We hear and read so much about traveling to discover the hidden gems of the world – getting off the beaten path – that sometimes the treasures in our own back yards are overlooked. Or, at least put off for bigger, more elaborate plans. But exploring the beaten path may indeed be rewarding, especially when it is the city of St Augustine, Florida, the oldest continually occupied settlement of European origin in the continental United States, pre-dating Jamestown and Plymouth by decades. History comes to life here in the everyday with a story that began more than 500 years ago and is the basis for a vibrant, lively city today.
From 1513 to 1559, the Spanish sent several major expeditions to Florida attempting to colonize but none survived. Juan Ponce de León’s attempt to colonize in 1521, was cut short by a Native American arrow that mortally wounded him. Meanwhile, the first known European settlement in the continental United States, founded by Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón in 1526 in what’s believed to be present-day Georgia, was abandoned after a few months. Hernando de Soto set out from Spain in April 1538 with 10 ships and 700 men, armed with a royal commission to conquer and settle the region known as La Florida, the name given it by Ponce de Leon. After a stop in Cuba, the expedition landed at Tampa Bay in May 1539, but continued north into Georgia and Tennessee in a futile search for gold. Eventually, de Soto reached the Mississippi River, but died of disease without ever establishing a colony for Spain. Another Spanish settlement, founded in 1559 in present-day Pensacola, Florida, failed in less than two years. Frustrated, King Philip II of Spain put a stop to all further efforts to colonize Florida.
Philip II changed his mind, however, when he learned that French Protestants (known as Huguenots) were building colonies in Florida. As a result, in the summer of 1565, he sent Pedro Menendez de Aviles to drive out the French colonists. Of the original 2,000 people who started the voyage, only 800 arrived on the Florida shore. With the help of the Timucuan Indians, Menendez and his men built a fort and on September 8, 1565, he officially named it St. Augustine. This became the first permanent settlement in the United States. He then claimed all of Florida for Spain. And the path, started long ago in 1513, was finally established for all time.
The Spanish constantly clashed with the local Native Americans, who retaliated by setting the city’s fort on fire with flaming arrows. Just as these skirmishes were finally dying down, English privateer Sir Francis Drake arrived in 1586 with 2,000 men. He left after plundering the crops and homes and burning the city while its citizens hid in the woods. English buccaneers ransacked the city and it survived destructive sieges initiated by the governors of Carolina and Georgia. Then in a bid to increase their numbers in the Florida settlement, King Charles II of Spain proclaimed in 1693 that runaway slaves from British colonial lands would be given their freedom in Florida provided they converted to Catholicism. Consequently, blacks generally stood side-by-side with Native Americans and Spaniards in defending the city against the British. Forty-five years later, Florida’s governor approved a settlement for ex-slaves north of St. Augustine, called Fort Mose. It was the first legally sanctioned free black town in North America. Finally, another incursion took place in 1812, when a band of militiamen arrived as part of an ill-conceived bid to annex Florida to the United States. A half-century later, during the early stages of the Civil War, St. Augustine surrendered peacefully to the Union navy.
I spent a couple of magical days exploring historically rich St Augustine and meeting many of its wonderful residents. Located on the northeast coast of Florida, St Augustine boasts numerous sites of interest, as well as a compelling collection of architecture and one of the prettiest beaches in Florida. Upon arrival, I checked in at the Casa de Suenos Bed & Breakfast, pleased to find that my room upstairs had a balcony overlooking Cordova Street. The room was spacious, the decor inviting and homey and the bed and linens were simply heavenly. I could have easily settled in for a month and been very happy. The Inn was recently acquired by Joe and Margaret Finnegan, whose other properties include the St Francis Inn, several beach properties and Harbor 26 at the Inn at Camachee Harbor.
To get my bearings, cover a lot of area and hear as much historical and anecdotal commentary as possible, I elected to use the Old Town Trolley tours instead of driving, mostly because I am not known for my sense of direction. I really don’t mind getting lost (it’s 2nd nature to me), but for my first foray into the ancient city, I wished to experience the flavor of the city; its timeless appeal and personality. Stopping at the main ticket office of the Old Town Trolley, I was quite overwhelmed trying to decide which entry tickets to purchase based on the short descriptions in the brochures. But the staff proved to be informative and helpful, and in a few minutes had tailored a flexible itinerary for me based on my interests. I also learned that the entry tickets do not have to be used same day and do not expire. A big plus for visitors like me who know they will most certainly return.
I stopped at the Fountain of Youth first. Not because I believed in the legend – really! (Why would an intelligent, ambitious explorer, risk his reputation, his valuable resources and the crown’s backing by chasing down superstitious rumors of the “too good to be true” variety. My logic just doesn’t go there.) But because the Five Flags Cafe, situated at the park came highly recommended for a late lunch stop. And it did not disappoint! What a find. It is not a typical tourist-stop hot dogs and chips kind of place. After a delicious, chef quality slow lunch of Cuban black bean soup and fresh spinach salad, I indulged in a 30-minute walking tour of the park. It was pleasant. Situated on the river, with a few informative stops and demonstrations of canon and musket firings, the landscaping lent a leisurely tone with peacocks wandering the grounds as well. Then back on the trolley to continue the tour.
The trolley stops at the Old Jail, General Store and other attractions north of the old city, then heads back to the fort, the bay front, the oldest house, and the town square. It continues to the Flagler College complex and from there to The Distillery. The stops are all interesting on their own and worth a bit of time exploring, or you can walk the multiple shopping, gallery and restaurant districts. All are interwoven with historical oldest and/or firsts in North America, the city having celebrated recently its 450th year of continuous occupation, thereby claiming its status as North America’s oldest city.
