By Lee Foster
As I paddled my kayak up the Intercoastal Waterway between St. Augustine, Florida, and Anastasia Island, I thought of the Spanish treasure galleons that amassed here, roughly 400 years ago, for the annual arduous voyage across the ocean to Spain.
My treasures were the manatees and the dolphins in the Intercoastal Waterway, plus the large alligators in Moses Creek. My gems were the white ibis flocks, peppered with dark juveniles, who were able to fly with the adults by the time of my June visit.
Because the trade winds swirl in a huge clockwise vortex in the Atlantic, the Spanish treasure ships that assembled in Vera Cruz, San Juan, and Havana needed a more northerly point of rest before their ambitious crossing through the pirate-infested Atlantic Ocean to Spain. There might have been as few as 25 or as many as a hundred ships in the annual autumn convoy. St. Augustine was chosen in 1565 as the site for the northerly rest point, some 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown to the north.
Today St. Augustine is one of the more satisfying places in Florida to visit. A history buff will enjoy the classic Spanish fort, the lighthouse, and the 19th century hotels that Henry Flagler built for his railroad patrons. A nature lover will appreciate this relatively undeveloped part of Florida (the town’s population is only 13,000). The endless white beaches of Anastasia Island, the island adjacent St. Augustine, and the kayaking I savored on the Intercoastal Waterway are among the natural pleasures to anticipate. Amenities of travel include many B&Bs in the town, some in historic houses, and the fresh seafood awaiting visitors in the restaurants.
St. Augustine for History
The impressive Spanish Fort Castillo de San Marcos is the first place to visit. It resembles El Morro, the grand and more substantial fort in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Cannons positioned on the San Marcos fort guarded the harbor against potential British, French, or pirate invaders.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum on Anastasia Island is the second monument here of national importance. It was built in 1874, replacing an earlier watchtower structure from the 1500s. You can see the working 12-inch Fresnel lens. Climb the 219 steps of the lighthouse for the region’s best panoramic view.
Within town, stroll around the plaza, the oldest plaza or town square in the U.S. (dating from 1565). At the edge of the plaza is Government House, now a museum filled with artifacts, such as the oldest map of the area and a wooden treasure chest in which New World gold and silver was shipped to the mother country, Spain.
The name Henry Morrison Flagler comes up repeatedly when one is visiting Florida, on either the west or east coasts of the state. In the 19th century, this early Standard Oil millionaire developed railroads whose tracks went up and down both coasts. To attract his patrons, the “swells,” meaning the people of means, he built grand hotels at various destinations. In downtown St. Augustine he constructed two such monumental properties, which were major architectural statements. At the time there was a fascination with Spanish-Moorish motifs in architecture, so both hotels exhibit these flourishes. As an index of the opulence, one of the hotels, the Alcazar, boasted in 1888 of having the largest indoor swimming pool in the world.
Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel is now Flagler College, a private institution of higher education. Across the Street, the Alcazar Hotel is now the Lightner Museum, which houses an intriguing “collection of collections.” Chicago publisher Otto Lightner, founding editor of Hobbies Magazine, liked to purchase collections of matchbox labels, arrowheads, mechanical musical instruments, and cut glass. He was one of the few people who had money after the Depression to buy up estates. He bought the hotel to house his many collections. Nineteenth-century decorative arts are the museum’s main asset. Because of its eclectic vastness, the Lightner Museum is sometimes called “the Smithsonian of the South.”
Spain encouraged its soldiers to live in private houses rather than in barracks, so there are many early houses in St. Augustine. Nine historic houses (1790-1910) are clustered one block south of the plaza in an ensemble known as Old St. Augustine Village. Part of the fun here today is that live re-enactors tell the story of various ethnic groups who contributed to St. Augustine, such as the Minorcans, who arrived in the city in 1777 during the brief period when it was controlled by the British. Another re-enactor shows how gator and other meats were smoked to preserve them. Several of the houses have artifacts from the early period as décor. The “oldest house” in the city is also a museum, nearby, at 14 St. Frances Street.
St. Augustine history has not been all sweetness and light. In 1565 about 400 French Protestant Huguenots, trying to survive a shipwreck, were lured across a waterway in rescue boats by the Spanish, who took each boatload behind the dunes and slit the throats of the Huguenot men. Matanzas Inlet (meaning “slaughters”) preserves this sordid memory. Some women and children were spared. The theological passion of the day was straightforward: these heretics were going to Hell anyway, so why not send them on their way earlier?
St. Augustine for Nature
Drive out to Anastasia Island to get to the best nature experiences here, which are the beaches, an attraction called Alligator Farm, and the kayaking possible at the Coastal Outdoor Center.
