlife from all over the world including monkeys and tropical birds from the jungles of South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

St. Augustine

The newest exhibit is called the "Land of Crocodiles." It features all 22 species of crocodilians from around the world. This is the only complete collection in the world. There is also an elevated nature trail that winds through a natural lagoon. The park also offers Florida wildlife shows every hour from 10a.m. to 5 p.m.

While on Anastasia Island there is another interesting site well worth visiting, the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum. This is a working lighthouse that serves the nation's oldest port.

We all know the function of lighthouses during the night. But in order to allow mariners to establish their location during the day, every lighthouse has unique colors and patterns. St. Augustine's "daymark" is black and white spiral stripes with a red lantern. The lighthouse rises 165 feet above sea level. Visitors may climb the 219 steps to enjoy the panoramic view.

St. Augustine

There are many fine restaurants in St. Augustine. The locals are usually lined up for both lunch and dinner at O'Steen's Restaurant, but the wait is usually not long. This moderately priced eatery offers great southern cooking. I especially enjoyed one of the daily specials, a seafood creole over rice, and I was also given a list of side dishes to choose from.

For fine dining, you can't beat the 95 Cordova Restaurant located in the Casa Monica Hotel in the heart of St. Augustine's famous landmarks. If you would like an elegant breakfast, lunch, dinner or Sunday Brunch, this is the place. My dinner of Caesar salad and Chilean sea bass was a delight. They also offer an extensive wine list.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine is renowned for its bed and breakfast inns. One of the highlights of my visit to St. Augustine was my stay at the Casa de Suenos Bed & Breakfast. This is a beautiful Mediterranean home built at the turn of the century. It is located on the famous horse-drawn carriage route in historic St. Augustine.

Casa de Suenos means "House of Dreams", and my stay was like a beautiful dream. It has five tastefully decorated guest rooms. My room had a whirlpool bath for two as well as a separate shower. The innkeeper, a charming lady who makes you feel at home, lives on the property and does all the cooking. The dining room is bright with graceful arched windows. The place settings and the full breakfast are done to perfection. The innkeeper also hosts a complimentary social hour on Fridays, Saturdays, and holidays.

St. Augustine

Attention golfers traveling to St. Augustine! You are in for a special treat. The World Golf Hall of Fame that recognizes golf's greatest players and contributors is only a short drive from the city limits of St. Augustine.

The World Golf Hall of Fame not only tells the story of its illustrious members, but also traces the history of golf through stories, artifacts and distinct memorabilia, including a life-size reconstruction of the famous Swilcan Burn Bridge from the Old Course at St. Andrews. There is also a replica 1880s-style putting green that allows visitors to use hickory-shafted putters and gutta-percha balls. In addition there is a state-of-the-art golf simulator, which allows guests to experience any one of more than 40 famous courses found around the world.

Each spring a new marquee exhibit opens. In 2003 it was Ben Hogan's Historic Season: 1953-A Golden Anniversary Tribute. In 2004 Byron Nelson: A Champion.A Gentleman was the marquee exhibit.