Spanish moss thrives. It drapes ancient Live Oaks and nestles into Palm trunk crannies, playing host to clusters of ferns. Towering Magnolia’s sport huge creamy blossoms. Doves coo in the morning. And, …I swear it…, the crows caw with a southern accent. People generously share smiles and pleasantries. There is no mistaking, this NE corner of Florida has deep south roots.
St. Augustine bills itself as “America’s oldest city.” In reality, it is America’s oldest continuously occupied by Europeans city. A fascinating place with a diverse, and often violent, history incorporating cultures from around the world.
In 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived on the shore of Matanzas Bay with 5 ships and 800 Spaniards, settling San Agustin, La Florida. It was the perfect strategic base for protecting resource rich Spanish territory and treasure ships from marauding Portuguese, French, English and Dutch challengers.
To protect its sprawling territory from pirates and invaders, in 1672 the Spaniards constructed a massive fortress, The Castillo de San Marcos. Now a National Monument, it is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States.
Spain ruled St. Augustine until 1763. Then Great British took control. Under the Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Year War, Spain abandoned Florida in exchange for full control of Cuba. The Brits were not too fond of anything Spanish, so proceeded to destroy communities in St. Augustine. This pillage lasted for 20 years, a part of history not fondly embraced by many in St. Augustine. In 1783 the Peace of Paris accord recognized the independence of the United States, ousted the British and returned Florida to Spain. The Spaniards proceeded to fully develop the city. Many of the structures erected during this time remain. In 1821 Spain ceded Florida to the United States.
The lives of enslaved and freed Africans comprise an important, and under-reported, part of St. Augustine’s history. While Spain granted freedom to runaway British slaves in 1783, this right was not extended to all.
During the 1960s, St. Augustine played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King sent Andrew Jackson to St. Augustine to stage a non-violent march. Horrific violence ensued when a white mobs attacked and beat marchers. On the site of the former slave market, a small tribute to this event was erected.
There is much to do in St. Augustine. Old town has been lovingly restored, filled with amenities for every visitor. Lots of good restaurants and bars. Hop on/off tour trolleys. Horse drawn carriages are easy to hail. The Lightner Museum is housed in a beautiful building with a well curated collection. Just walking around old town is fun.
Our hotel was one of the best places I’ve ever stayed. The Collector Luxury Inn & Gardens is a cluster of meticulously restored old homes in a bucolic park-like setting. The property occupies a full city block in the heart of Old Town. The hotel offers a complimentary hour-long historical tour led by Melissa. Her enthusiasm and intimate knowledge of the people who occupied the area is infectious and awe-inspiring. A native of St. Augustine, Melissa exhibited the immense pride many St. Augustinians carry for their city. The entire hotel and its staff reflect this spirit.
Minorca Prince Murat built the block’s first home in 1790. Napoleon’s nephew stayed there, as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson. We stayed in the “newer” section of the Murat house. Maybe Emerson channeled my brain while I slept? I can only hope.
Other homes were added and expanded over the years filling the block. In 1939 Kenneth Dow, an eccentric and very wealthy collector (aka hoarder), purchased most of the houses. He and his wife filled them to the brim with amazing, and not so amazing, items collected over many years from their world travels. It was Dow’s dream that the houses and his collection be utilized as a public museum. Although the scale of this dream was not realized, the Dow Museum of Arts & Sciences was created, opening in 2000. A few of the houses were cleaned-up, furnished and opened to the public. There were self-guided tours operated group of women volunteers. As hard as they tried, it was clear the place was falling apart and the museum’s owner had no interest in restoration or helping realize Dow’s dream.
In 2014 David Corneal purchased the property and turned it into a luxury hotel, opening in 2017. Corneal was not a developer or hotel manager. Yet somehow he managed to meticulously incorporate artifacts from Dow’s remaining collection through-out the property. Corneal was respectful of preserving the history of the property while creating a wonderful peaceful refuge for visitors. It is a ton of fun to walk around the gardens looking for items from Dow’s collection, which are everywhere.
Oilman and Railroad magnate Henry Flagler’s wealthy fingerprints dominate sections of Old Town. Flagler was responsible for the beautiful brick roads throughout the city. Years later, when the city decided the brick was too difficult to maintain, it pulled many out. Kenneth Dow followed the city trucks, filling his vehicle with discarded bricks. These reclaimed bricks were used to pave the paths throughout the Collector’s gardens.
St. Augustine lays claim to everything Old. The oldest house in America. The oldest fort. The oldest wooden school in America … It even lays claim to Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth The oldest fountain of youth in the Country? Hmmm.
Properties throughout the city have been cleverly repurposed. The St. Augustine Distillery is housed in “Florida’s oldest ice plant.” This craft spirits distillery is hugely successful, producing good products with a local bent and an environmental conscience. Tours of the facility are conducted daily. Upstairs there is a nice restaurant and bar. Definitely worth a visit.
Anastasia State Park is located on Anastasia Island. The park entrance is a 10-minute drive from Old Town, accessed across the Matanzas River via the stately Bridge of Lions. There are beautiful squeaky white sand beaches with dunes intact.
Gopher turtles burrow in the dunes. They are a protected species, unknowingly helping to preserve an area well worth preserving.
We traveled to St. Augustine to visit family. They showed us a great time! There was enough to do to fill a week. Unfortunately we only had a couple of days. We will return to finish-up.
Thanks for joining me on my adventures! See you on Amelia Island.