The years have merely added beauty and interest to this northeast Florida city, which is home to the “fountain of youth.”
By Mark J. Schechinger
As the oldest continuously settled city in the United States, with one-of-a-kind attractions, Florida sunshine, and plenty to see, St. Augustine is a popular vacation destination.
It’s in a scenic location, too, on Florida’s northeast coast, 38 miles southeast of Jacksonville. Try arriving via coastal route A1A from the north or from the south to access this city between the Atlantic Ocean and the St. Johns River. It is the oldest permanently occupied European settlement in the United States, dating back to 1565.
Begin your explorations at the visitors information center, located near the City Gates off State Route A1A, or contact the visitors and convention bureau (listed with this article) prior to your visit for tourist material. At the information center you can get acquainted with areas of interest, including more than 21 regional campgrounds situated on scenic barrier islands, waterways, bays, and wooded areas.
Anastasia Island is a great place for motorhomers to stay while visiting St. Augustine. Anastasia Island State Park is just 2 miles from the city’s famous Bridge of Lions on State Route A1A South. It includes a variety of RV sites, scenic beauty, and convenience arguably unmatched by any other nearby campground. Shaded, woodland camping is available for two-week intervals within a quarter-mile of the ocean. You may choose from nearly 140 sites, and the fee ($25.07 per site with tax) includes 30-amp electrical service. Water, showers, a laundry, a convenience store, canoe and boat rental, and saltwater fishing supplies also are available. Reservations are taken year-round; phone (904) 461-2033 for reservations or information about sites. Maximum coach length is 40 feet.
Anastasia State Park is a world of ocean, beach, sand dunes, wildlife, waterfowl, vegetation, and plenty of shade from assorted trees, including century-old oaks blanketed with Spanish moss. And since this is a state park, Anastasia has a first-come, first-serve premise and the gates are open till dusk year-round.
If you ever tire of this sort of world and wish to sleep in a very historic spot, mosey back into St. Augustine’s historic downtown district. Visitors travel great distances just to witness the old homes that now function as bed-and-breakfast inns, which are described in unison with the city itself. Walks along ancient cobblestone streets and the picturesque waterfront, horse-drawn carriages, historic folklore, Southern hospitality, and the venerable inns all complement one another in St. Augustine.
First, simply park your towed car in one of several lots in the historic downtown area. Now stroll toward St. George Street, where you’ll find one of the most notable mansions that may be described as comfortably modernized but creaky and ancient with numerous rumors of ghosts: the St. Francis Inn.
Originally built in 1791, this building is the oldest continuously run inn in St. Augustine. Spanish moss hangs down walled gardens and wrought-iron gates. The courtyard and garden contain banana trees, fragrant jasmine, lush bougainvillea, and other vivid flora. You can sit on a private balcony overlooking the courtyard while enjoying a concert or a complimentary breakfast. Guests keep an eye peeled for Lily, the most famous St. Francis apparition.
From here, some of the historic district unfolds on all sides within easy walking distance. One block away at the corner of St. Francis and Charlotte is the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, part of the Oldest House Museum Complex, which stands on a site believed to have been occupied since the early 1600s. Its musty Spanish coquina walls, built soon after the British burned the town in 1702, date back to at least 1727. Tours include two museums. In the back of the house, ornamental gardens contain plants typical of those grown by Spanish and British occupants. Different rooms illustrate the simple lifestyle of the 1600s colonist.
The Oldest House Museum Complex offers guided tours every half-hour and is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults and $7 for seniors.
For a tour of the remainder of town, grab a ride on an open-air trolley or horse-drawn carriage. Guides summarize nearly 500 years of history, 80-some historic sites and landmarks, and 144 blocks of historic houses listed on the National Register of Historic Places. An outfit called Ancient City Tours offers walking tours, trolley tours, and much more. (See information at the end of this article.)
Elegant architecture rules on King Street in the grand structures built by oil tycoon Henry Flagler during the late 1800s. Flagler saw St. Augustine as “America’s Riviera” and helped to add to its mystique by building refined structures, including two landmark hotels. The Lightner Museum was once the grand Hotel Alcazar, built in 1887 for $1.5 million. It boasted the largest indoor swimming pool in the world, as well as steam baths and health spas. The hotel closed during the Great Depression. In 1946 Chicago publisher Otto Lightner bought it to display his collection of paintings; sculptures; cut glass; toys; furniture; porcelain; and American, European, and Oriental art.
Today this spectacular museum is known as the Smithsonian of Florida. Admission is $8 for adults and $2 for children ages 12 to 18; children under 12 are free with a paying adult. It is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
The Hotel Ponce de Leon, now Flagler College, was built in 1887 for $2 million and was the first five-star deluxe resort hotel. Now fully restored, the building is open for daily guided tours, giving visitors a chance to see Tiffany windows, ornate murals, and Spanish Renaissance architecture. Tours are offered at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. and cost $6 for adults and $1 for children under 12.
