By Warren Resen, Member IFWTWA, NATJA
Photos by Jeanne O’Connor
America’s oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origination in the Continental United States will reach a milestone in 2015. That year will mark the 450th anniversary of the official founding of St. Augustine, Florida.
The party has already begun and the celebrations will keep building during the next four years until the “big day.” These special events and celebrations will highlight St. Augustine’s unique cultural heritage.
St. Augustine was 42 years old and the thriving capital city of the Spanish colony of La Florida, an area encompassing most of what is now the eastern United States and up into Canada, when the English colony at Jamestown, VA was founded in 1607. Today, Jamestown is only a memory but St. Augustine is still a vibrant, robust city. St. Augustine’s ancient streets, historic homes and magnificent Spanish Renaissance hotels built in the late 19th century create an Old World atmosphere.
The history of Florida quickly changed when Henry Flagler arrived with his railroad. St. Augustine was the first of many Florida cities where Mr. Flagler built luxury hotels for the world’s rich and famous. The buildings are still there, some with different uses today but still exuding the grandeur of another era. St. Augustine bills itself as a place of elegance and romance and Mr. Flagler’s edifices give credence to that reputation.
In the Old City, everything of importance is within easy walking distance. Pedestrian friendly and a perennial tourist favorite, St. George Street is wall-to-wall old houses, shops and restaurants. AAA named St. Augustine one of America’s “Most Walkable Cities.” Most buildings are places of historical interest and open to the public. At more than 200 years old, the oldest wooden school house in the United States is a must visit.
Many visitors will tell you that St. Augustine gives them the feeling of being in a small European city. Its charms include the absence of chain lodgings and restaurants, unnoticeable at first by visitors who are enchanted by the unique B&Bs located throughout the Old City as well as the number of fine restaurants.
St. Augustine prides itself as being one of the earliest Bed & Breakfast destinations in the country. There are officially more than two dozen of them, all delightful and totally unlike your typical chain motel. You can stay at a motel anytime but for a special treat check out the Inns of Elegance, a group unique B&Bs which numbers among its members some of the most historic, delightful and interesting properties in the heart of the Old City. Park your car at your B&B and walk to almost any point of interest in Old Town.
Charming dining venues of all types are liberally scattered throughout the city. Every type of food is available but two new entries on the scene are especially worthy of note.
Sara’s Crepe Café, #100 St. George St., opened only months ago but is already a favorite with locals and tourists. The proprietor, Margarita Abramov, named the restaurant after her grandmother whose portrait hangs over the cash register.
As a tribute to grandmother Sara, the menu of family-inspired dishes carries on a century of family tradition in the preparation and serving of all types of delicious crepes. The food is fresh, the service prompt and unobtrusive. Open for all meals, Sara’s Crepe Cafe is a sit-down (indoor or outdoor) European-style restaurant. This elegant café features live music on weekends.
The highlight of our visit though was the time we spent talking with Margarita whose warmth, love and professionalism is palpable throughout the cafe. With its affordable prices, imaginative menu and Margarita, I look forward to a return visit on my next trip to St. Augustine.
Another find, across the street from Flagler College, was Café Alcazar in the Lightner Museum building. This elegant restaurant recently reopened under the aegis of restaurateur George Chryssaidis.
The building in which Café Alcazar is located was built in 1888 by Henry Flagler and featured the largest indoor swimming pool in the world. Café Alcazar is located on what was the deep end of the pool. Surrounded by shops filled with antiques, 30 foot balconies topped by 50 foot glass roof frames, Café Alcazar offers diners a unique old world dining experience.
Excellent food at affordable prices is artistically prepared by Chef Jesse Espinosa. Live, non-amplified background music accompanies your dining experience. Café Alcazar is open daily for lunch.
There is much to experience in St. Augustine. The signature sight has to be Castillo de San Marcos. Built between 1672 and 1695, it is the oldest masonry fort in the Continental United States and spans the history of Florida from the early Spanish period to the end of the Seminole Indian Wars. Across the street from the fort is the new St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, definitely worth a visit.
When the sun goes down, St. Augustine’s night life comes alive. A city this old is sure to have its share of apparitions and taking one of the famous and highly entertaining evening “ghost” tours is a must.
An important place in St. Augustine is the Matanzas Bay waterfront. Four centuries ago pirates sailing in through the inlet invaded and razed the city.
From the city marina, just south of the Bridge of Lions, there are boat and kayak rentals, fishing charters, and several sightseeing boats including the 72’ topsail schooner FREEDOM. This “Tall Ship” features a two hour trip in St. Augustine’s bay under glorious billowing white sails without motor noise, loud music, or a blaring PA system. If you are lucky, you might be asked to help raise the sails. It’s a wonderful respite from touring the city on foot.
This is just a brief sketch of what is available to the visitor in St. Augustine. I have been there four times in the last two years and there are still things I want to see and do. For the first time visitor, a trip to the Visitor’s Center just two blocks north of the city’s historic gates would be worthwhile as well as riding one of the sightseeing trams that traverse St. Augustine.
Go to the St. Augustine web site floridashistoriccoast.com for information about events, sightseeing, lodgings and restaurants.