most of us, you probably thought that Jamestown was the oldest city in
America. But like most of us, you’d be wrong. The honor of America’s
oldest continuously occupied European settlement actually goes to St.
Augustine in Florida. And the nation’s oldest city was founded in 1565,
a lengthy 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown. The city
belonged to the Spanish in those early days, and everywhere you turn
here, you’ll be reminded of the significance of this city to the
history of the United States.
The state of Florida itself was discovered by Ponce de Leon who
claimed the territory for Spain and the Catholic Church in 1513. The
name La Florida means "land of flowers”. But the English were not far
behind and Sir Francis Drake was the first British visitor. He saw a
lighthouse and came ashore then promptly burned the city to the ground.
The city of St. Augustine was discovered by Don Pedro Menendez de
Aviles in 1565. These days the influence of all countries who have
claimed the town can be felt. "The whole town has a European flavor”
says gallery owner Jan Miller who owns Butterfield Garage gallery. And
you can see this almost everywhere you walk. History is waiting around
every corner, it seems. And walking is one of the best ways to discover
this history. The city gained kudos in 2006 as one of the top 10 most
walkable cities in the nation.
Castillo de San Marcos
One of the best places to start that walk is at the Castillo de San
Marcos, a National Monument that has been standing as sentinel over the
city since 1672, a fact that makes it the oldest masonry fort in the
US, as well as America’s oldest man-made monument. It took 21 years to
finish the walls that are made of coquina, a porous material made of
tiny seashells quarried from Anastasia Island across the water. The
fort was commissioned by Spain’s Queen Regent Mariana who realized that
St. Augustine was critical to the defense of the Florida coast, which
at the time was getting attacked by pirates and other enemies.
tells us that whoever controls the fort holds the key to all of
Florida. Although originally built by the Spanish, the fort has been
taken over in turn by the British, Spanish and Americans until it was
finally declared a National Monument in 1924.
If you’re lucky, you can catch soldiers in period costume fire the
cannon. It’s quite a sight. The blue and red uniforms made from wool
might make you think the poor volunteer soldiers are sweating buckets,
but their undergarments are made to allow the condensation that forms
to keep them cool.
Hotel Ponce de Leon
No doubt one of the places where guests were kept cool was at the
beautiful and grand Hotel Ponce de Leon, built in the Spanish
Renaissance style. The building is now the Flagler College. In the days
when the building was a hotel, guests had to stay for the whole season
and pay the princely sum of $30/day, all in cash. Al Capone was even
said to be a frequent visitor here.
Thomas Edison was the reason the hotel/college had lights in its
day. These days, in the dining room, you can find outstanding glasswork
by Louis Comfort Tiffany, valued at $35 million. With all this history
and artwork, the students should be inspired to greatness!
Flagler himself was a farmer and at age 14 he joined his brother’s
general store where he saved his money and invested in grain, then salt
and then grain again. He later met Rockerfeller and they started
Standard Oil. He came to St. Augustine on his honeymoon and fell in
love with the area. He built a Methodist church and in those days
churches came with land. Flagler asked for the land (the church wasn’t
using it) and they gave it to him. He then did the same for the Baptist
church but they asked him not to build a bell tower which he agreed not
to do. Flagler wanted to turn St. Augustine into a winter home for the
rich and in many ways this is what he did.
But tragedy was to hit the family. Flagler’s daughter died giving
birth to his granddaughter, and Flagler built a church in her memory.
This is the beautiful Presbyterian Church, plain and comfortable inside
but with a Venetian Renaissance style outside. This splendid church was
built in a few days less than a year (361 days) with the labor of 1000
workers, all working 12 hour shifts. The work never stopped. It’s the
only church of its kind in America and is now Flagler’s burial place.
Across the street from the college, you’ll see the Lightner Museum,
originally Flagler’s second hotel--the Alcazar Hotel. This acted as an
entertainment area for Flagler’s Ponce de Leon hotel guests-- after all
they stayed for months and had to have something to do! Lightner later
bought it in 1946, during the Depression, and it now houses brilliant
cut glass, antique furnishings, period costumes, mechanical musical
instruments and many of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained glass works.
The impressive collections document American life during the Victorian
Age and early 20th century. These days, this is the equivalent of
Florida’s Smithsonian Museum.
And when those visiting guests got unruly, Henry Flagler knew
exactly where to put them. He built the town’s Old Jail in 1891 and
this actually served as a real jail until 1953. It was finally placed
on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1987.
But if you’d rather see homes instead of jails, check out the period
houses at the Old St. Augustine Village, a city block that is the
location of 9 houses, all different and all nestled among courtyards
and gardens. The owner, Kenneth W. Dow, bought one house for his
collection of artworks, furniture and antiques gathered from his
travels around the world, but soon ran out of space and bought another
house. This went on for some time until he had squired a substantial
collection of houses—9 in all—to go along with his substantial
collection of artifacts. History doesn’t record what his wife thought
of all this "stuff!”
