Wednesday, December 13

St. Augustine: Destination City of Spirit And Ambiance

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This writer is a nut over the issue of ambiance in selecting my travel journeys. It just has to “feel right”. And if there is one city that I’ve come across with plenty of spirit in it’s ambiance, it is St. Augustine, Florida, (or San Augustin Viejo) or Antiguo, Old San Augustin, Florida. It’s a destination experience as you’ve never had, causing visitors to step back in time to the founding of our nation way before the Pilgrims arrived. I would dare say this city is a crown jewel of American history just north of the city of Daytona and the Cape Kennedy Center on the east coast. The city of St. Augustine, waits to be discovered once again.       

Having descended from Spain on both sides of the family, I was always awed by both the name and the essence of Spain as related by my parents. But the name of St. Augustine stood out. My  Mom first visited historic St. Augustine in 1930 on a trip from Havana. Being of Spanish descent she wanted to see St. Augustine, the romantic “sister city” of Havana.  St. Augustine was founded by Spain a little after the capital city of Havana was established to the south of Florida. She wanted to both see and feel the spirit and ambiance of Spain in the New World. I have visited St. Augustine three times. There are many beautiful cities in the United States, but in the area of ambiance and spirit, St. Augustine is tops. There is a spirit and ambiance in this city of St. Augustine which I have not found in other beautiful cities along the southeastern United States.

Easily Accessible
Always driving up to St. Augustine on A1A from Miami or off of I-95, it has never failed to impress me whether I traveled in May or during Thanksgiving. Easily accessible from the spacious Florida Turnpike, I-95 or heading straight up or down the scenic A1A, God knew just what He was doing when He situated St. Augustine, this beauty of a city, on Florida’s northeast Atlantic coast. This writer believes that this St. Augustine, city of ambiance, should be one of the prime places of destination.

Historical Overview
To see St. Augustine is to see, live, and wonder at history come alive!  It is a city which was founded in the spirit  of conquest, exploration and dominion of the Old World’s quest for power and riches. It’s ambiance is one of exotic adventure. And this is the spirit which is conveyed to the visitors.

One could almost compare it to colonial Williamsburg, Virginia but of course, this city is considerably older. It also has another ambiance to it and was already established as a stop over from Havana in the 1500’s to Spain. The flags flown over St. Augustine have been many: the Spanish, the French, the English, and finally, our own Stars and Stripes. Yes, there is today a very modern city but it is San Augustin Antiguo or Viejo (Old St. Augustine) which causes countless of millions to walk and ride through it’s streets over the years.  There are other Spanish colonial cites but it is this one which has the ambiance of Old World Conquest.

St. Augustine, remains today the very oldest permanent European settlement in our United States. Founded by Spanish conquistador/explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565, it was already in existence when the English settlers landed in Jamestown and Massachusetts. It reeks of the era of militaristic colonialism. Visions of explorers, soldiers, and  families are easy to visualize.Today, children may not even have heard of St. Augustine. Only recently a close friend asked me what about St. Augustine was so significant. Ugh!

Local Color
A cross between New Orleans and most any other Spanish colony, if one is looking for local color steeped in ambiance, then St. Augustine is the one to see. Between it’s Spanish colonial; early French and American influences found in many architectural edifices, a walk through St. Augustine is a walk not only through history but picturesque charm and ambiance personified.
Huge elm and oak trees adorn city streets and sidewalks lined with Victorian and Edwardian period houses – original ones. There is town square with a beautiful gazebo and an unfortunately, but historically valid  part of St. Augustine – a slave auction block. Spanish stucco and adobe houses plus the earlier “coquina” building materials used (made from crushed sea shells and mud) will add a spirit and ambiance to the building areas which are equipped with authentic period furnishings and manned by very well versed costumed guides.  The spirit which made America great in seen in the architecture St. Augustine.

The People of St. Augustine
Her people are fully aware of their dependence on tourist revenue and play courtesy to the hilt.  I’m not saying this is bad. It is good business. I find the courtesy and friendly nature of this city of ambiance and it’s townspeople to be refreshing.

This writer has been to other historical cities which depend on tourists and the populace didn’t truly care how tourists were treated. I have never found the crowds to be overly great at any time which is the way I like it. No lines to make nor any rude tourists or natives coming at each other.  There is a spirit of congeniality all about the city.

Old St. George Street Where Shopping Is To Be Experienced
Los Angeles has Olvera Street but St. Augustine has St. George Street. The first established paved roadway in America and approximately 11 blocks long, visitors will love walking down the ancient cobble-stoned road, as the oldest street in the United States. On both sides of the street visitors will be able to spend an entire day and evening going in and out through the little shops offering just about any unique, romantic and curious item.

On St. George Street are other strategically placed romantic and quaint specialty shops. The shops were constructed in the actual buildings dating back to the 16th century of St. Augustine. The building materials are mostly original but due to age there has been damage. Sometimes, you will find a more modern edifice on old St. George Street. I wish it was not an issue but it is and I believe it detracts from the value and ambiance of the old period city.

