America began almost 400 years ago when the Spaniards built the Castillo de San Marcos fort as a monumental reminder of their claim to the New World. This action led to the formation of St. Augustine, which is the oldest city in America, and though many National flags have blown in her sea breezes, she is still a uniquely American place to visit!
Most tours of this ancient city on Florida’s East Coast begin with a walk through and around the old fort that was made from a mixture of shells, sand, and clay, known as coquina. This concoction could be easily molded into impregnable walls and then covered with white plaster for a better look. An hour spent on these grounds gives one a feel of the historical magnitude of St. Augustine and the opportunity for some unforgettable photos!
An excellent, centralized place to stay is the famous Inn on Charlotte which is listed in the top 10 of most romantic inns in Florida. This gorgeous house was built in 1918 and is in the perfect location to explore the old city’s many wonderful restaurants, shops, and attractions. The gourmet breakfasts are mouthwatering, and folks can’t wait each evening to enjoy the wine, conversation, and other treats at 5 p.m. For more information or reservations, call toll-free: 800-355-5508.
The next best decision for visitors is to buy a ticket on the Old Town Trolley Tours and ride through 22 stops while an entertaining conductor explains more than a hundred points of interest. This adventure allows you to absorb the history, the picturesque beauty, and diversity of old and new St. Augustine. Then, you can easily pick out the places that you want to see more thoroughly.
Since oil and railroad magnate Henry Flagler is an integral part of the modern rebirth of St. Augustine, the Flagler College Tour is quite enlightening. This 45 minute guided walking tour takes you through Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel that was built in 1887. The magnificent structure is one of the best examples in the world of Spanish Renaissance architecture.
Right across the street from the Ponce de Leon Hotel is the Lightner Museum which was also built in the 1880s as the Hotel Alcazar by Henry Flagler. At that time, it featured the largest indoor swimming pool in the world and had huge ceilings made of the exquisite marble. Today, more than 20,000 priceless items from the collection of Chicago publisher Otto C. Lightner are on display.
One certainly doesn’t want to miss the Oldest House Museum complex on St. Francis Street that has been occupied since the 1600s. The González-Alvarez House is the oldest surviving Spanish Colonial home in Florida and contains a magnificent garden that has plants introduced by Spanish, British, and American gardeners through the years.
While visiting St. Augustine, visitors must cross the newly refurbished Lions Bridge to the beach side to see and climb the St. Augustine Lighthouse where a breathtaking view of the city and beach can be enjoyed. Though the original structure crashed into the sea during a storm in 1876, the present lighthouse was already in operation by 1874. It is one of only 30 lighthouses in the USA, and one of 6 that are open to the public. It also has a beautifully restored lighthouse keeper’s quarters containing many historic objects.
The beach side of St. Augustine is also home to the Alligator Farm, which opened in 1893 and is always exciting for the youngsters. They can pet alligators, watch them feed, and see many different kinds of alligators and crocodiles. In addition, numerous species of monkeys, water birds, and colorful tropical birds can be viewed.
Few places in the Americas command the historical respect and significance of St. Augustine. Its narrow, cobblestone streets, ancient buildings, and Mediterranean atmosphere appear much as they did during the 17th century. Because of this construction, most of the building boom in Florida bypassed St. Augustine and allowed a thoughtful restoration program to proceed. The result is a historical showcase of old and new that draws vacationers from all over the globe. For Americans, however, St. Augustine is one of those special places that must be seen and experienced at least once in a lifetime!