In Search of Florida History in St. Augustine
In St. Augustine, you can discover old Florida –really old. St. Augustine, on Florida’s East Coast, is billed as the nation’s oldest city. Ponce de Leon of Spain arrived in Florida in 1513. Explorers from France also wanted to lay claim to the state, so Spain’s King Philip II then sent Pedro Menendez to settle Florida. Menendez arrived in St. Augustine in 1565, and it became the oldest continually occupied European settlement in North America. Early residents faced starvation, rocky relations with the area’s native Indians, and fear of pirate attacks on the coast.
If you visit St. Augustine, you can discover more about the city’s history and its original residents’ continuous quest to protect themselves from English troops and other dangers. You’ll also find out how Standard Oil magnate Henry M. Flagler grew the city in the late 1880s with his construction of the Hotel Ponce de Leon and Hotel Alcazar. The city now attracts more than 3 million visitors a year.
So what’s the best way to get a sense of Florida culture in St. Augustine? Read on for recommendations.
1. Hop on a trolley. Even if you have come to St. Augustine by car, the trolley will avoid an endless search for parking, which is tight in some areas. Old Town Trolley Tours (the same company that’s in Washington, D.C., among other cities) will let you park free in their lot if you use their trolley. Plus, trolley drivers will give you the lowdown on the city’s history. You can stay onboard for a one-hour tour, or you can get on and off at one of 22 stops. The trolley companies also offer discount tickets to a number of the area attractions, saving you about $2 or $3 off regular prices. Your trolley ticket ($23, $20.70 online) is good for three days. Most of my trolley experiences were good, but I did hop on one that was extremely bumpy.
As part of your downtown visit, carve a good amount of time to wander on the main pedestrian drag, St. George Street. It has a European feel to it and has various one-of-a-kind shops and eateries. On a recent blazing hot day, even though most stores had signs that said no ice cream allowed inside, patrons went in and out of the stores, licking vanilla or chocolate cones.
Even St. George Street is steeped in history–read the various signs that appear on or beside its well-preserved buildings, such as the oldest wooden schoolhouse in the U.S.
2. Stay young at the Fountain of Youth. The Fountain of Youth park ($8 admission for adults) on the outskirts of the downtown area commemorates the arrival of Ponce de Leon and represents an area of land that has been inhabitated for more than 3000 years. The land has hosted Indian settlements and a Franciscan mission, among other things. A number of archaeological digs have taken place at the park.
Currently the park is a place to learn about the area’s natural history, take in a view of the St. Johns River, and watch the 30-plus peacocks that live and breed on the park. The park even pipes in relaxing Spanish guitar music. And yes, the park does have water from a supposed Fountain of Youth. The water comes in small cups and smells of sulfur. Alas, no one I observed transformed into a more youthful state after drinking a sample.
3. Get friendly with ghosts. Whether or not you believe that ghosts are real, the ghost tours in St. Augustine can give you a good scare–or a good laugh. There are a number of ghost tours available. On the Ghosts and Gravestones Tour ($26, although there are discounts for buying online and through Old Town Trolley Tours), patrons board a trolley with Spanish moss hanging inside of it. As the tour gets ready to depart, songs like “Thriller” play in the background. “Ghost host” Chris, dressed in a jail uniform, tells stories of the number of ghosts who supposedly haunt the nation’s oldest city. We drive past old cemeteries and visit the Old Jail, which was built in 1891 and housed prisoners for 60 years (we even have a real “prisoner” show us around; he looked like a Florida cracker gone bad).
Plus, the tour reveals the scary history of the St. Augustine Lighthouse, a place so purportedly haunted by its former caretaker that the SyFy show “Ghost Hunters” has visited it several times. The hauntings of the lighthouse supposedly take place at night. There are pricier tours from other companies that allow you to enter the lighthouse at night. When I visited the lighthouse during the day and climbed up its 219 stairs to the top, I asked an employee if she had chilling stories to tell. “No, I’m usually so focused on just going home at the end of the day,” she said. Oh well.
4. Don’t miss wine and chocolate.San Sebastian Winery gives a 30-minute free tour where you’ll find out about the challenges–and surprising benefits–of winemaking in Florida. You’ll also get a tasting with good pours that range from drier wines to the sweeter varieties. Underage visitors can drink muscadine grape juice, a sweet juice that is supposedly good for the heart. While you’re at the winery, indulge even further with a visit to nearby Whetstone Chocolate, which makes specialty chocolate. The hour-long tour details how chocolate is made, shows a clip from the famous “I Love Lucy” scene in a chocolate factory, and gives a delicious tasting of seven different types of chocolate.
St. Augustine has a number of other attractions worth a visit, ranging from the beach to restaurants to outlet shopping to more history. If you’re a history buff, you could probably pack everything into a week-long visit. If you’d prefer a short history tour, a three-day weekend would probably be long enough.