Along the coast in the northern part of Florida lies one of the most fascinating places I have visited in the United States. It takes about four hours to get from Palm Beach County to the little nugget of history sitting on Matanzas Bay near an inlet. But there sit the remnants, lovingly and commercially restored and preserved, of old St. Augustine, occupied by people since before 1546.
I have been there several times over my life. The first when I was about five. I remember my dad picking me up to look over a wooden fence at excavation work. My parents and I walked down St. George Street, filled to the brim with shops and restaurants, and enjoyed the tram ride as much for the breeze as the sights. We even rode in the horse-drawn carriages that line up along the Bayfront between the Castillo de San Marcos and the Bridge.
In college, it was a day trip as my sorority sisters and I, tired of sitting on the beaches of nearby Jacksonville Beach, took the short drive to St. Augustine. We did several of the same things I did as a five year old with the added exception of dancing and drinking like the young adults we were.
As a pregnant wife, my then husband and I took our unborn son on a tour of the city as our last get away before our son’s arrival. I was huge and people kept offering me seats or looking at me suspiciously as if I’d go into labor any second. One of the best parts of that trip was lying in some shade on the grass by the fort, recovering from the Florida heat and trying to catch an ocean breeze. He was born ahead of schedule two weeks later.
My best friend and I have been back a couple of times, the last for the Florida Heritage Book Festival and its workshops. We stayed in The Pirate Haus, a little old bed and breakfast a block off of St. George Street. Sublime pancakes for breakfast. When we weren’t eating pancakes or doing writerly things, we were shopping, walking and site-seeing. I also managed to talk her into the Ghost Tour. We didn’t spot anything unusual ourselves, but did find out that John Wilkes Booth supposedly appeared on stage at what was once the theatre on St. George Street.
In all those years, old St. Augustine hasn’t changed that much. Oh, individual shops along St. George Street come and go, but the parts of St. Augustine that make it truly unique, haven’t.
Try touring the Castillo de San Marcos. The Spaniards started building it in 1672 and it was 1695 before it was finished. From that time, four different flags have flown over its sturdy coquina (“little shells”) walls and pockmarks from cannon balls still dot the eastern wall. As you peer through battlements, try to imagine what it must have been like to be a Spaniard on guard duty in the incredible heat.
Try touring the Oldest Schoolhouse in America and imagine learning under those conditions. Try touring Flagler College. Housed in the 1887 Hotel Ponce de Leon, it was once one of Henry Flagler’s luxury hotels. Not only is the woodwork in the lobby astounding, but the cafeteria – the CAFETERIA—boasts seventy-nine Louis Tiffany Comfort stained glass windows.
It’s no wonder I’ve found myself drawn to St. Augustine time and time again. It’s one of those places that have become a touchstone in my life—where things haven’t changed so much that nothing looks familiar. Whether I’ve been 5 years old, 20, 30 or 50 or anywhere in between, I can still stand on top of the Castillo, my hands on the coquina wall and look out toward the Inlet.
There’s something comforting about that.