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St. Augustine, Florida: An Oldie but a Goodie

Last week I wrote about Sanibel Island, one of our favorite beach destinations. This week, I want to talk about another Beach favorite of ours: St. Augustine, Florida.

When we visit St. Augustine, Florida, we technically stay just south at Crescent Beach.  However, for the purpose of this post, I am going to lump it all into one and just say “St Augustine.” 

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Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers, St Augustine is the oldest city in the United States. Honestly, if history is the only reason you visit, it will be well worth your time.  The Spanish colonial architecture is gorgeous and the Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest and largest masonry fort in the continental United States. Castillo de San Marcos is also a National Monument with our National Park Service, complete with tours, self-guided tours, and scheduled canon fire demonstrations.  Further, the historic district of St Augustine has been really well preserved with tourists, and pedestrians, in mind.  

Crescent Beach

Apart from that, St Augustine beach, and Crescent Beach just to the south, are lovely Atlantic coast beaches.  We have been coming here for several years; sometimes for a week long vacation, sometimes just a day trip from Kyle’s hometown of Ocala. 

If you’re not familiar with where St Augustine is located, it is on the east coast of Florida, south of Jacksonville and north of Daytona Beach on Highway A1A (beachfront avenue!).

Here are several reasons why you should put St Augustine on your list of places to visit:

Castillo De San Marcos

Castillo De San Marcos is unique for a host of reasons.  Architecturally speaking, the Castillo is one of only two fortifications in the world built out of coquina, a somewhat rare form of limestone.  While this seemed like a poor choice of building material (it’s very porous rock), it was the only material in any abundance in the area.  However, canons fired into the fortification sank into the walls, instead of shattering them which is the case with other forms of stone, such as granite.  

Castillo De San Marcos

Because of this construction, the Castillo has stood the test of time and weathered attacks from both nature (in the for of hurricanes, etc) and man (battles and sieges).  Today, you can just walk up, pay the entrance fee, and tour the Castillo yourself.  There are Ranger guided programs, self-guided programs, weapons demonstrations, re-enactments, and of course, the National Park Service video about the Castillo. One of my personal favorite things to do it climb to the top and check out the view.  

St Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum

I thought this place was going to be a total tourist trap waste of time.  We almost didn’t go, but the kids seemed interested and we’ve been coming to St Augustine long enough to want to try some touristy things, so we paid our admission and went.  I even had reservations while we were buying our tickets because you have to do that in the gift shop, and places like this always have cheesy gift shops.  Let me tell you here today: boy was I wrong about that!  This museum is fascinating!  

Beware of Captain Bigs!

They don’t just use the word “museum” to draw you in.  It’s an actual museum with actual artifacts, including an original Jolly Roger and the world’s oldest wanted poster.  You can even see real pirate treasure!  They exhibit what real life was like aboard these pirate ships, and dispel myths about the captains and crew mates.  There is a room you can go in that is designed to mimic what life below deck was like.  Um, it’s dark. That’s what it’s like.  But, you sit on benches and put on headphones and can press a button and have a more stimulating experience with sounds and flashes of lights.  Our girls got a little nervous during this part because it really was quite realistic.  There is also a room dedicated to “pirates in Hollywood,” that goes through cultural perceptions of pirates as depicted in movies like “Pirates of the Caribbean.” 

The Old Wooden Schoolhouse and Historic George Street

Taking a stroll down George St, and through the historic district in general, is a must.  It’s quaint, lovely, filled with shopping and restaurants, coquina and bougainvillea.  It’s like a clean, charming New Orleans.  Also, there are ice cream shops and popsicle stands everywhere, and if you aren’t incorporating frozen treats into your vacations, then really, what are you doing on vacation? 

As you’re strolling down George Street, make sure you check out the Old Wooden Schoolhouse.

No wooden structures in St Augustine built prior to 1702 are still standing because that was the year the British burned St Augustine to the ground (rude).  You can, of course, learn about the siege of 1702 at the Castillo de San Marcos.  However, thanks to government records, we do know that the schoolhouse was in existence at least as early as 1716.  It became a school in 1788.  You can now tour the tiny school, and it’s grounds, which includes a pecan tree, which still produces fruit, that is an estimated 250 years old. 

Outside the Columbia, Gem of Spanish Restaurants

While you’re strolling through this area, stop by the Columbia restaurant, both to marvel over how beautiful it is, and to eat their fantastic food.  They are known for their Cuban sandwiches and their 1905 salad, but everything I’ve ever ordered here has been great.  This is one of those restaurants where I like to try something new every time because the selection and quality are both top notch.  Their gift shop has beautiful kitchen pottery and their cookbook, which is also a history of the restaurant, makes a great gift for the foodie in your life. 

St Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park

Ok, so we love this place.  The Alligator Farm opened in 1893 and has been open ever since, making it one of Florida’s oldest continuously running attractions and a must-visit fixture of St Augustine.  And with good reason! Not only is this place fun, but there is a ton to learn, and do, there.  They have feeding demonstrations, bird shows, opportunities to interact with baby alligators, and zip line over the park. 

Kyle leading Jack through the Alligator Farm, circa 2010.

The Alligator Farm is the only place on earth where you can see every living species of crocodilian.  Seriously. Further, there are boardwalks you can take that stretch over huge enclosures.  Make sure you bring some quarters!  There are food dispensers located throughout the boardwalk and you’ll get a kick out of throwing the food to the alligators… and watching them chomp! for it!

Aaaaaaahhhhh!!!

As for the zip line, I’ve done the shorter zip line twice.  Once, when it first opened and even though they were still working out some of the kinks, it was still a lot of fun.  The second time as this past Christmas.  While we were in St Augustine this past summer, Bigs asked if he could do the zip line.  The minimum age requirement is 8, and since his birthday is in October, I told him that the next time we came to St Augustine, I would take him.  Christmas was that time, and it was a blast to go through it with him!  Also, they had either expanded it or improved it, because it was much better the second time. 

I’m looking forward to doing the longer zip line that goes through the entire property.  You cannot take your phone or a camera with you as you zip line.  They have free lockers for you to store your stuff, and they have photographers stationed throughout to take photos of you, which you can purchase (of course) once you finish the course.  I’ve made reservations and paid in advance, but I’ve also seen people walk up and they’ll have space for them. It’s best, at the very least, to call ahead.

Even though we live in Mississippi, we have a family membership that we renew every year.  We do this for a couple of reasons.  First, it is cheaper for our family of 6 to buy the membership than it is to go twice (it’s just a few dollars more than just one visit for us).  Second, we know the kids are going to ask to go, and so this way, we always say yes!  We also get a discount in the gift shop, which is nice because the kids like to bring their money and pick up a little trinket or some postcards.  

Fort Matanzas National Monument

Fort Slaughter on Rattlesnake Island… how intimidating is that?!?

As I mentioned earlier, St Augustine is steeped in history.  Also near Crescent Beach is Fort Matanzas National Monument, which is also part of our National Park Service.  “Matanzas,” meaning “slaughters” in Spanish, is the location of where some 200 French soldiers were, in fact, slaughtered by Spanish forces.  This happened in 1565, about 200 years before construction of the fort even started. The monument is impressive, and the history is fascinating, making Fort Matanzas an excellent companion to Castillo de San Marcos. Nowadays, you can tour the site, including a boat ride, and learn all about the area.  

The boat (ferry) ride is free (yippee!), but you must get tickets from the Fort Matanzas Visitors Center in order to board. The ferry runs around every third minutes on the top and bottom of the hour, from around 9-4. The boat ride takes all of 5 minutes (including getting on and off), and then a park ranger will give a short speech about the fort, the island, and the history surrounding both. After that, you are free to roam around the fort and explore for yourself. The kids had a blast seeing how the soldiers once lived and looking out over the top of the fort.

The Beach!

There is so much to do in St Augustine that it’s hard to think there is time for the beach!  But skipping the beach would be a real shame, so let’s talk about it for a minute.  Crescent Beach is nestled in between St Augustine beach and Matanzas Beach, which is a protected area.  It’s a wide, flat beach and it really is gorgeous. Because it’s on the Atlantic coast, the surf is too strong for good snorkeling, but that makes it great for boogie boarding

Further, the condos along the beach are joined to the beach with these boardwalks that go over grassy dunes.  These dunes are protected shelter areas for tortoises, and we love spotting them from above.  We sometimes see them munching on the grass in the condo lawn.  When we aren’t doing that, we’re building sand castles, watching dolphins swim by, or checking out the more unusual catches that fisherman haul in.   

This area, for us, also has deep sentimental value. Kyle spent some of his early childhood years living in St Augustine, then spent part of every summer of his youth at Crescent Beach with family and friends. Our oldest, Jack, took his first steps in a condo at Crescent Beach, and when we mention the word “beach” around our house, all of us immediately think of St Augustine and Crescent Beach.

Christmas day trip ends with a quick visit to the beach!

Can you tell that we love St Augustine?  Have you ever been?  What are your favorite places to visit?  What do you wish you had done?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments section! 

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