One of the newer sites of interest in St Augustine is The St Augustine Distillery housed in the Historic FP&L Ice Plant. Built as part of St. Augustine’s ﬁrst power and ice complex in 1907 in the Lincolnville Neighborhood, it is on the National Register of Historic Places and was the ﬁrst of its kind to make commercial block ice in Florida over 100 years ago. Meticulously restored, it now houses Florida’s ﬁrst craft spirits cooperative. Craft distilling was happening all over the country, but until now, not in Florida. But with access to locally grown sugar cane, wheat, corn, and citrus, they believe they can develop a ﬁner quality spirit than just about any other place in the world. It has all the earmarks of becoming a local favorite: atmosphere, local history, interesting, quality driven products, and a tasting room.
Next, I tour Aviles Street in the oldest cobblestone street in the oldest city in America. Located in St. Augustine’s Historic District, Aviles Street appears on archival maps dating from as far back as the early 1570s. A wooden gateway arch at the corner of King Street marks the entrance. The setting is more intimate than St. George Street with wider sidewalks and benches and a wonderful mix of fine dining and casual eateries with outdoor seating, kid friendly menus and ethnic cuisines from around the globe.
This quaint street in historic downtown is lined with world class art galleries and not to be missed. It was a Tuesday and most of the galleries were closed, but I was treated to my own personal tour by Hookie Hamiliton, a stellar photographer who with her husband, Joel Bagnal, a goldsmith, owns Aviles Gallery. The Gallery represents local, award-winning artists in St. Augustine where favorite scenes of the area come to life in expert paintings and photographs, along with unique and beautiful handmade jewelry. Offering extraordinary hand made jewelry in gold and silver for more than 40 years, Joel Bagnal creations are truly love at first sight.
Aside from the intriguing historic sites, the lively art scene and the amazing architecture, all of which I will continue to cover from time to time in this blog, the city has earned an amazing reputation for dining, from family style to first class eateries, breakfast, lunch, dinner and treats galore are everywhere. In two days’ time, my samplings were limited, but excellent in every way. Lunch at the Hot Shot Bakery, located in the heart of downtown Saint Augustine, on Granada St. between the Lightner Museum and the Villa Zorayda, was wonderful. Sherry Stoppelbein, the owner is a native of St. Augustine and one of nearly 26,000 Minorcan descendants who live in St Johns County. Minorcans, a multicultural group descended from indentured workers brought to northeast Florida in the eighteenth century settled in St. Augustine, becoming the core of the population.
Sherry, a graduate the culinary program at First Coast Technical College in St. Augustine, employs the Datil pepper, a spicy pepper endemic to northeast Florida (and often attributed to the Minorcans) extensively in her menu. One wall of the cafe is devoted to photos of the brave souls who agreed to eat a whole pepper, known affectionately as the “Wall of Flame”. Sherry explained that the pepper chomp-down came about accidentally when she used chocolate dipped Datils to decorate a birthday cake and the garnishes were so popular, people came in the shop looking for them. And a local fad was born.
Next to the Hot Shot Bakery is Claude’s Chocolates. What a treasure to find exceptional European-style chocolates right here in St Augustine. Truly satisfyling chocolates are well balanced and only takes an instant to recognize that this is fine; this is perfection. And that this brand of crafting is rare. I purchased a small amount of personal favorites to take home and it was pure delight to hear my husband exclaim with surprise how wonderful this chocolate was. We both agreed this French candy maker’s skill far surpassed our life time samplings of other world class chocolates. I will never be able to leave the city again without a stop at Claude’s.
On my last evening in St Augustine, I dined at The Raintree Restaurant, one of Florida’s top destination restaurants since opening in 1981. The menu is a blend of Mediterranean, American and Asian cuisine inside a restored 1879 Colonial Victorian Home. The century-old Victorian building is one of the last survivors of a period of development that began in this part of St. Augustine after the end of the Civil War. With so many treasures of past architectural accomplishments gone forever, it is especially nice to spend a pleasant evening in one that was spared. It was a privilege to be there, to soak in the timeless appeal, to feel welcomed as if I were family, which is quite a treat these days when there is so much sameness, so much hurry, so much anonymity in numbers. The food and drink were fabulous as one would expect of a restaurant that has earned international accolades, but the warm welcome, the attention to detail and comfort, the surrounding pleasant conversations of other patrons are what makes for a completely memorable dining experience. And it is all there in this wonderful family-run (three generations now!) establishment. Be sure to pick up one of the books about how the MacDonald family and how they left England in their 45-foot yacht, Intsholo III, bound for the U.S.A. – a new country in which to realize their dreams.
So went my quest to explore this historical gem, not only on the path well beaten by so many before me, but also to meet the present day people who make this ancient city the wonderful place that it is today. Upon leaving for home – only two hours north of St Augustine – I had the most wonderful feeling that I will be back. Often. That this is a second home. A home that is is worth getting to know in all of its fascinating expressions.
All photos by Nancy Kirkpatrick Photography except for:
1) “The Cordova Room at the Casa de Suenos B&B”
2) “Joel Bagnal, goldsmith and Hookey Hamilton, photographer of Aviles Gallery” (by Hookie Hamilton)
3) “The Raintree Restaurant”