WARNING – long post!! We had a great time in St. Augustine for 4 days.
St. Augustine is a curious mix of history and culture with honky-tonk tourism. St. Augustine is the “oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement and port in the continental United States.” St. Augustine takes the adjective “oldest” to the extreme. In the touristy sections, there is the oldest store, the oldest school, the oldest house, the oldest colonial village, the oldest jail. Mixed among all of those OLDest things are a wax museum, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, magic shop, pirate museum with reenactments, and of course Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth.
We arrived late afternoon on Monday, November 11th, and crossed through the Bridge of Lions (bascule bridge) to the south mooring field of St. Augustine Municipal Marina, where we would spend the next four days. It turned out to be a little longer than we planned because of some very rough winds and seas.
Our first sighting of St Augustine was the fort, Castillo de San Marcos (more about that later) and the Great Cross. In 1565, a Spanish admiral named Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed along the shoreline planted a wooden cross and established a city, St. Augustine, where the Great Cross stands today. The “Great Cross” of St. Augustine was erected in 1966 to mark the 400th anniversary of that day. Constructed of concrete, stainless steel panels and inscribed granite slabs, it was built to last, weighing in at 70 tons. Such construction was required both because of its height and the region’s tropical weather. The Great Cross represents Christianity’s beginnings in America and marks the founding of America’s oldest city. It also has the distinction of being the tallest freestanding cross in the Western Hemisphere.
After settling on our mooring, we went ashore to explore. Every street and corner in St. Augustine had another delight to see. The architecture is clearly quite different from the “northern” cities and towns we have spent the last two months exploring
The fountain of masks, Fuentes de los Canos, were given to St. Augustine by her sister city in Spain, City of Aviles, birthplace of Pedro Menedez, the founder of St. Augustine.
The Old City Gate is a noted landmark in St. Augustine. Constructed of coquina in 1808, the gate columns still stand today and reconstructed sections of the earthworks adjoin it to the east and west.
While strolling about, we studied the various tour options displayed throughout the streets and shops. Al decided to sign us up for a 90-minute presentation by a wholesale travel agency in order to get free tickets to the trolley bus and our choice of four places to visit. I was sure it was a scam and we would regret it. Except for losing 90 minutes of our lives, we lost nothing else, and did get the free tickets, saving about $80-$100. Many of the other cruisers we have met along the way have done the same thing!
Ready to indulge in pure tourism, we started with two fun tours, a winery and a chocolate factory. Red wine and dark chocolate – two of man’s finest creations! Our first excursion was the San Sebastian Winery. The tour was informative, especially about port (the wine, not the left side of a boat) and the wines tasted very nice. Jerry gave very good directions on how to taste wine.
Whetstone Chocolates is a small chocolate factory. Mr. Whetstone invented the process and machinery that Hershey uses to put almonds inside the kisses. Whetstone also makes those chocolate oranges that break apart into pieces.
Railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler and partner in Standard Oil Company with John D. Rockefeller, had a major influence on Florida, especially St. Augustine. After the death of his first wife and daughter in 1881, he built the Memorial Presbyterian Church.
Flagler liked St. Augustine, but found the hotels to be less than desirable. He hired two young architects, Carrere and Hastings, to build his dream hotels, inspired by Spanish architecture.
We visited the Hotel Alcazar first. Opening in 1888, it was a resort for the very elegant, and very rich. The entrance is an open palm courtyard with an arched stone bridge spanning a fishpond. Amenities for guests included a Russian and Turkish bath/spa, the largest indoor swimming pool of its day, as well as a three-story ballroom. After years of accommodating vacationing wealthy patrons, the elegant resort hotel closed in 1932.
Chicago publisher, Otto C. Lightner, purchased the old hotel building to house his extensive collection of Victoriana in 1946 and later deeded it to the city. The Lightner Museum opened to the public in 1974. The St. Augustine City Hall also occupies the former hotel.
Lightner was a mega-collector. He believed that everyone should be a collector. The museum houses exhibits of 19th century daily life such as dolls, buttons, marbles, matchbook covers, cigar wrappers, toasters, pocket watches, dolls, cut glass, Tiffany glass, mechanized musical instruments. Natural and scientific exhibits included a shrunken head, small Egyptian mummy, American Indian artifacts, stuffed birds and mammals, rocks, and shells.
