St. Augustine, FL
Much of the Sunshine State is new, from its cities to its resorts and theme parks, so visitors might be surprised to learn that the nation’s first European settlement is in Florida. Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez founded St. Augustine in 1565. With a population of 13,000, the city is small and relatively compact. Even so, its promise of a romantic weekend, or perhaps historic adventure, draws travelers looking to take a break from the larger cities, busy theme parks and crowded beaches.
The top attractions in St. Augustine are historic. Among them is the city’s bay-front fort, Castillo de San Marcos. The Spaniards began construction on the fort in 1672 to protect the city from British invaders. Its 16-foot-thick, coquina-rock walls were quite effective at absorbing the impact of cannonballs. Visitors to the fort first hear a brief narrative of its history, and then set out to explore the grounds on their own. The best time to tour the fort is the weekend, when cannon-firing demonstrations bring history to life with a sizzle and a boom!
More historic sites await tourists throughout the city’s grid of narrow, charming streets. A dilapidated wood structure close to St. Augustine’s historic city gate may be the nation’s oldest surviving wooden schoolhouse, though no one knows for sure. Tax rolls from 1716 list the building, but when it was built is anyone’s guess. Another of the city’s historic sites is the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, which was constructed in 1793 and renovated in 1965 to coincide with the city’s 400th anniversary.
The popular Lightner Museum occupies one more piece of St. Augustine history, a hotel built by railroad magnate Henry Flagler in the 1880s. The museum’s quirky exhibits focus on Victorian-era Florida. Flagler College, a second landmark of the railroad tycoon, occupies the center of downtown. It once housed Henry Flagler’s magnificent Ponce de Leon Hotel, which was the first poured concrete structure in the country. The structure later served as the headquarters of the Florida East Coast Railroad before the college acquired it in 1968.
About 15 miles south along the Atlantic Ocean is Marineland. This attraction, which opened in the 1930s, was one of the first aquariums in the nation. Today it focuses on dolphin conservation, though it also offers wildlife tours and dolphin swims as well as exhibits and presentations.
The World Golf Village and Hall of Fame is the newest of St. Augustine’s top attractions. Located approximately eight miles northwest of downtown, this combination resort and golfing community features two championship courses, the World Golf Hall of Fame, four hotels, an IMAX theater and casual and formal dining.
Building on legend, the privately owned Fountain of Youth Archeological Park claims to be the site of the legendary “Fountain of Youth” for which explorer Ponce de Leon searched in vain. Visitors at this controversial attraction can even drink from the reportedly foul-tasting fountain. Is it real? After paying the $12 admission, tourists can decide for themselves!