This particular city block wasn’t wanted by St. Augustine and it is
actually now owned by the city of Daytona Beach. The historic homes
span from 1790 to 1910 and one even belonged to the nephew of Napoleon
Bonaparte, Prince Achille Murat, who resided here before moving to
Another house worth visiting is the Ximinez Fatio House, one of the
original B&Bs in the town. Like most houses of its day, the kitchen
is situated away from the house. This prevented the house being
destroyed should the kitchen catch fire and helped keep extra heat out
of the main building. Air conditioning did not exist and the heat would
have been oppressive.
oppressive heat or not, movie producers and directors always recognize
a good thing when they see it And they saw it in the historic Aviles
Street which has recently been used in the movie, The Celestine
Prophecy. Dating back to 1572—35 years before the advent of
Jamestown—this is one of the oldest streets in America and is typical
of a Spanish street, just what the movie directors wanted.
Of course the oldest town is a fitting place for the Oldest House.
"The Oldest House and complex gives a representation of how people
lived from 1723 thought he Revolutionary War to the present day”, says
Lynn Lesioka, a docent at the Oldest House, also known as the
Gonzalez-Alvarez House, after the families that lived there. This is
the oldest surviving Spanish Colonial dwelling in Florida. Check out
how small the house was with only 3 rooms. Originally two rooms and one
story high, the structure was changed when the British occupied it and
added a second floor. The present house dates back to the early 1700s
and these days it also houses the Museum of Florida’s Military and the
Florida history Museum.
From the oldest house, be sure to check out the Oldest Schoolhouse
as well. Built before 1763, with wooden pegs and handmade nails, this
school stands just as it did over two centuries ago. Check out the roll
call for the last class ever to attend. There’s even a photograph of
those pupils with their descendents. Compare your elementary school
experience and you’ll see that maybe it wasn’t so bad after all!
Do you know, for instance, what the children had to use instead of
money to pay the teacher? Not only did children have to learn their
lessons, they had to bring coal and food for the teacher as well.
Bartering in exchange for lessons was often the order of the day. If
you got this right, go to the top of the class!
The city of St. Augustine is also famous for its spring, known as
the Fountain of Youth. The water was originally used by Native
Americans and later Ponce de Leon in 1513. Here you can stroll the
gardens, explore the excavations, see the life-sized exhibits and
planetarium and drink from the prehistoric India Spring that Ponce de
Leon hoped was the elixir of life. Check out the Navigator’s Celestial
Planetarium showing how sailors of yesteryear navigated with the stars.
The sky is shown on the exact day Ponce de Leon made his landmark
discovery of North America. It is still operated by hand. There’s also
a native Indian burial site on the premises which came as a surprise to
the Smithsonian Institute team who discovered it.
Olde World Shopping
But if all this history makes you just want to switch off and spend
half a day shopping, then you can do that too. Fantastic shopping
opportunities are everywhere, particularly in the charming shops along
ancient St. George Street. There it’s pedestrian traffic only among the
hundreds of shops and boutiques that meet just about every need and
you just might run into bookstores in this city where the most
well-known and well-loved author was Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the
Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Yearling. Among the guests in her
modest but lovely home, now open to the public, were Robert Frost,
Ernest Hemingway, A.J. Cronin and Dylan Thomas.
And when it comes to discoveries, one you’ll be glad you found is
the Alligator Farm. Opened in 1893, this houses all 23 known species of
crocodilian, plus exotic birds, monkey and giant tortoise. The farm
celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1993.
"Crocodile tears are tears that are not real”, says a docent leading
a school group around. "The expression came from the ancient belief
that crocodiles shed tears while eating their victims.” The school
group suddenly stops in its tracks, in awe of an albino crocodile.
"It’s also said that those who gaze upon these beautiful albino
reptiles will receive good fortune,” smiles the docent. And several
school kids nod in agreement, or is it in hope?
Near the Alligator Farm is Marineland - a great place to watch and
even feed dolphins, a creature humans feel much more inclined to
interact with. Watch them play and frolic with their trainers. The
center is used for marine scientific and dolphin research and if you
always fancied swimming with dolphins, then this is your chance. You
get to swim and play with the dolphins in their 450,000 gallon
rectangular oceanarium in a program that’s normally reserved only for
the staff members who work with them. Check it out.
More Colonial Icons
"must-see” in town is Florida’s first and still-working Lighthouse,
built in 1824. St. Augustine’s oldest surviving brick structure is also
its only "high-rise” building. It’s well worth a walk up the 219 stairs
(equivalent to a fourteen story building) for the view at the top. The
St. Augustine Lighthouse is one of 30 lighthouses still standing in
Florida, and one of only six open to the public.
Also open to the public is the living history museum at the Colonial
Spanish Quarter. Here the life of Spanish soldiers and their families
is depicted in 1740. You’ll see how craftspeople like the calligrapher,
the blacksmith, carpenter and leather worker went about their business.
When you stroll through this area, you’ll also see how families
gardened and prepared food.
But St. Augustine isn’t just all about history. It has its share of
romance too. Want to snuggle up in a cozy B&B? Then check out Casa
de Solana which dates back to 1821 and which you’ll find on historic
Aviles Street. Each room is different and the lodging is surrounded by
a walled courtyard. This inn promises an "oasis of comfort” and without
a doubt, this is what you’ll find here. You’ll enjoy a whirlpool tub
and open fireplace just to set the scene.
St. Augustine is not only the oldest city in America, it’s one of
the nation’s most romantic and charismatic as well. It’s a "must-see”
on every traveler’s list.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Sheila O'Connor.
O’Connor is a freelance travel writer who lives in San Francisco.
Although Sheila has traveled all over the world, she says there is
nowhere quite like home—San Francisco.