Susan Sontag’s “About Collecting: Never Complete” really does justice to Lightner’s vast collections —
The swimming pool (largest indoor pool at that time) in the hotel has been transformed into a café by filling in the deep end of the pool! “Café Alcazar” is an unusual elegant little café right there in the museum. We listened to live piano music while we ate a delicious lunch in the deep end of the pool!
And that brought our first day of touring to an end! The weather forecast for the next 36 hours was not good at all – gale force winds! After midnight, the winds were “blowing a houlie” as our British friend, Sue, describes it. We didn’t sleep well even though we knew we were reasonably safe on the town mooring. The winds continued to blow a steady 28-32 with gusts of 36-40 for all of Wednesday. My SailFlow app showed the image to the left – reds/purples are not good! St. Augustine is a little blueish dot in the middle of the screen. One news report stated that St. Augustine saw 50. We were stuck on the boat for the entire day and another night.
A few boats were not as fortunate. The most seriously damaged was an anchored trimaran that broke lose and hit the Bridge of Lions, sinking. No one was aboard so no one was hurt.
Back to Henry Flagler and his hotels. The next day (Thursday) we decided to tour Flagler’s Ponce de Leon, his first hotel in St. Augustine, opened in 1888. The Hotel Ponce de Leon was a more exclusive, and even more expensive resort, than his Hotel Alcazar. If you wanted to spend time at the Hotel Ponce de Leon (or “the Ponce” as it was known), you had to reserve it for the entire season. Less wealthy folks who could only spend days or weeks on vacation had to stay at the Hotel Alcazar. The Hotel Ponce de Leon was the first large building constructed of poured concrete, and was cast, rather than built, of coquina quarried on Anastasia Island. The mixture was made on the spot, poured into forms while soft, and rammed down three inches at a time. Coquina was practically indestructible as it hardened with age, and it’s color contrasted with the terra cotta roof and towers.
The Ponce de Leon is now Flagler College, a four-year liberal arts school. I may not personally care for the ornate styles of his hotels, but I can certainly appreciate the creativity, genius, craftsmanship, and sheer human effort required to produce such a work of art and grandeur.
A college senior, Emma, was our tour guide on this very fascinating trip back in time. The dragon spout on the right was actually a light fixture. Each one held a red electric light that fascinated guests as they entered the courtyard – dragons breathing fire! Emma explained that, as a college, housing the women students in this building, the administrators did not feel that red lights would be appropriate. The dragons are now decorative only.
The Dining Hall at Flagler is amazing, with 79 of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained glass windows. Can you imagine being a college student and having your meals in this place??? Surely there are no food fights! My photos do not capture the feeling and grandeur of the space.
The Edison Electric Company powered the building with steam heat and 4,000 electric lights, making the Ponce one of the nation’s first electrified buildings. Thomas Edison designed and made the two clocks below. Notice the 4 o’clock – Edison used four Roman numeral ones rather than the typical IV for the number four.
There were shops that sell Flagler College clothing and I noticed interesting (cute) versions that played off of Harry Potter and Hogwarts- Hogwarts didn’t accept me so I am at Flagler. After visiting Flagler, I can see it might just have that “Hogwartish” flavor.
Next stop on our day was the fort, Castillo de San Marcos. It is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. Construction began in 1672, 107 years after when Florida was part of the Spanish Empire. It is constructed from coquina. The fort is part of the National Parks system. As senior citizens, we can now have a senior pass for $10 for lifetime admission to any national park (Isn’t it nice to be “old”?)
We needed lunch next! The A1A Brewery is right near the waterfront and brews its own beer. Too bad they can’t sell it except in the restaurant – it was quite good and a lot of fun to have those little beers.
For our last evening in St. Augustine, we joined a gathering of the “St. Augustine Cruisers”. This local group of sailors invites all cruisers staying in St. Augustine to meet at a local cafe for the evening. There were over 20 people at Cellar 6. We had a very nice time. We met another Morgan (Flying Pig) that has been out cruising for some time. Al has followed their blog for years.