It was time to bid a sad good-bye to all my new staff buddies at PVI&C, but after a very relaxing couple of days, I was ready to tackle St. Augustine.
En route, we took a couple of detours. Our first stop was at the historical marker found at 30° 8′ North Latitude – Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. In case you’re wondering why, it is the only documented navigational fix recorded from Ponce de Leon’s “Journey of Discover” taken the day before his April 3, 1513 landing when he claimed La Florida for Spain.
A few minutes later we walked into the GTM Research Reserve to learn about the benefits of a healthy estuary. I honestly thought it sounded quite boring and hoped that it would be a very short visit. NOT!!! We had a total blast! The top-notch staff at this non-profit were all wildly enthusiastic and simply bubbling over to share their knowledge with us.
We got to handle the snakes (the Red Rat Snake was surprisingly soft, warm, dry and exceedingly friendly) learn about the baby alligators and sea turtles, help feed the fish and check out the birding on Guana River. The cutest part was when we bumped in Josephine, the “snake handler” who was playing with a snake outside during “one of his daily enrichment activities.”
Lunch was at Aunt Kate’s, where I had my first taste of Menorcan food. The owners, Catherine (nicknamed Kate-hence the resto’s name) and Frank Usina‘s Menorcan family have operated here since the late 1890s. Usina’s family was one of several indentured servants from the island of Menorca who fled the failed English Colony at New Smyrna to safety in St. Augustine in 1768.
This was another casual dockside eatery so you might spy a manatee or dolphin swimming by. If you haven’t tried fried alligator tails this would be the place for it, but ask for a bottle of their special, Minorcan (sic) Datil Pepper Vinegar for some added kick.
If you haven’t tried fried alligator tails this would be the place for it…
Although I was looking forward to a little nap after my meal, instead we drove off to see the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park. This is allegedly where Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon first landed in 1513 and discovered the famous rejuvenating waters, which you can try on-site. I was hoping I’d be revived, as well as lose a few wrinkles, after drinking the foul-tasting water, but no such luck.
Although the park is geared more toward young’uns, there were enough historic outdoor exhibits, such as a reconstruction of the first Franciscan Mission built here in 1587, a blacksmithy, a 35 ft. watchmen’s lookout tower, a Timucua Indian village, and a very cool ancient weaponry site (where we were treated to a fascinating demonstration taught by a 6’9” guide who used to be a pro-wrestler named Eclipse) to keep me entertained.
From there we scurried over to the marina to board one of St. Augustine Sailing’s glorious sailing vessels for a magical sunset cruise. This turned out to be, not even remotely arguably, the ultimate way to watch a sunset. Rose Ann Points and her hubby, Chuck (both captains and co-owners), proved to be the consummate hosts, keeping us plied with bubbly and copious platters of gourmet munchies.
Chuck played a fun mixed sailing tape (we set off to Christopher Cross singing Sailing) and Rose Ann is one my new heroes. Before meeting Chuck, she raised her three small children aboard a Morgan Out-Island ketch, where they sailed along the East Coast and the Caribbean for many years.
St. Augustine Sailing Enterprises features a variety of customizable offerings, from chartering one of their immaculate luxury yachts to sailing lessons (for complete novices to getting certified) to some wildly creative theme packages. Next time I’m signing up for their Tuxedo Tuesday Cruise which comes with a hunky James Bond impersonator who shakes, not stirs your drink.
Now I really was ready for a power nap at our hotel, a brand new, Renaissance St Augustine Historic Downtown Hotel.
The exterior of this luxury property, with its grand Victorian architecture and wraparound veranda, pays tribute to the historic San Marco Hotel, which stood here during the Gilded Age.
But the hotel’s interior design is surprisingly ultra-modern, complete with a magnificent staircase, a Starbucks, comfy library, fitness center, bar, sparsely decorated rooms in neutral tones with cotton ball soft bedding, and a 55-inch smart TV.
In-house dining at the Castillo Craft Bar + Kitchen is not simply an add-on amenity but could become a destination restaurant in its own right. A darling young mixologist created a special gin cocktail that he named after me: “The Smokin’ J.”
No need to second-guess this farm-to-fork menu, order anything that’s cooked on the wood-fired grill, or if you’re looking for something a little lighter, they make an excellent Moules Frites. They get extra-credit points for upgrading me to the truffle fries.
The next day was jammed packed with sightseeing in St. Auggie. It’s fun strolling around the different nabes, checking out the quaint old homes (think balconies, turrets, wrap-around porches lined with rocking chairs) shadowed by the Spanish moss-draped live Oak trees, even if I did get a little turned around.
But you can’t get lost for long since basically all roads lead to Old City’s main drag, St George Street, where you’ll find the bulk of the historic attractions, lively restaurants and some eclectic indie shopping.
Insider Tip for Dummies:
Time out for a ” let’s set things straight” historical moment. If you’re like me and thought that Jamestown was our nation’s oldest town, well, it ain’t! St. Augustine was founded in 1565 more than 40 years before Jamestown. And while we’re at it, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Timucua tribe and Spanish explorers, NOT pilgrims, in St. Augustine on September 8, 1565, This was 50+ years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth. Just sayin’.
The Lightner Museum
Since the whole historic district is more or less a living museum, including the oldest house, oldest wooden school, oldest masonry fort, etc. etc. etc. you might not think of going to a museum filled with antiques, but you’d be making a Big mistake. Big! Huge!
