Many years ago my parents took me on a vacation to Florida. I remember that trip and the many things that we saw. It was a tour of the state that included quite a few places. My current home, Clearwater Beach, was on the list as were many other stops along the way. I have memories of palm trees, long straight highways, beaches, and roadside dinosaurs. One of my favorite places on that vacation was Saint Augustine, Florida.
Saint Augustine sits on the Atlantic coast of Florida, a little less than an hour’s drive south from Jacksonville. St Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the New World. Settled by the Spanish, the location is well chosen, being at the junction of inland waterways to the north and south while also having an outlet into the Atlantic Ocean. It was also chosen for its proximity to a French fort near Jacksonville, which the Spanish quickly destroyed. The military station became a city but defenses always remained in place at the site. The last fort constructed in Fort Augustine still stands for tourist to enjoy. The Castillo de San Marcos bears the typical style of its era but is built from local materials, a stone called coquina. Looking at it, you would not quite believe that it is actual stone as it appears to be cemented together seashells. However, it was nature that did the cementing and it is indeed a natural material. The beauty of coquina is that when a cannon ball strikes it, it does not break. Instead, the cannon balls stink into the rock while the walls remain in place. One story says the Spanish dug the metal spheres back out and reused them.
While vacationing in St Augustine, my family went to the Castillo de San Marcos. It was a fun tour, but for a child to whom history meant nothing, it was merely entertaining. My memories of Saint Augustine, instead, lean heavily toward the beach. I still have the old photos of the area, the few we took, since they were taken on film rather than a digital camera. In those days we often camped and so we did on that trip. The campsite was located near the beach and you could simply walk over to it. A large ship’s anchor sat in the parking lot and we took family pictures while standing next to it.
A few years back I had the opportunity to visit Saint Augustine again. This time my interest in old buildings and history made the tour of the Spanish fort much more memorable. Cannons still sat on the walls and the view of the harbor was quite nice. I read all the plaques and walked along with the tours. The city was also unique and intriguing. Much of it is old but it triggered no memories. Apparently the younger me had no interest in it. For the adult me, the smaller streets with touristy shops were fun to walk and the dining had a nice atmosphere. The old buildings were fascinating to walk among.
On my visit as an adult, I wound up at the beach again, since it is one of the main tourist attractions of the city. Much to my surprise, there sat the anchor in the middle of the parking lot, all those years later.
Saint Augustine is a very charming city. Its history seeps into you the longer you stay and the mix of the old and the new works very well. It is very touristy, but that’s just fine. That means there are more shops to explore and more places to dine. The beaches are fantastic, with lots of dunes, boardwalks to get you across the beach grass, and lots and lots of sand. Be prepared to do a little walking to get to the shore, but well worth it. All in all, it is a perfect vacation destination. I would visit again, and, in fact, have plans to go there within the year. Living in Clearwater, Florida means I can reach the city in half a day’s drive, so, really, it could be done on a whim. If you are coming to Florida and are looking for history-rich places to explore, Saint Augustine will certainly serve. I recommend putting it on your list of places to see.