Family-Friendly St. Augustine, Florida

St. Augustine, FloridaIf ever there were a city with a gripping past, St. Augustine is it. Floridians, of course, know the dramatic stories behind this coastal town — tales of explorers and pirates, brave soldiers and murdered adventurers. But to the rest of the world, the tiny, serene community of St. Augustine looks like any other seaside town in Florida.

White sand beaches hug the gentle coastline, tropical flowers grow wild in the lush vegetation, and the scent of flowering orange trees mixes with the salty breath of the sea. With such natural beauty surrounding this area, it’s easy to understand why St. Augustine’s founders thought they had found paradise on earth.

But they weren’t the only ones who thought so. Over the centuries, many men men have lusted to call this coastal earth home, spilling blood on its soil over coveted riches. Over 430 years ago, long before the pilgrims crossed the Atlantic, Europeans explorers staked their claims along this southern Atlantic coast.

Florida has been a popular place ever since.

It was Pedro Menendez de Aviles, in 1565, who first claimed this part of “La Florida” for the Spanish King. The King, naturally, was very pleased. Spanish adventurers, like Juan Ponce de Leon, had been exploring the coastline since 1513.

The seaside region was perfect for the settlement Menendez had in mind, and the newborn town of St. Augustine flourished. Its three hundred inhabitants enjoyed their quiet life on the coast. Couples wed; children were born. The happy sounds of Spanish drifted through the narrow brick streets and into the church for Mass, and then through the lively village pub each night. The warm weather was fine, and the fishing superb. Life in St. Augustine was good.

But greedy men are never still.

In 1586, the Englishman, Sir Frances Drake, sailed into the harbor with 42 ships and 2,000 men, hungering for the town’s wealth and happiness. By the end of his visit, the orange trees were burned and many of the once-happy revelers were dead. The town courageously grew back, rebuilding their lives. But pirate attacks soon followed, and then Indians assailed the town.

St. Augustine had had enough.

In 1695, many determined men built the enormous town fort that still stands today. Over the centuries, the Castillo de San Marcos has gone from Spanish hands to English control and back again to the Spanish. Finally, a new country called the United States eyed the tropical region with gusto. Florida became an American state in 1845, only to succeed from the Union 16 years later. St. Augustine eventually surrendered to Union forces, and sat out most of the Civil War as an occupied city.

The remnants of this colorful past still echo today in the streets of St. Augustine. A European-styled town with neat tree-lined avenues, quaint southern homes and the beaches that make Florida so famous, St. Augustine has been careful to preserve its heritage. Though the rhythms of Spanish have long-since been replaced with the hum of American English, St. Augustine’s Latino heart is still alive and well.

From tasty Spanish dishes like paella at local restaurants to the historical buildings that have been carefully preserved, the town’s European past is easily observed.

St. Augustine has become a popular draw for families and beach-lovers. The town has many attractions that young children will enjoy (see “Family-Friendly Activities” below), making it a perfect destination for those who want to combine a family beach vacation with the opportunity to see and experience something new.

With only 12,000 residents, St. Augustine is easy to explore. The town’s heart is located on St. George Street, a large pedestrian-only historic district. The brick lanes are lined with boutique shops, historic buildings and tiny restaurants. Families with children will want to stop by the Spanish Colonial Quarter, a living history museum featuring character-actors and buildings from the 1740’s.

With so many decades of history, St. Augustine claims many American “firsts”, from the first Ripley’s Believe or Not to the country’s first oceanarium, Marineland.

It’s true that Europe may have older cities and that Egypt can flaunt its early culture, but for Americans, this town with an “aged” past has certainly earned its nickname: Florida’s “ancient” city.

St. Augustine is an American treasure that should not be overlooked. And in its coveted location on the shores of the Atlantic, it has become a city that would have made its Spanish founders proud.

Family-Friendly Activities

St. Augustine Sightseeing Train.Celebrating their 50th year of operation, these trains carry passengers through the narrow streets of the oldest city while the conductor highlights 438 years of the city’s history. 904.829.6545; http://www.redtrains.com/

Colonial Spanish Quarter
This is a destination for nearly every Florida 4th grader. Authentically-clad re-enactors show how people lived in St. Augustine in 1740. Blacksmith, candle maker, soldiers, etc. 904.825.6830; http://www.historicstaugustine.com/

Tour Castillo de San Marcos, 17th Century Spanish fortress
904.829.6506;http://www.nps.gov/casa/

St. Augustine Toy CompanyA former Woolworth’s that gained fame during the Civil Rights protests of the 1960’s, the toy company is a classic toy store featuring the “Jesterville Grille” with an old-time lunch counter and booths.
904.829.3266;http://www.oldcity.com/toys

Potter’s Wax Museum
The nation’s oldest wax museum, Potter’s features figures ranging from Michael Jordan and Britney Spears to Beethoven and George Washington – with Star Wars figures and Elvis included. Plus, there may be an opportunity to see a wax sculptor at work. 904.829.9056;http://www.potterswax.com

Visit Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not
This is Ripley’s original museum filled with oddities from around the world, fun projects for kids, and all the special effects that have made Ripley’s famous. 904.824.1606;http://www.ripleys.com

Ghosts of the Matanzas
Sail under the stars aboard the schooner Freedom and enjoy tales and songs of St. Augustine’s pirates of the past. “Ghosts of the Matanzas” is just one of several nightly ghost tours operating in the streets, at the lighthouse and on the high seas off St. Augustine – America’s most haunted city.
http://www.aghostlyexperience.com (click on the “sailing” tour)

St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park
The oldest attraction in Florida, but it looks brand new and it’s the only place in the world with every species of crocodilian on display here – including some interesting albino alligators. Amusing wildlife shows feature birds and reptiles. The park is home to one of the most amazing bird rookeries on the East Coast – we should be able to see some of the early arrivals flying in to prepare for the spring nesting season. 904.824.3337;http://www.alligatorfarm.com/

Whetstone Chocolates Factory
Pickup dessert and see chocolates being made at this locally-owned chocolate factory.904.825.1700; http://www.whetstonechocolates.com

St. Augustine Lighthouse
This famous lighthouse is one of the area’s most popular attractions. The lighthouse functions as both an active aid to navigation and as a living history museum. Climb 219 steps to the top of the tower to experience a magnificent view. 904.829.0745;http://www.staugustinelighthouse.com/index.html

 

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