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Travel Talk – St. Augustine offers history and delivers lots of charm (Dec. 17, 2014 issue)

By Mary Beth Shults
Dreaming of a Sandy Christmas?
St. Augustine, Florida is a beautiful city with a fascinating history. It’s a great get-away for families, couples, or a mom who wants to give her adult daughter a trip for a birthday surprise, as was the case for me (the adult daughter). We went the first weekend in December. As it turns out, the British also wanted to spend winter in Florida, and that weekend, St. Augustine hosted a re-enactment of the British taking the old fort by treaty. All weekend, redcoats, Spanish soldiers, and corseted ladies roamed the streets, but we were under the impression that this is not always the case.
The re-enactors provided the perfect backdrop for us to learn more about St. Augustine’s history. It’s the oldest colonial city in the United States and was settled by the Spanish who basically claimed the entire continent before the British ever landed at Jamestown. Later, the British won St. Augustine in a treaty after the French and Indian war, but the Spanish won it back by another treaty following the American Revolution. The United States later bought Florida from the Spanish and St. Augustine ended in our hands.
The Castillo de San Marco is the best place to learn about the history. This old fort was never defeated in battle, and it’s not hard to see why that is. The massive walls overlook the bay, making it impossible for pirates to surprise the soldiers. Inside the fort, one can find a preserved military barracks as well as a nice view of the bay in front and the old city behind the fort.
The old city is the part of St. Augustine that was originally a Spanish town. It is now a beautiful area with lots of delicious restaurants and cafes as well as shops of all kinds. You can spend hours in this part of the city and still find something new to see, which we did! It’s a great place to souvenir or Christmas shop, though bargain-hunters may be interested in St. Augustine’s outlet stores which are farther from downtown.
No visit to St. Augustine would be complete without visiting Flagler College, also located in the historic district. The College was originally a lavish hotel built in the early 1900s by railroad tycoon, — Flagler. He wanted to transform the old city into a playground for high society. The College now uses the former hotel as a girl’s dormitory. The architecture is Spanish renaissance and the same arches and towers that are prevalent in southern Spain are found in these 20th century buildings.
The Nights of Lights is one of St. Augustine’s biggest attractions during the holiday season. The city puts thousands of lights up throughout the historical center. Families might enjoy taking a trolley ride to see these lights. However, if you’re only there for a Saturday night, this might not be the best idea. You can buy the tickets online in advance, but they don’t set a limit on ticket sells, so you could end up waiting over an hour to take the trolley through town at night. During the day, there are also hop-on, hop-off trolley rides which could be educational and save you from some of the extensive walking in downtown.
If you want something that seems a bit in keeping with the history or a bit more romantic, there are also carriage rides. These allow you to see some of the lights at night or learn history by day. We tried a wine tour at night. However, all of these tours depend on your guide and how forthcoming he or she is. Our guide was not interested in teaching us about St. Augustine, or pointing out historical land marks. For us, this was a disappointing experience, though we did enjoy getting to know the other people in our carriage.
Our other favorite destination in St. Augustine was the beach. The city has two beaches, and you can drive on both. This was novel experience for us and quite exciting. Because the sand is so well-packed, I also found it to be an excellent beach to run on and was quite content to run under the sun in December.
Lastly, no trip would be complete without looking at travel and lodging. St. Augustine is an easy drive from East Tennessee, though you will have to drive through Jacksonville traffic. Once you get to St. Augustine, parking can be very difficult. There is a large parking garage by the Visitor’s Center in the historic district. If you’re interested in the trolley rides, you can park at most of the stops and take a trolley through town. Regardless, you should be prepared to walk quite a bit through the historic center, especially since some streets are pedestrian-only. As for lodging, there are numerous hotels throughout the city. If you’re willing to pay a bit more, you can stay closer to the sights or find a beach-front hotel. There are also a number of bed and breakfasts inns in the center of the historic district, which may be perfect for a couples get away.
There are many options of attractions and hotel choices for those interested in either a longer stay or a weekend away in St. Augustine. It’s a good choice for a warm, holiday destination or a sunny vacation in the summer, and is a perfect choice for families, history buffs, and couples, among others. You won’t be disappointed by this charming old city.
Mary Beth Shults graduated with honors from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in May 2014 with a B.S. in Political Science: International Studies and a minor in French. She enjoys travel even more than foreign affairs blogs. She has visited 13 countries on 4 continents and has mastered the art of long weekend trips, both abroad and in the United States.