The authentic experience: St. Augustine

Too far from Orlando’s theme parks and not nearly as sexy as the Kennedy Space Center,  St. Augustine is one of Florida’s forgotten destinations.  What’s it got worth seeing? Lots of history.

We’ve been taking the family to the nation’s oldest continuously occupied city of European origin since they were babies and, yes, we chose this historical town over Disney and SeaWorld. The kids don’t hold it against us, at least not yet.

St. Augustine is special, and when you visit, there’s only one place to start: Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, a 330-year-old fortress that must be experienced to be understood.

It is the only extant 17th-century fort in North America, and its history comes alive with re-enactments and fascinating exhibits that describe St. Augustine’s role in the New World. Our three children immediately knew this place was different, not at all like the faux facades at Epcot (all due respect to Disney) or even the fortifications from the Second Seminole War at Fort Christmas, Florida, which, by the way, is a replica.

This was about as authentic as it gets in Florida.

From there, it’s a quick walk to the Colonial Spanish Quarter, which offers attractions that could keep a family occupied for an entire afternoon. We didn’t have a chance to visit the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, although I’m told it’s pretty good.

But we did have a chance to swing by Ripley’s, and it’s a great place for kids, unless they’re squeamish. The current exhibit features real shrunken human heads, the world’s smallest production car, and the Lizard Man. I was privileged enough– if that’s the word to use– to see the entire human head collection at Ripley’s headquarters in Orlando, and let’s just say it leaves a lasting impression.

Alas, the Spanish Quarter is full of tourist traps, from shops that sell lawn ornaments and souvenirs to cafes and ice cream stores. We couldn’t make it through without buying gelato. Blame our recent trip to Italy for our weakness.

If you can make it all the way through without buying a hand-painted sign on driftwood that says “Welcome to the Beach” you’ll find yourself at Flagler College, noted for its grand Spanish Renaissance Revival architecture. The main building, which dates from 1887, is the former Hotel Ponce de León, and a National Historic Landmark. If you’re an architecture fan, catch one of the tours of the college, which offer a glimpse of what this place was like in Henry Flagler’s day.

If you have a little extra time, cross the Bridge of Lions and head south to Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, a lovely preserve with manicured gardens, ponds, citrus groves, and an oak hammock. A former estate that was donated to the state of Florida in the 1960s, Washington Oaks is a great place to see many native plants and stroll along the shores of the Matanzas River.

Here’s a multimedia slide show of our hike through the gardens.

Washington Oaks Garden State Park

On our most recent visit to the area we stayed just south of Washington Oaks, in a vacation rental along Cinnamon Beach. It was quiet, and during the evenings, we found ourselves alone on the shore, looking at the same angry Atlantic from which the original settlers were seeking refuge when they came to St. Augustine.