Strolling the narrow brick streets of St. Augustine, surrounded by ornate Spanish and Moorish architecture, it’s easy to imagine that you’re in Europe. This is no Disneyesque creation, though. Claimed in 1565 by Spanish explorers, St. Augustine holds the title as the oldest permanently occupied European settlement in North America (it beats out Plymouth Rock by a full 55 years).
The location of St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast made it appealing to many. It was first occupied by the Timucuan Indians, who used it as their summer grounds for fishing until the Spanish arrived. Reading the history of the town made my head spin. The abbreviated version is that it was occupied by the Spanish, the British, and again by the Spanish before being sold to the U.S. in 1821, with lots of wars and attacks by pirates that kept everyone busy.
In 240 years of occupation, the Spanish obviously had a lasting effect on the town. The biggest thing they left behind was the Castillo de San Marcos, the fort they constructed to protect their interests. The only building material available was coquina, a porous stone of compressed tiny shells from Anastasia Island. Lucky for them, coquina turned out to be an excellent choice because it conveniently absorbed incoming cannon balls without shattering.
While the Spanish left a lasting legacy in St. Augustine, Henry Flagler, the industrial magnate who made a fortune in the oil business with his partner John D. Rockefeller, had even more of an influence. Flagler fell in love with St. Augustine and set out to shape it into an American version of the European Riviera.
On a honeymoon trip to Florida with his second wife, Flagler was enamored with the climate and the natural beauty of St. Augustine. The accommodations and transportation weren’t to his liking, though, so he decided to do something about it. In just a few years, Flagler built the opulent Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College), followed by the Alcazar Hotel (now City Hall and the Lightner Museum), the exquisite Memorial Presbyterian Church, and assorted other grand buildings, most in a Spanish Renaissance Revival style. Flagler also started buying and linking local railroads to create the Florida East Coast Railway, making traveling in Florida easy for northerners. Not surprisingly, Flagler is referred to as “The Father of Florida Tourism.”
We explored St. Augustine on our bikes and spent hours wandering the town. If you visit St. Augustine, be sure to veer off of St. George Street. Although it has authentic brick streets and interesting historic Spanish architecture, the plethora of t-shirt and pirate shops make it feel a bit too touristy. (Don’t miss the The Hyppo, though—they offer a delicious and wild assortment of handcrafted popsicles made of fresh fruits, herbs, and spices, with flavors like watermelon-hibiscus, mango habanero, and cucumber lemon-mint.)
Talking about food, one of the highlights of our visit was a free tour of the St. Augustine Distillery, housed in a vintage 1920’s ice plant. This very cool little distillery handcrafts small-batch spirits, all made from sugar cane. The tour concludes with a couple of small cocktails prepared with a great deal of showmanship. We timed our tour just prior to a late lunch at the Ice Plant, a fabulous farm-to-table restaurant in the same building. (We also took home a couple of award-winning bottles of gin and vodka, a most excellent souvenir.)
About the campground: Anastasia State Park is a large park with many loops—the sites in the Coquina Loop (where we stayed) are our favorites. They’re also the sites most amenable to big rigs. Access to a beautiful white sand beach is just ¼ mile away, and it’s only a three-mile bike ride into St. Augustine. Electric, water, and good Verizon for $28 per night.
Next Up: Quaint And Quirky Cedar Key[portfolio_slideshow]