Home / Lifestyle / St. Augustine is the perfect mix of old and new

St. Augustine is the perfect mix of old and new


Friday, March 4, 2016, 5:55 PM

Chain stores and restaurants are not permitted in St. Augustine's historic district. Cobblestoned Aviles St. houses unique boutiques.George Kamper/FloridaHistoricBeaches.com

Chain stores and restaurants are not permitted in St. Augustine’s historic district. Cobblestoned Aviles St. houses unique boutiques.

What attracted me to St. Augustine was its Fountain of Youth. Legend has it that Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon swashbuckled ashore in 1513 looking for gold. Reporting back to King Ferdinand empty-handed, he swore he’d located the mythical Fountain of Youth. The perpetually spouting mineral spring still draws the hopeful here.

I swigged bottle after bottle of the elixir, sold at the wonderfully vintage, yoga-serene Fountain of Youth Archeological Park. (fountainofyouthflorida.com)

Shocker: it doesn’t work. But in St. Augustine I found youth of another kind.

This tiny Northeastern Florida town of only 14,000 — America’s oldest city — is very old and very new at the same time. A visitor’s attention is pulled in two directions: to authentic, absorbing historical attractions, and to the seductions of a creative burg coming into its own.

History beckons by day under the glorious Atlantic coastal sun. You can binge on St. Augustine lore at the Fountain of Youth Park’s indigenous Timucua tribal sites, then glimpse the 1695-vintage Castillo de San Marcos (nps.gov/cas) , the sole Spanish fort on the U.S. mainland. (There’s also one in Puerto Rico.)

St. Augustine Lighthouse (staugustinelighthouse.org) has kept a light on for sailors since 1874. Its 219 steps up count as a workout.

The center of town inhabits Florida’s Gilded Age. Here, robber baron Henry Flagler, a Standard Oil founder turned land developer, built spectacular hotels for the billionaire class. (He also masterminded the cities of Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Miami, and Key West, plus the Florida East Coast Railway to connect them.) Unfurled in 1888, Flagler’s Alcazar Hotel kickstarted the snowbird phenom: Northerners wintering in Florida.

The swankiest hotel of its day, the Alcazar flaunted a pioneering mineral-springs spa, velvet-rope lounges, and, in its skylit basement, the world’s longest indoor pool. Drained, the pool now houses an antiques arcade and Café Alcazar (thealcazarcafe.com), whose curried chicken salad is worth swan-diving for.

Alcazar Hotel itself has been reborn as the Lightner Museum (lightnermuseum.org), a riveting potpourri of private collections — art, furniture, glass, fossils, mummies, cigar bands — “picked” by Chicago publisher Otto C. Lightner from the estates of gentry bankrupted by the 1929 stock-market crash. But Flagler’s legacy endures intact. Across from the Alcazar, his breathtaking 1888 Ponce de León Hotel, now Flagler College, houses lucky undergrads (who ignore the chaperoned tourists).

Flagler alumni frequently settle here, keeping St. Augustine a Flagler town. “I chose this college because it’s near the beach,” admits grad Ryan Dettra, now 37. “But I fell for St. Augustine. There’s nostalgia and energy. This is a great place to have fun and then settle down.

“The 25-to-40-year-olds dislike the tourist traps of the past, so they’re opening innovative businesses here,” he adds.

Dettra co-founded Ice Plant (110 Riberia St., iceplantbar.com) — a restaurant and bar alongside the equally avant-garde St. Augustine Distillery — in a restored 110-year-old ice factory. Ice Plant boasts period windows sourced from Staten Island. Expect bespoke cocktails and inventive coastal cuisine. Try rich blue crab beignets, Georgia beef burger “the works,” or Frogmore stew.

“This town has always stood behind its creative people,” said Wendy Mandel McDaniel, a Queens-born artist who moved here in 1994. “Henry Flagler supported a stable of artists-in-residence. Today, lots of us here are artists, and there’s a proud sense of non-conformity.”

Her shrine-like mixed-media creation, “Tribute to Tibby,” mesmerized me at Amiro Art & Found (9C Aviles St., amiroartandfound.com). At $ 4,500, it’s a collector’s piece; my budget was more in line with the eclectic shop’s subtly beaded, eco-friendly fish-leather wristlets by local artisan Lori Hammer ($ 48 to $ 88).