I was dragging my feet on a sunny afternoon as I slowly entered the Lightner Museum but an hour later they literally had to drag me out of there. Everything about it was sooooo cool! Even the building’s history is amazing. It began in 1888 as the Hotel Alcazar, a Gilded Age, ultra-luxe resort hotel commissioned by Standard Oil and railroad magnate, Henry Flagler.
Stop at the front desk to see if any docent tours are being offered. We scored big time since Ray Eme, the incredibly fun Associate Director, took us around and readily shared the dish on Flagler, who was a real piece of work. In 1901, Flagler bribed the Florida Legislature to pass a law that made incurable insanity grounds for divorce. He then persuaded a doctor to declare his second wife insane and divorced her so he could marry his much younger third one.
Back to the Lightner Museum: A castle-like structure, it was one of the first multi-story, poured concrete buildings in the country. The Alcazar was originally designed as one part hotel, one part baths, and the rest as a casino. The baths promoted many health benefits from using the Turkish and steam baths, massage room, gym, and plunge pool. The four-story, grand casino boasted the world’s largest public indoor swimming pool in the basement, capped by a stunning ballroom on the top floor. Although it was immensely popular during its heyday it suffered during the Depression and closed in 1931.
Back to the Lightner Museum: A castle-like structure, it was one of the first multi-story, poured concrete buildings in the country.
Otto Lightner, the wealthy owner of Hobbies, “the magazine for collectors” purchased the opulent property in 1947, as a museum where he could house his seemingly endless collections, which ran the gamut from fine Victorian art, including Tiffany stained glass lamps, to more eclectic artifacts such as shrunken heads, an Egyptian mummy, and a stuffed lion once owned by Winston Churchill.
For an elegant lunch reserve a table in the pool. Yup, you read that right. Café Alcazar is located in the deep end of what was once the world’s largest swimming pool.
St. Augustine Food Walkabout
If you’re remotely a foodie then the easiest way to introduce your tummy to St. Auggie’s finest is to sign up for the “The Perfect Pairing: St. Augustine’s Wine, Cocktail, and Food Experience”. During our three-hour culinary walk, Alex Drywak, our knowledgeable guide and head of St. Augustine Experiences, peppered his tour with just the right amount of history, architectural highlights, and suggestions for additional things to see and do all sandwiched between tastings.
We began the tour at Carrera Wine Cellar, a friendly, no-pressure, wine store where you can sip, shop, and learn. If you’re in the mood for something new, they offer wine flights, Enomatic wine sampling machines, and many unique events such as a “Donuts & Wine” tasting. From there it was a whirlwind of more wine, handcrafted cocktails, regional cuisine, cocktails…oh, did I say that already?
The tastiest stop was The Floridian, a lively local fave serving what the owners succinctly describe as ‘Innovative Southern Fare for Omnivores, Herbivores and Locavores’, although I just call it ‘scrumptious’!
If you want to gild the lily, one of the best deals in town is the St. Augustine Land & Sea experience, offering three reasonably priced options for pairing a culinary tour with a sailing adventure.
A few other absolutely do not miss eating and drinking spots include:
St. Augustine Distillery
Located in a renovated old ice plant, the St. Augustine Distillery is not only the most visited craft distillery in America, but it’s also highly acclaimed for producing some of the most unique vodka, rum, gin, and whiskey around.
Free tours are offered daily, which include an in-depth explanation of their farm-to-bottle distillery process, followed by a complimentary tasting of their award-winning spirits both neat and mixed in signature cocktails.
For an unforgettable gift, sign up for the “Fill Your Own Bourbon Bottle Experience”. It starts with a private tasting of the different barrels of bourbon. Once you identify your favorite you’re invited behind the production line to fill, cork, and label your personalized bottle.
Casa de Vino 57
Search out this hidden gem for the perfect ending to a long day of sightseeing. Nab a table in the secluded courtyard where you can unwind over an excellent glass of wine, a cheese and charcuterie board (try the delectable Truffle Tremor Aged Goat!) and some live music under the trees. Then shop the Casa de Vino 67 wine store, previously the Joaneda house built in 1807, for your favorite bottle to bring home. You’ll soon understand why it has racked up awards for Best Wine Shop, Best Wine Bar and Best Wine List!
Ancient City Brunch Bar
The perfect spot for fueling up before flying home! While the place is adorable, the service is super friendly, the “create your own brunch board” idea is unique, the locally sourced food is to-die-for, partic the homemade scones, quiche, and turkey empanada… what got me was the amazing story of how Ancient City Brunch Bar came to fruition.
It started with one powerhouse mom, Melissa Schroeder, who had been a successful business consultant for years, and her four teen-aged kids (including one set of non-identical twin girls). Although they all had totally different dietary needs and preferences, they all loved a good brunch.
The twins needed to develop a business plan for their high school internship class which was the impetus to the café. Their plan was so good that the whole family joined forces and opened ACBB.
If you’re thinking of leaving home for the holidays, but you’re not ready to fly internationally, a trip to St. Augustine can almost feel like you’re in sunny Spain. The historic district is lit up with millions of twinkling light s as it celebrates its 28th annual Nights of Lights (a Spanish tradition) from Nov. 20th, 2021 to January 31, 2022.
P.S. — To add some sparkle to your romance consider taking one of St. Augustine’s Sailing special Nights of the Lights charter, complete with a catered dinner and wine pairing.