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St. Augustine, Florida: America’s oldest city where everything old is new again, well…almost

Published on: January 2, 2013

Entrance to the famed Fountain of Youth. Photo Jeanne O'Connor

Entrance to the famed Fountain of Youth. Photo Jeanne O'Connor

WARREN RESEN – North American Travel Writers Association

In 1513, Ponce de Leon reportedly landed on the shores of La Florida at the spot where the city of St. Augustine is now located. Next year will mark the 500th anniversary of this occurrence but the celebrations have already begun and will continue well into 2013.

On a recent visit to St. Augustine, we stayed at the St. Francis Inn which boasts of being the oldest Inn in the oldest city in the USA. Now that’s a winning combination for anyone interested in history. Heritage Travel has become a very important part of the travel industry.

The St. Francis Inn is a vertical three story B&B with some individual guest buildings, private pool and a lovely secluded outdoor dining garden. Because it was built over hundreds of years the Inn’s rooms are unique with furnishings individually fitted to the spaces, unlike the cookie cutter offerings of chain motels. St. Francis Inn is a renowned B&B and member the Select Registry/Distinguished Inns of North America.

The Inn even owns property directly on St. Augustine’s awesome beach which is available for their guest’s use. Back at the Inn’s main building breakfast will even be delivered to your door on request, and that includes staff climbing up the final flight of a slightly lopsided stairway where guests, over the years, have reported sightings of ghostly apparitions.

Their breakfast menu changes daily and is served buffet style so you can take what you want as often as you want. There are even options for vegetarians and diabetics which in itself is unusual. During the two days we were guests, the offerings included: quiche, pumpkin pancakes, hard boiled eggs, eggs in basket (ham & eggs in a muffin), hash brown casserole (potatoes & cheese), 1791 granola prepared fresh, fruit salad, assorted breads with homemade marmalade and jams, assorted juices, packaged yogurt, yogurt parfait, private house brand coffee, packaged and loose teas, hot chocolate and other goodies. Everything is freshly made daily.

During the day there is an open cappuccino coffee bar, with choice of flavors. Happy Hour for guests between 5 and 6 PM offers a variety of wines veggies, chips and dips in a warm, friendly setting where guests get to mingle in comfortable surroundings.

The Internet pages of the St. Francis are among the most comprehensive I have ever seen. Read through them yourself. It would be surprising if you haven’t had all of your questions answered before your visit. As the oldest continuously operated Inn in the USA they’ve had time to get it right, and they certainly have.

The short version given to me of the explanation as to how this property claims to be the oldest Inn in the USA is in order here. The original structure was built on the site in 1791.

Subsequent owners added to it and in 1845 it became a lodging house. Today it is the oldest building in service as an Inn in St. Augustine. Other cities might lay claim to the distinction of having a location on which an Inn has been located for many more years, but no part of the original building(s) remain.

Joe and Margaret Finnegan purchased the St. Francis Inn in 1985 and over the years have added all of the amenities required to make guests comfortable and keep them in touch with the modern world. The St. Francis Inn staff “jokingly” refers to Joe as the oldest innkeeper of the oldest Inn in the oldest city in the USA. Now, what’s new in the “The Old City?”

St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth is one of the oldest tourist attractions in Florida. Generations of tourists have visited but there was never a reason to return because there was basically nothing new to see. This is changing. New owners seem to have taken a drink of the fabled waters and will be adding exciting new attractions.

A team of archeologists was brought in and after extensive research, determined the area has been in use by people for at least 4,000 years. Most exciting to the archeologists though was discovery of remains of an old Spanish village on the site.

A “new” village will be resurrected on the exact location where the original one stood. When completed, under direction of John Staveley manager of the Fountain of Youth, it will showcase a living village encompassing hundreds of years of Saint Augustine’s history.

Last year’s sensation in St. Augustine was the opening of the Pirate & Treasure Museum opposite the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the United States. In a previous article I wrote about how and why the museum moved from Key West and what an exciting new addition it was to St. Augustine. Now Pat Croce, the museum’s owner, has teamed up with the City of St. Augustine for an even bigger attraction on St. George Street where the previous Colonial Spanish Quarter operated.

The Spanish Quarter is being totally renovated and is scheduled to open in the spring of 2013 as the Colonial Quarter. It will encompass three centuries of St. Augustine’s Spanish and British history in separate villages. Mr. Croce said that the goal of this new exhibit is “to preserve, educate, entertain and interpret the story of Colonial St. Augustine…” This will be done with sections individually devoted to each period featuring the life styles of those bygone times. If he brings as much excitement to this new village as he has done with the pirate’s museum, it is guaranteed to be a huge success and will be another reason to return to St. Augustine. The Pirate & Treasure Museum will continue operation at its present site.

An often overlooked gem in St. Augustine is the full size replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David hidden away behind tall bushes in front of Ripley’s “Believe It or Not Museum.” The original is in Florence, Italy.

St. Augustine’s statue was carved out of marble taken from the same quarry as the original and was displayed at the 1963 – 64 World’s Fair in Flushing, New York. It is hidden from view here because of objections to the unclothed, oversized and anatomically correct rendering of the male form. Perhaps it is time for the city to unveil this masterpiece or at least have the bushes trimmed down to waist height, David’s not ours.

We have made numerous trips to St. Augustine and each time have tried to experience a different restaurant and dining experience, an easy and delightful task because the mix of so many cultures. St. Augustine’s residents represent an interesting blend of Spanish, English, Minorcans from the Spanish owned Balerica Islands, French, African-Americans, Irish, Greek, Jewish and others. We have not had a bad experience even in the midst of this most touristy of cities.

One dining room we have seen only as visitors is at Flagler College. Surrounded by magnificent art work, students take their meals, work their notebooks and talk on their smart phones. Tiffany windows, insured for approximately $30 million last time I heard, frame the east and west walls of this magnificent room. After a few meals here I wonder how many students even take note of their glorious art surrounding?

Next June we will celebrate our wedding anniversary with another stay at the St. Francis Inn and will use this opportunity to bring readers an update on the Colonial Quarters, additions to the Fountain of Youth and anything else that’s new in this, “The Oldest City.”