St. Augustine boasts some terrific beaches. One of the city’s cute mottos has been “42 miles of beach, and the rest is history.” I particularly enjoyed Anastasia State Park Beach. The sand is white, the expanse of the beach is enormous, the water is warm for swimming, and the angle of the beach into the sea is safe for children. “Going to the beach” is a way of life here. Nearby, at the South Beach Grill, I enjoyed a lunch of grilled, fresh, local fish.
St. Augustinians have an unusual seaside practice, driving their cars on the beach, which at first sounds like a questionable practice. However, it is not so bad. The beaches are quite wide and flat. Cars stay well in the back and bathers are close to the water. Where I was, there were no drivers trying to off-road in the dunes, with its tender vegetation, or maim swimmers with some high testosterone auto exhibitionism.
A nature attraction not to miss is The Alligator Farm Zoological Park on Anastasia Island. This is not a hokey, retro place with an alligator wrestler. The Alligator Farm is a classy eco-exhibit displaying all 23 species of the family crocodilian from around the planet. There are some truly special alligators and crocodiles here, including rare albinos. Alligator Farm is actually one of the oldest visitor attractions in Florida.
However, a most intriguing part of The Alligator Farm is an attraction that was entirely unplanned and which nature itself created. There are mature bay laurel, cypress, and wax myrtle trees at The Alligator Farm. Underneath those trees there is water, with plenty of alligators swimming around. In those waters below the trees there are absolutely no wild raccoons, opossums, and other potential alligator food, one can be sure. Raccoons and opossums are the egg-stealing predators that nesting birds fear.
The local bird population figured out this happy situation. At The Alligator Farm there is virtually no chance that a predator would survive to rob a nest of eggs. Gradually, substantial numbers of blue herons, snowy and cattle egrets, white ibises, and wood storks set up their nests here. Today it is a huge, wild nesting phenomenon, a rookery close to the walkways at Alligator Farm. The birds have determined, as they do in the Galapagos, that people walking by are not a threat, so they make their nests a few feet from the walkways. I was there in June, when there were thousands of fledglings. In the evening, when the adult birds come back from feeding in the tidal flats, the cacophony is awesome, as the young birds desperately seek food from their parents.
Farther south on Anastasia Island, on the Intercoastal Waterway side, is the Coastal Outdoor Center, where I went kayaking with a guide. It took me only a half-hour to cross the Intercoastal channel from the kayak launch point to the wilds of Moses Creek. The waters were boiling with fish in this relatively healthy ecosystem. I watched numerous ospreys feed, safe now from their near demise due to DDT buildup a few decades back. A bald eagle family inhabited a tall tree farther up Moses Creek. My guide takes parties daily out for wildlife tours of Moses Creek, where they sometimes see wild pigs as well as huge alligators. Sunset kayak expeditions and bewitching full-moon kayak trips can be arranged.
St. Augustine Amenities
St. Augustine presents a sharp contrast to many other areas of Florida, which sometimes feature runaway development inhabited by bland franchises. Fortunately, St. Augustine languished in the backwaters, not worth destroying to improve it, until the modern era of historic preservation began.
I lodged at the Bayfront Westcott House, typical of the upscale and historic B&Bs. This was the home of a Dr. John Westcott in the 1880. One of the fanciest hotels is the Casa Monica, an elaborate restoration of a 19th century structure. Monica was the name of the mother of St. Augustine.
Everything in the town is only a short walk away. In what other Florida destination would this sentence apply? St. George Street is a pedestrian walkway with interesting ceramic and art shops. San Marcos Street has several antique stores worth perusing. You never know what you might stumble upon. The Hot Stuff Mon shop on Treasury Street sells every imaginable hot sauce, including locally made hot sauce from the Minorcan datil pepper grown only here in the U.S.
I enjoyed some hand-crafted beer and a crab cakes dinner at the A1A Ale Works, off the plaza. A1A is the local highway. Another good restaurant is the Columbia, noted for its Cuban-style pork and beef. This is a branch of famous Columbia restaurant in the Ybor City section of Tampa on the west coast of the state.
St. Augustine travel has two seasons. Summer is the family time, when children are out of school. October to March is the season of snowbird migration of older northerners from the U.S. and Canada, escaping the cold. September is said to offer the most brilliant skies.
Whenever you go, St. Augustine is likely to present a satisfying travel experience, one of the best of the destinations in Florida that I have perused and savored. If you enjoy history and nature in a relatively undeveloped area, where you can walk to everything in town and kayak to the wonders of natures nearby, St. Augustine has much to offer.
St. Augustine: If You Go
The local tourism entity is the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau, http://www.floridashistoriccoast.com/.