By the way, there’s a beach, endless and spotless, across a bridge from the historic district. But you might not make it there. St. Augustine keeps you too busy staying young.


If you go:

Getting there: St. Augustine is a little more than an hour’s drive from Jacksonville and Daytona Beach airports. JetBlue flies nonstop from JFK to Daytona from $ 220 roundtrip; American goes nonstop to Jacksonville from LaGuardia from about $ 208; United flies nonstop to Jacksonville from Newark from around $ 198.

Stay: – Vintage mini-mansion B&Bs are St. Augustine’s archetypal lodgings. St. Francis Inn (279 St. George St., stfrancisinn.com) is quiet, with full breakfast, a pool, and bikes. Many rooms have a balcony, fireplace, whirlpool tub; $ 169 to $ 329 a night.

– Downtown’s Spanish-Mediterranean castle is Casa Monica (95 Cordova St., casamonica.com), built in 1888 and soon owned by Henry Flagler. It has a restaurant, cafe, martini lounge, spa, and pool with daybeds. Rooms and suites, from $ 199 to $ 1,099.

Eat: – The Floridian (72 Spanish St., thefloridianstaug.com), resembling a designer surf shack, updates Southern comfort food with a seasonal farm-to-table approach and vegan options. Popular: cheddar-veggie cornbread with blackened fish or tofu, lemon-sage fried chicken with carrot-beet slaw.

– O’Steen’s Restaurant (205 Anastasia Blvd., osteensrestaurant.com) is the locals’ fried-shrimp dive: no reservations, no atmosphere, no cards, no-question dreamy seafood. Best bet: fried seafood platter with shrimp, oysters, scallops, catfish or tilapia, and an unforgettable deviled crab patty.

– At Michael’s Tasting Room (25 Cuna St., tastetapas.com), Puerto Rico-raised local celeb chef Michael Lugo pairs big-flavor dishes with global wines. His hanger steak with salsa verde and yuca mofongo was perfect. Table-for-two alternative: the wine bar, a romantic nook.

St. Augustine Distillery's vodka, rum, and gin are made 100% from Florida ingredients. A Sunshine State bourbon is on the way. St. Augustine Distillery

St. Augustine Distillery’s vodka, rum, and gin are made 100% from Florida ingredients. A Sunshine State bourbon is on the way.

Enlarge The high point of St. Augustine Distillery's free tour: pours of vodka-ginger-lime Florida Mules, mixed here by guide Stephanie Golden. Mallory Ward Photography/Mallory Ward/St. Augustine Disti

The high point of St. Augustine Distillery’s free tour: pours of vodka-ginger-lime Florida Mules, mixed here by guide Stephanie Golden.


– Among St. Augustine’s settlers was a contingent of farmers from Minorca in Spain who cultivated fiery Caribbean datil peppers. Taste it in Minorcan chowder all over town, and in datil-spiked truffles and cocoa from Whetstone Chocolate (42 George St. and 13 Anastasia Blvd., whetstonechocolates.com)

Drink: – Waterfront bar Odd Birds (33 Charlotte St., facebook.com/OddBirdsBar), is the perch of Venezuela-born, Miami-trained Cesar Diaz, a mentor to St. Augustine’s budding barkeeps. His style: old school meets natural Florida; the Ancient Molasses cocktail shakes fresh Sunshine State fruit and cane molasses with St. Augustine Distillery rum.

– St. Augustine Distillery (112 Riberia St., staugustinedistillery.com) hand-crafts small-batch spirits from local crops: vodka, rum, a must-taste-gin. Its quick tour and tasting, led by winsome actor-bartenders, is boozy and free.

Do: At the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park (alligatorfarm.com), opened in 1893, huge gators and huger crocs rule. No cages; you’re the one cloistered on a walkway (or zipline).

More info: floridashistoriccoast.com

Get around: The relatively low-key trolley tour bus gets you three days of on-and-off privileges for $ 24 (ripleys.com/redtrains). A carriage tour is a treat, especially from Mark (a historian) and Suzie (a horse); catch a carriage on the waterfront’s Avenida Menendez day or night.

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