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St. Augustine: America’s Enchanting Oldest City

TravelPulse logo TravelPulse 9/4/2018 Noreen Kompanik
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument: PHOTO: Fortified wall of Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine, Florida (Photo by Noreen Kompanik) © Travalliancemedia Owned Media (Staff Photo) PHOTO: Fortified wall of Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine, Florida (Photo by Noreen Kompanik)

Founded on Sept. 8, 1565, charming St. Augustine predates Jamestown as America’s oldest city.

The seaside community magnificently reflects its Spanish heritage and Old World allure. It draws history buffs and romantics alike with its laid-back genteel Southern vibe.

The historic district of the old colonial city is delightful, with its brick-paved walkways and coquina-shelled buildings. Remnants of the old city wall cling to the banks of the sparkling Matanzas River. It’s as if St. Augustine is untouched by time.

Lodging at a Historic Inn

In the nation’s oldest city, a stay at St. Francis Inn, the oldest operating inn, seemed more than fitting.

Built in 1791, the historic bed and breakfast sits in the oldest part of St. Augustine. The inn, with its trapezoidal architecture, contains no right angles. Each room and suite is unique and guests can choose from a variety of accommodations to fit their needs and desires.

My quaint and cozy first-floor garden courtyard room with a fireplace fit me to a tee. It backed to a convenient outdoor pool and a serenely fountained koi pond.

The inn’s parlor is warm and welcoming—a great gathering spot for guests. Their staff is exceptionally gracious, helpful, and engaging.

Talk about amenities, I’ve never seen a bed and breakfast that offers more. A scrumptious buffet breakfast is included in the stay along with weekend brunch, complimentary wine and appetizers at the evening social, late-night desserts and a specialty coffee bar.

Joe and Margaret Finnegan have been owners of the historic inn since 1985. The love and pride they exhibit is clearly evident in the gracious Southern ambiance of the property.

Exploring the Historical City

History abounds in St. Augustine and some venues will transport guests on a fascinating journey through time.

Though the city is walkable, my friends and I loved the Old Town Trolley. Guests can hop on and hop off throughout the historic district during the informative narrated tour.

The iconic symbol of St. Augustine, Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry citadel in the continental U.S. Built by the Spanish in 1672, the fort protected and defended Spain’s claims in the New World. It’s well worth the $15 entrance fee to this national park to see and hear tales of its storied past.

Visitors can relive history in the Colonial Quarter. Reenactors on this two-acre signature attraction located in the heart of the city literally turn back the hands of time. Its Living History Tour features live musket and blacksmith demonstrations and the reconstructed 17th-century village showcases how residents lived, worked, played and defended their settlement.

A 35-foot climb to the top of the watchtower provided stunning vistas of the Castillo and St. Augustine Bayfront.

Flagler College had always been on my travel wish list so visiting this incredible historic property was a real treat.

Formerly known as the luxury Hotel Ponce de Leon, the property was the vision of railroad magnate Henry Flagler. The hotel’s Spanish design is a magnificent architectural marvel. The grand lobby contains a 68-foot domed ceiling supported by eight ornately hand-carved oak caryatids.

Once serving as the Woman’s Grand Parlor, the Flagler Room is stunning with its Austrian crystal chandeliers, original hotel furnishings and artwork and walls adorned with Flagler family photos and memorabilia.

The showstopper however is Flagler’s dining room. Light streams in from 79 Tiffany stained glass windows and its towering walls are filled with hand-painted murals. Commenting that the room looked like it came straight out of a Harry Potter film; our student guide smiled and said, “Yes, we celebrate that here, complete with the Sorting Hat.”

Dating back to 1874, St. Augustine’s still-working lighthouse offers panoramic views of the city after climbing its 219 steps leading to the 165-foot tower. As an added bonus, its maritime museum displays artifacts and recent archeological discoveries like the Storm Wreck, a colonial-era shipwreck recovered by divers in 2009.

Adventures by Sea

One of my most memorable experiences was the St. Augustine Eco Tours adventure with Interpretive Naturalist Zach McKenna.

Their 1.5 hour Dolphin & Nature Boat Tour was fascinatingly informative. We saw pods of dolphins, exotic birds, fiddler crabs, oysters, and more while learning about the area’s living treasures and ecosystems.

The tour passed under the famous Bridge of Lions with its massive Carrera marble felines and offered spectacular water views of the historic city and the Castillo.

Dining in St. Augustine

Blessed with its seaside location and abundant waters, St. Augustine sports top-notch restaurants offering fresh seafood and other culinary delights.

O.C. White’s has been a legendary historic eatery on the Bayfront since 1790. Entering its front doors is like walking through the portals of history. Guests can dine indoors, on the balcony, or outside in their lighted tropical courtyard.

The house specialty is of course—seafood. The Crabby Local Catch of the day with fresh local snapper topped with blue crab, sherry and sun-dried tomato cream sauce was a real winner. Despite the hearty portion, I had no problem finishing this savory seafood delight.

Dining at Raintree Restaurant was an absolute pleasure. This classic eatery residing in an 1879 Colonial Victorian mansion is impressive. In 1979, owner Lorna MacDonald and her family sailed from England on their 45-foot yacht and made St. Augustine their new home.

The cuisine here is nothing short of delectable. The house favorite is an exquisitely tender Beef Wellington with filet and truffle pate baked in puff pastry.

Partnering with the local Limelight Theatre, Raintree created a Dinner and Show Evening where guests dine and then be entertained. The show features characters portraying famous or notorious figures like Henry Flagler or Anne Bonney, Queen of Pirates. A surprise guest even popped in during our dinner.

A plaque inside one of St. Augustine’s charming boutiques read “Life needs more sweet tea and sunshine.”

You’re sure to get that and a whole lot more in this enchanted city by the sea.

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