North of there down St. George Street is another “oldest” structure “” the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse in the United States. This early Colonial building is constructed of red cedar and joined by wooden pegs and handmade nails. Inside you’ll see life-size, animated/motorized figures of the teacher and students, audio-animated figures, rare schoolbooks, and the place where the schoolmaster and his wife lived. You may receive a complimentary diploma upon departure. The schoolhouse is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; admission is $3 for adults, $2.50 for seniors, and $2 for children ages 6 to 12.
The legendary reason for St. Augustine’s existence “” the “Fountain of Youth,” which was sought by Ponce de Leon in 1513 “” is a must-see. The site marks the European discovery of North America. You may drink from the bubbling legendary spring and view the landmark cross, excavations of the original colony, and life-size exhibits.
The Fountain of Youth site includes the spring house, where the actual stone slab cross placed there by Ponce de Leon still lies. When the Spaniards arrived they met tall, handsome, strong residents, people called the Timucua Indians. The Spanish were impressed with them and asked them the source of their strength. When the natives pointed to the spring, the legend of the fountain of youth was born.
The Fountain of Youth National Archaeological Park is open daily; at press time, admission was $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $3 for children ages 6 to 12.
Complete your tour back toward the bay on Castillo Drive to the nation’s oldest fortress, Castillo De San Marcos, a national monument. Built from 1672 to 1695, the fort is made of a rare composite called coquina, Spanish for “tiny shells.” It is actually limestone, composed of shells and sand that have been compressed over centuries. Long ago, this rare resource was found at Anastasia Island, where it soon became popular for building. It was extracted from the ground in soft form and would soon harden like concrete after being set in place, which protected Fort Castillo from numerous cannonball blasts as enemies struck from the sea. The substance is now protected on Anastasia Island and is found only in a few remote areas of the world.
Tours at Castillo de San Marcos provide accessibility to the structure’s many varied rooms, which offer insights into their original uses. The top floor displays the old cannons used to protect the fort, and affords visitors a panoramic view of the city and a promontory view of the bay. This legendary stronghold also speaks of countless battles and helped preserve Spanish control in Florida for two centuries. For more information about visiting the fort, call (904) 829-6506.
Even though structures such as the fort may symbolize St. Augustine’s history, it’s perhaps the folklore found in an excursion presented by Ancient City Tours called “A Ghostly Encounter Walking Tour” that brings the history to life, across the street from the fort on Orange Street at the City Gates.
For two hours, qualified guides in period costumes meander through the historic district, sharing stories from the past and explaining romantic lore and rumors of apparitions. The tour leads near sacred places, to haunted houses, past gardens of fauna and flora, to cemeteries, and to courtyards where famous personalities of history met their fates. For information about how you can take your own spooky tour, contact Ancient City Tours (see sidebar).
From the City Gates, travel south a few blocks on Avenida Menendez to the Bridge of Lions, which connects with A1A South. The bridge is a legend itself, in part because of the two marble lion statues that flank its entrance (currently they have been removed for restoration).
Cross the bridge onto Anastasia Boulevard for 1 mile to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park, a reptile and wildlife exhibit established in 1893.
You’ll see Maximo, the 35-year-old, 16-foot-long, 1,250-pound saltwater crocodile from Australia, allegedly the largest reptile on exhibit in the Western hemisphere. More than 2,700 other crocs and gators inhabit the park. All 23 species of crocodilians are found there, and this is ostensibly the only complete collection in the world. The critters are fed twice daily, and animal shows are presented every hour. In addition, hundreds of beautiful wading birds live in a natural rookery there.
The park is open daily; admission is $17.95 for adults and $9.95 for children ages 5 to 11. Call (904) 824-3337 for more information.
Across the road stands Florida’s first lighthouse, the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum. Inside is a maritime museum, previously the light keeper’s home. Climb 219 steps to reach the top and take in panoramic views of the ocean and downtown. The 165-foot tower offers St. Augustine skyline images including the many terra cotta roof structures, the towering spires of the Flagler hotels, and the historic shining dome of Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church.
The lighthouse is open daily; admission is $7.50 for adults, $6.50 for seniors, and $5 for children ages 6 to 11.
When it’s time to take a step back to your camping paradise, you may want to consider making the most of the Florida sunshine while you’re here by perusing the area’s pristine beaches.
And, if you visit during the holidays in December and January (until January 31, to be precise), you can enjoy a bonus “” the sight of the city’s lights glowing brightly each evening. “Nights of Lights” has been taking place for 12 years now, with the town’s historic district topped off in a glow.
St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau
88 Riberia St., Suite 400
St. Augustine, FL 32084
This bureau provides visitors guides and maps, as well as accommodation information.
Ancient City Tours
3 Aviles St.
St. Augustine, FL 32084
This company offers sight-seeing tours, attraction tickets, maps, brochures, walking tours, and trolley tours, as well as the ghost tours mentioned in this article.