Traffic on St. George is pedestrian and it would do an injustice converting it into anything other. Visitors are advised, (by myself at least), to go during cooler weather as it can become as hot as D.C. in July. Intersecting up and down St. George Street, visitors find one St. Augustine’s oldest streets and one of much spirit. Charlotte Street, just one block from the bay front area of St. Augustine, has been taken over by more exquisite shops. IN addition are found restaurants, inns, and small professional offices operating out of the charming old homes. There is no shortage of motels, inns, and hotels on this street and city but I always end up at the Holiday Inn which offers not much. However, it is the Old World spirit of St. Augustine which draws so many there.

To enter the City Gates on St. George St. means you have entered a 500 year old time warp and you do not want to get out any time soon. It’s spirit, ambiance and tempo is unique. You’ll find yourself wanting more of it.  It is a time warp emanating a spirit of the romantic and ambiance of another era.

So Many Diverse Attractions and most of them within walking distance of each other. Within a few blocks from one another visitors can reach some of the best attractions in St. Augustine available by foot or horse and buggy rides. Trolley trains ad to the spirit and so do van trains leaving convenient depots every 15 minutes. Taking the trolley train, the entire city of ambiance can be seen in 1 ½ days.

Beginning with the very city gates of St. George Street, visitors will find themselves beholding the very first permanent school house. Built about 200 years ago on 14 St. George Street and just one block south of the St. George City Gates you will see history unfold as you enter this “Oldest Wooden School House in America.” Admission is minimal and what a treat for the kids! It seems that St. Augustine has the “oldest everything”!

“The Oldest House” including 2 museums, gift store and picnic areas all for a $15.00 admission. You’ll also visit the “Spanish Quarters” similar to New Orleans French Quarter. (This one predates the French Quarters by more than 250 years). Visitors can walk through the beautiful St. Augustine Spanish style gardens and houses and refresh themselves at picturesque out door cafes. Admission is free and the walk begins on Florencia St. on St. George St.

“The Oldest Store”, Museum, and Pharmaceutical is also located on this street and visitors can view over 100,000 items on exhibit at this antique general store. Admission was $15.00.  I say “was” as I haven’t been here in a while (about 13 years and I understand several establishments have closed their doors or changed ownership).  Kids will love when they see the original “Oldest Jail” which was renovated in part in 1890 by railroad tycoon, Henry Flagler. This old edifice actually served as the St. John’s County Jail until 1953.

There are at least four major museums in St. Augustine: the famous Potter Wax Museum; the Museum of Weapons and Early American History; the very famous Ripleys: Believe It or Not Museum; and of course, the Lightner Museum full of 1888 Victorian memorabilia. I was able to see three of the four in one afternoon and morning trip. Admissions vary with each museum. Of course, visitors can just buy a complete coupon book at the City Depot and save them for a return trip.

The actual sights of both the Ponce de Leon’s fabled Fountain of Youth and the Mission of Nombre of Dios with it’s 208 foot cross seen from up to 25 miles out to sea, are actually a little outside of the Viejo section of the city, but can be walked.

There is also the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum; Fort Matanzas on Anastasia Island located 14 miles south off A1A; and The Castillo de San Marcos (also known as Fort Marion), down a few blocks off St. George St. This world famous and well preserved fort alone is worth the historical trip and lends itself to the ambiance of the city.

There is even a “Ghost Walking Tour” of the city after dark where a guide will take you through city streets, gardens and graveyards after dark…telling you about legends, folk tales, and even ghost stories. Hopefully, you’ll take this tour at Halloween!

Outside Old St. Augustine you’ll find the Bridge of the Lions where excavations have turned up the latest 1700 artifacts. You’ll also enjoy the Alligator Farm just 2 miles south of the Bridge of the Lions. There is no more beautiful site than driving over this old bridge as you enter the city from A1A. And above all, please don’t miss St. Augustine beginning after Thanksgiving through January 1. At this time the entire city is lit up with Christmas lights and that alone sets the romantic spirit and mood of the holidays.

Innumerable Fine Eating Places
Of notable mention is the Restaurant Tavern on the Bay and Pub just one block south of the Fort. Here diners can observe the dancing dolphins on Matanzas (Massacre) Bay or dine amidst one of the most carefully selected collection of antiques anywhere in the grand dining room. Restaurants and eating places of every kind and quality; shops; landmarks and museums – all of this only one block away from the famous Flagler College.
Admission: Is for the most part free but some places do charge admission.  Estimated stay: 2 – 4 hours.

Whether you take in a scenic walk along the Malecon boardwalk overlooking the bay, stroll down St. George Street; or take a wonderful horse and buggy ride around the city, this is the kind of destination which can and does attract honeymooners, families, tourists or just an incurable romantic such as myself. St. Augustine has something for everybody. If it’s spirit and ambiance that you want, don’t miss it, it’s on your pathway.

Authored by Beverly Anne Sanchez (Bevlion)



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