Editor’s Note: Travel writer Cathy H. Burroughs will be contributing occasional articles about her trips and adventures to INtown’s website. Her articles have been commissioned by The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun and she’s also a blogger for luxury travel site, journeyPod.
By Cathy H. Burroughs
We recently headed down Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon Avenue toward St. Augustine, Florida’s Ponce De Leon Boulevard, for our first visit to St. Augustine – America’s oldest city. A manageable six hour car ride from Atlanta, you will soon find out why this town is one of only four U.S. locales to make the prestigious international National Geographic Traveler World’s Top 20 Places to See.
Poised to celebrate 450 years, this lush Floridian architectural showplace is perched on the Matanzas Bay leading to the Atlantic Ocean. As legend has it, the famed conquistador Ponce de Leon entered the coquina gates in search of the fountain of youth and Henry Flagler, the millionaire developer, followed in the late 1880’s. Both the Spanish discoverer and Flagler, the man who would go on to put the East Coast of Florida on the map as the tourism capital, found themselves thoroughly seduced by what would become the “new American Riviera,” at the heart of what would become the beautiful and historic piece d’ resistance – St. Augustine.
We couldn’t have landed in a more perfect spot from which to experience the city’s architecture, romance and rarified beauty – the warmly embracing St. Francis Inn. Touted to be the “oldest inn in the oldest city,” this unique bed and breakfast is one block from the city’s Oldest House on one of St. Augustine’s oldest streets. With its own parking (huge in this town), the historic district is an easy walk down George Street.
The Inn is idyllic with its wrought-iron balconies and antique appointed suites. Some rooms have hot tubs, glowing fireplaces, and the grounds boast a fountain, bricked courtyard, lush gardens and a solar heated pool. The team at the St. Francis, headed by Joe and Margaret Finnegan, will ply you with some of the most scrumptious, home-made fare imaginable. Other perks include free admission to the Oldest House and free bikes for the duration of your stay at this National Historic Landmark. There’s even a requisite residential ghost, Lily. For a day or more by the sea, ask the Inn for details about their beach bungalows, changing room and shower.
From the moment you step onto the cobbled and bricked by-ways of St. Augustine’s streets, you’ll be agog with its “architectural wonders.” Visitors viewing St. Augustine for the first time are frequently astounded by the magnificent structures in the center of town. Many of these are 19th century gold leaf, turrets and spired former hotels from the city’s Golden Era, as well as elaborate churches, government edifices, vintage resorts and homes from the Spanish Renaissance and Colonial periods.
There are any number of ways to see the city. Jump on and off the Olde Towne Trolley with a three day pass, or get a whirlwind degree in historic preservation as we did at the Oldest House. Another way to experience what life was like is the Colonial Quarter attraction just off St. George Street. This newly opened 2-acre Spanish and British village spans the full arc of St. Augustine’s vibrant, troubled and ultimately thriving history. Re-enactments include a musket drill, a black smith demonstration and an interactive leather smithing experience. See an actual ship being built, catch an original musical performance and be personally guided by an actor in garb of the era. You can eat or imbibe at either a Spanish Tavern, a British Public House or Pub, or both ~ colorful, fun and mouth-watering.
St. Augustine is known for its hundreds of restaurants, but one worth a stop is Chef Jean~Stephane Poinard’s charming Bistro de Leon just steps from the famed Lions Bridge on Cathedral Place. A 5th generation chef who hails from Lyon, France, Chef Poinard brings authentic, fresh, affordable and irresistible haute cuisine to St. Augustine. The early (5:30 to 6:30 p.m.) Chef’s Choice – a specialty of an appetizer, entrée, dessert and glass of house wine – is super reasonable at $24.95. We also stopped off for happy hour and tasty seafood at Meehan’s Irish Pub, with it’s delightful patio and top drawer live music.
St. Augustine is also a golfer’s paradise for those who like to spend a few days on the links, and there is also great shopping. You’ll also find some other well-known attractions in St. Augustine, such as the iconic Alligator Farm and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. You can find out more about America’s oldest, and arguably, most European city at augustine.com.