St. Augustine is beautiful in an old world way that took me completely by surprise. I was ready to write the place off as another Florida tourist trap town, but one that traded in on its status as the oldest city in the US with tacky tourist attractions and cheesy theme restaurants. St. Augustine has a little bit of that, but not much, and it is overwhelmed by the historic authenticity that thrives there.
I drove into St. Augustine at night. It had been a long drive from Orlando, because I’d taken the scenic route through pretty little surf towns on the way up the coast. My opinions of Florida had changed the further away from Orlando I got, and the beaches were just beautiful all the way along. I checked into the Hilton St. Augustine Historic Bayfront, right in the centre of the historic downtown district, and was immediately charmed by the property, which isn’t actually historic but does a good job of blending in with the centuries old buildings surrounding it.
This is the smallest hotel in the Hilton empire, and happens to be an important site in American Civil Rights history because Martin Luther King was arrested there in 1964 when he “trespassed” in the whites only motel that stood on the site originally; there’s a monumental plaque by the pool in the Hilton drawing attention to this. I set out into the warm night to explore, strolling through the cobbled streets and looking in shop windows at t-shirts proclaiming that “St. Augustine is a drinking town with a small fishing problem,” and listening to the voices of happy, drunk Canadians as they left bars and restaurants. St. Augustine feels safe, and there are plenty of interesting places to eat and drink. I walked back through the historic Plaza de la Constitution, where there are monuments to those who fought in the civil rights movement, and those involved in the various skirmishes between the Spanish and the English since the city was formed in 1565. I was looking forward to exploring the city in daylight.
Blessed by Wealthy Hoarders
The next morning I hoofed it from one end of town to the other, walking away from the touristy stuff through narrow cobbled streets past fine old houses, through streets lined with ancient trees dripping with Spanish Moss. Early in the morning everything was still, the place was so quiet, and the museums I was seeking out deserted.
First stop was The Oldest House, which dates back to the early 1700s (though the site has been occupied since the 1600s), and has been retrofitted so that each room looks as it would have in various occupied eras in St. Augustine’s history (when the city flipped back and forth from British and Spanish rule).
Just around the corner is the The Kenneth W. Dow Museum of Historic Houses, a block of homes that were bought and restored by Dow, a millionaire who collected Americana and antiques from all around the world, then filled the houses with his collection, which was bestowed to the Smithsonian when he died and then became this museum.
The houses are beautiful, each one decorated in the style of a different historic period, and the gardens that separate them are a glorious spot to sit and soak in the complexity of everything presented there. Dow was one of several millionaire hoarders to bestow an incredible collection of artifacts upon the city. The most instantly recognizable is Robert Ripley, of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, a global enterprise publishing books, producing a TV show and putting up museums in just about every tacky tourist destination in North America.
I was prejudiced against liking the Ripley’s Museum in St. Augustine, and it was with my snobby nose in the air that I entered the castle-like building. But, this was the original museum, filled with original artifacts that Robert Ripley (a very interesting man by all accounts, who visited 201 countries before his death in 1949 and was once voted the most popular man in America). Ripley’s artifacts are of the weird and wonderful variety, and despite the fact I thought I’d seen everything (with the internet making everything so readily available, I wondered how museums like that even managed to survive) I was impressed at how the eclectic collection was curated, and enjoyed browsing the artifacts, despite my feeling like I should dismiss it all. It is hard not to be impressed with a story high Ferris wheel made from erector sets, or real shrunken heads.
Much more elegant is the hoard left behind by Chicago publisher Otto C Lightner, and displayed in the absolutely gorgeous old Alcazar Hotel (built in 1887, once home to the world’s biggest indoor swimming pool, now used as restaurant), now known as the Lightner Museum. Here you’ll find a huge collection of art, furniture, Tiffany glass, and oddities like Rota the (stuffed) lion, who was once Winston Churchill’s war mascot. The courtyard of the museum is lined with antique stores, as are the walls of the re-purposed hotel pool.
Less Cultured Endeavors
After a day immersed in history, I spent the next day checking out the other side of St. Augustine, which is across on Anastasia Island, linked to the city by two bridges. There are miles of beautiful sandy beaches to enjoy, the ocean flecked by surfers waiting for big waves, and dozens of seafood shacks, bars and restaurants to choose from along the oceanfront. There’s also an alligator farm on the Island, and watching the beasts get fed is an unforgettable (and somewhat sickening) experience.
There’s also an old lighthouse, and making the effort to climb the 219 steps really is worth winding yourself for once you get to the top and see the view. Anastasia Island is laid back, and offers a pretty retro beach experience. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to rent a little beach house and just bum around there for a while. But, there were still lots of things that I wanted to check out over in the historic district, so back I went. It was hot, so I made the Hyppo, a shop selling only paletas (Mexican popsicles) my first stop, and savored every bite of my chipotle pineapple treat. I ducked my head into the new pirate museum, which was fun and I learned a few things about pirates in the area, and got to see one of only two remaining bona fide Jolly Roger flags left in the world.
Then it was off to visit the Fountain of Life Park, where you can imbibe the sulfuric spring waters, that the five feet tall Spanish conquerors back in the 1600s had decided were the reason that the local first nations were six foot tall plus and lived such long lives. The park is gorgeous, and full of original artifacts, as well as actors reliving the historic past of the area.
My last stop was the Villa Zorayda, another historic property that had been built to house an eclectic collection of antiquities. The house was glorious, and a little over-whelming because there was so much interesting stuff to look at. Afterwards, I gorged on coconut shrimp and hush puppies at Barnacle Bills, a favourite local seafood place.
I left full and happy, but stopped at Sangrias Tapas and Wine Bar for a drink before heading back to my hotel, watching people stroll through the historic oldest street. I still had a list of places I wanted to explore when I left the city the next day I vowed to return someday and see them. St. Augustine is charming, and very Southern, with a warmth and attitude that I’m sure makes everyone want to stay longer.