Sunday, June 16, 2024

Travel with Terri and visit amazing St. Augustine

Why in the world has it taken me so long to visit our nation’s oldest city? I kept asking myself this question because I was in awe of St. Augustine, Florida. It has such unique scenery and rich history that truly sets it apart from any other city in America. Founded in 1565, this is the oldest city in the United States. Experience all this with centuries-old buildings, horse-drawn carriages, hidden courtyards and so much more. St. Augustine certainly has a Spanish feel that you will discover as you walk the narrow cobblestone streets and view everything that is reminiscent of the Old Country. It’s a uniquely beautiful city and has plenty of history to explore — more than 458 years of it!

This Ancient City has attractions such as military forts, stately castles and Gilded Age hotels. We heard the roar of cannon fire and watched a historical reenactment at the massive Castillo de San Marcos, built in 1695 to protect and defend Spain’s claims in the New World. You can pay admission and tour the fort during the day, or go at night when it’s free of charge to wander around the grounds. Evenings are very romantic as the entire fort is illuminated. We enjoyed sitting on the old fort wall underneath the stars thinking about days gone by, feeling the salty breeze, and watching the boats meander the Matanzas River.

One way to get an excellent overview of St. Augustine and learn about all the treasures of the city is with Old Town Trolley Tours. They provide visitors with a fully narrated tour of St. Augustine and it’s a convenient way to get around downtown, with 22 stops along the way. The tour route encompasses 7 miles of fascinating history of the past four centuries. The details are recounted by one of the highly-trained and certified tour guides. We used Old Town Trolleys for our transportation day and night. This is a great way to get to the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. Here is where the Conquistador, Ponce de Leon ended his search for the magical healing waters.

Another stop is the spectacular historic Flagler College, once the former Hotel Ponce de Leon. To call this place extravagant is an understatement. We so enjoyed a tour here, which is offered daily. It showcases the architectural heritage and fascinating history of this nationally designated historic landmark building that Henry Flagler built in 1887. Flagler was a multimillionaire industrialist and developer who envisioned creating an American Riviera in St. Augustine. His breathtaking Hotel Ponce de Leon, now Flagler College, beautifully recaptures the architectural spirit of old Europe.

Presidents, dignitaries, royalty and the upper class walked the halls of this magnificent hotel during its heyday. Designed for entertainment, relaxation and grandeur, Flagler’s hotel incorporated all of the period’s modern conveniences, including electricity, and running water. The Ponce de Leon is also home to the largest collection of original stained-glass windows created by Louis Tiffany! There are more than 79 of these stunning Tiffany windows that decorate the dining hall. Nothing can compete with seeing this building in person. It’s hard to believe this is now a college because it looks more like a European palace.

Across the street is the beautiful Lightner Museum which has a fascinating history because this building was originally Hotel Alcazar. Built back in 1888, also by Henry Flagler, the Alcazar was the railroad magnate’s second uber-grand hotel in St. Augustine. The Spanish Renaissance Revival hotel hosted thousands of guests who enjoyed its remarkable recreation facilities — including the world’s largest swimming pool (at the time), Turkish and Russian steam baths, tennis courts and a gymnasium. The Alcazar closed during the Depression and the former Gilded Age resort hotel was transformed into an eclectic museum of art and artifacts by Otto Lightner. This place is impressive as it offers visitors an immersive experience of art, architecture and history. It was founded by Lightner in 1948.

From casual romantic dining to upscale gourmet dinners prepared by 5-star chefs, St. Augustine’s culinary scene has exploded and offers visitors a variety of dining options. Enjoy a taste of the Old World mixed with the new like only St. Augustine can offer. There is a strong multicultural heritage here and the local food reflects it. Here you can experience tasty Greek, Menorcan, Latin and Southern cooking. Two of my favorites are Michael’s and Columbia. Michael’s is a fine dining experience that has a stellar reputation and contemporary setting. They have a 400-label wine selection and extraordinary gourmet cuisine that is artistic, creative and delicious. Our meal at Michael’s was unforgettable! Also, don’t miss Columbia…this iconic, festive restaurant is in a historic coquina stone building filled with Spanish tiles and fountains that features mouthwatering Spanish and Cuban Cuisine. Columbia has been a beloved tradition since 1905. This place is legendary.

St. Augustine has an enormous selection of beautiful bed-and-breakfast accommodations that provide a lovely atmosphere for romantic getaways. I’ve never seen so many inviting places in one city. We stayed at the Collector Luxury Inn & Gardens and I cannot recommend this place enough! This adult-only inn combines modern amenities, premier services, and bed-and-breakfast charm, providing accommodations unlike any other in the country. This upscale inn occupies the site of a notable St. Augustine landmark. It’s the former Dow Museum of Historic Houses which includes 30 individually styled guest rooms spread across nine different historic homes, dating back to 1790. The Collector’s expansive courtyard connects the property’s buildings along meandering paths of manicured gardens, elegant statues, and bubbling fountains. There are countless brick-paved pathways and alcoves that have gates leading to St. Augustine’s Old Town, an easy walk to the city’s most celebrated attractions.

The Collector’s romantic ambiance and beautifully appointed rooms are charming. This has got to be one of the most historic and unique places we’ve ever stayed. In addition, the Inn also provides walking tours and talks with art and history docents. This is a place where travelers can really immerse themselves in this historic city by staying in a historic building. The Collector Luxury Inn and Gardens also has quite an impressive collection of national awards including being named one of the Top Five Best Resort Hotels in Florida.

We had fun exploring many great outdoor activities like walking on scenic nature trails, climbing a spiraling lighthouse, shopping at a local farmer’s market, and relaxing with a picnic on a tranquil beach overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. We also went on a very educational boat trip with St. Augustine ECO Tours. This place is your destination for the best outdoor adventures. They offer a wide range of experiences, including kayaking, ECO boat tours and Catamaran sailing. But the fun did not end at sunset. During the evening we attended one of the most famous festivals in the world known as the ‘Nights of Lights.’ This very popular annual free event has an epic breathtaking Christmas light display throughout the downtown historic city. It creates a dreamy atmosphere with millions of tiny white lights from the ground to the rooftops. I felt like I was in a Hallmark movie. It is a true spectacle to see and runs from mid-November until the end of January. National Geographic has listed Nights of Lights among the top 10 holiday light displays in the world! I cannot wait to return and savor this feast for the eyes. What a great way to kick off the holiday season.

St. Augustine visitors will experience warm southern hospitality as they mingle with locals and enjoy hearing about the abundance of rich history, culture and traditions. It’s long been a magical setting for both romance or family vacations because of the pristine beaches, Night of Lights, and centuries-old architecture and history. There are accommodations and activities for all ages and budgets. It has a plethora of culture and cuisine that is very authentic with a real European feel and flavor. I honestly had to keep reminding myself that I was in America. In fact, the oldest city in the USA!

Terri is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and the International Food Wine Travel Writers Association. Follow Terri on social media @Travel with Terri.

Terri Guthrie
Terri Guthrie
Terri Guthrie is a member of Society of American Travel Writers, Texas Travel Alliance and International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association. Follow Terri on social media at Travel with Terri.

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