The beauty of St. Augustine lies in its magnificent preservation and distinct historical character – and has always been high on my ‘go to’ list of ‘very old places’. The beach, lighthouse, historical buildings, restaurants, bars and shops simply enhance the beauty. However, it all comes at a cost…
A quick search in Wikipedia –
Saint Augustine (“San Agustín”) was founded on September 8, 1565, by Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Florida’s first governor. The city served as the capital of Spanish Florida for over 200 years, and became the capital of British East Florida when the territory briefly changed hands between Spain and Britain.
Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1819, and when the treaty was ratified in 1821, St. Augustine was designated the capital of the Florida Territory until Tallahassee was made the capital in 1824.
Our preferred mode of transportation on arrival in any tourist spot is the trolley’s/double decker bus tours and this was no exception. This hop on/hop off pass cost $25/person, had 23 stops and was valid for 3 days. But, we didn’t do this on arrival to take advantage of a 3-day pass. No, we waited to the last day!
Usually we ride the entire tour the 1st time so we can hear and see everything. This time we had already scouted out the downtown, checked the beaches, toured the lighthouse so we knew exactly where we wanted to hop on and off.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum
What goes up 219 stairs (14 stories) must come down – and I did!
A bargain at $10.95/person to climb the current lighthouse (built in 1874), tour the Keepers’ House (built in 1876) where exhibits detail the lives of the men and women who lived and worked at the light station, view authentic shipwreck artifacts and walk the maritime hammock nature trail.
In 1980, the Junior Service League of St. Augustine began a 15 year campaign to restore the tower and keeper’s house, which were destroyed by fire in 1970. The house was opened to the public as a museum in 1988. In 1993, the tower opened to visitors on a daily basis.
A shout-out to the services and contributions of Junior League’s in Canada and the U.S.!
The Hotel Ponce de Leon / Flagler College
To understand what makes Flagler College different, you must first get to know a bit about Henry M. Flagler. An industrialist, philanthropist and railroad pioneer, Flagler was also a visionary and an innovator. He saw Florida’s potential and is credited with building much of the Florida coast, one luxury hotel after another, and making it the vacation destination it continues to be today.
Flagler’s legacy is alive and well in the intricate woodwork, marble mosaics and soaring rotunda of the former Hotel Ponce de León, which he built in 1888 and serves as the centerpiece for Flagler College.
This grand hotel had 2 firsts in 1888: running water and electricity in every room – installed by Thomas Edison! A person had to be very wealthy to stay at the Ponce, had to be personally invited by Mr. Flagler and were expected to stay for the whole winter season (except for a handful of Presidents – the most recent being Lyndon Baines Johnson).
The dining hall seats 600 people and is lined with Tiffany stained glass windows. A total of 87 windows were installed that have recently been valued as “priceless”. However, they are insured for $135,000,000!
The hotel closed in 1967 and the property re-opened the following year as Flagler College. Initially the school was a 2-year, all girl school but by 1972 they were a co-ed, four year accredited institution. Today they have an enrollment of approximately 2,500 students and the girls are housed within the ‘Hotel’ while the boys reside off-site. Tuition is $25,000/year and includes room and board. You can choose from 29 majors, 34 minors and two pre-professional programs.
There are two daily tours (10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.) and cost us $6.00/person. We had a $2 discount as one of the rooms (the women’s parlour) was being used as a lecture hall that day so was off limits.
It is amazing to see such opulence being enjoyed and appreciated by students. Our tour guide was a student and he was in awe of the history! He did an amazing job and I highly recommend this tour.
The Beaches & Pier
No visit to St. Augustine is complete without a trip to the beach.
Oldest Wooden School House
This tiny building was built nearly 230 years ago using red cedar and cypress, and put together using wooden pegs and handmade nails. The schoolmaster and his wife lived upstairs, above the small classroom.
Note the large chain encircling the school house – placed there in 1937 to help anchor it to the ground in case of a hurricane! Since 1937 there have been 5 hurricanes in this area – the most recent being Matthew in October 2016. Looks like the chain works!
This non-Catholic cemetery was established at the time a virulent yellow fever epidemic swept through the city, depopulating it by one-third. There are only a small number of headstones, but some of the graves contain as many as 25 bodies per grave. Only the last person buried had their name enscribed on the headstones. All the others remain unknown.
Castillo de San Marcos (National Monument)
We entered one of the most extraordinary places in the US, incorporating over 340 years of history and culture. Construction of the Castillo began in 1672 and completed in 1695 – making it one of the oldest standing structures in North America. The fort has undergone many renovations and changes over the years but appears today much as it would have looked at its final completion in 1756.
Prior to this construction, St. Augustine was guarded by a series of nine wooden forts that all burned down. The Spanish queen authorized all to “think outside the box” and build a stone fort!
We attended a 45-minute information session conducted by a National Parks Service Ranger and then proceeded with our own self-guided walking tour.
The thickness of the outer walls varies from 14 to 19 feet thick at the base and tapers to 9 feet towards the top. There are over 400,000 blocks of coquina stone in the Castillo, all cut and set by hand.
The fort and quite a few other structures throughout town are made from coquina, a rock that is naturally formed in the ocean from limestone and fossilized shells. Coquina is very soft when first quarried and so is left to dry for one to three years before use in building.
We saved the $10.00/person entry fee using our National Parks Passport America card. Chuck had to show some ID and they balked at the Ontario Driver’s License! Luckily he had a picture of his US passport on his i-phone and they let us in – for free!
When the Spanish walled the city in the 1700s this gate was the only way in and out of the city to the north. The gate was locked every night at dusk and wasn’t opened again until morning. The original gate was constructed out of palm logs. The current coquina pillars were built in 1808. One hundred years later in 1908, the city decided to tear the gate down, calling it an “eyesore”. The Daughters of the American Revolution protested, parking themselves in front of the gate in funeral clothes. They served tea and cakes to all passers-by effectively saving the gate.
I wonder how effective tea and cakes would be at today’s women protests??
Bridge of Lions
This lift bridge was completely redone between 2005 and 2010. The lions were sculpted from Carrara marble and anchor this historic Mediterranean Revival styled bridge that spans the Matanzas River between St. Augustine and Anastasia Island.
Chuck did honk the horn as I was walking across the bridge…
Gosh, there were churches, missions, a chocolate factory, winery, distillery and more cemeteries. There was the Old Jail and the Spanish Military Hospital Museum. There was a Ghosts & Gravestones ‘Frightseeing” Tour, and the World Golf Hall of Fame. There was Ponce de Leon’s ‘Fountain of Youth’ Archaeological Park.
And, we didn’t see them! So much history – so little time – this time.